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SIX MONTHS IN A QUEENSLAND PRISON
Travel was once Cornelia Rau's career. Until her first serious crack-up in 1998,
she was a fine Qantas air hostess. Then travel became part of her pathology: a
schizophrenic woman of immense energy, on the run from her family, from mental
hospitals and from Australia. She caught planes, she hitched, she took terrible
risks on wild jaunts through Thailand, South America and Europe. She turned up
dishevelled on the doorstep of family friends abroad; she was rescued by
Australian officials in far-flung cities; more than once her parents hauled her
On March 17 last year, she slipped away from the psychiatric wing of Manly
Hospital and stripped her account of $2000. She was off again. But within days
something happened that would shape this story from beginning to end: she lost
her new passport issued at the German consulate in Woollahra a few weeks
earlier. To replace it would risk alerting her family and see her forced back to
hospital. Somewhere on the road to far north Queensland she stole another. It
was Norwegian and useless to her. By late March, Rau was trapped.
What happened next has a definite if warped logic to it: a woman turned up at
Cape York in the middle of the rainy season calling herself Anna Brotmeyer or
Anna Schmidt. She said she was a German backpacker who had overstayed her time
in Australia. Driven eight hours down the rutted road to Cairns, she announced
first to the police and then to the honorary German consul that she wanted a new
passport and wanted to go home.
The 10-month saga of this woman's mistreatment at the hands of the Immigration
Department is so rich in appalling detail it is easy to lose sight of the simple
strategy that lay behind it all: to leave Anna behind bars, her health failing,
until she revealed the details needed to issue those fresh papers. This approach
was not invented for Anna. We're talking standard practice here: the
recalcitrant remain locked up until they co-operate, forever if necessary.
Everything depended on the Germans. This is not just the story of how the
Immigration Department failed a very ill Australian resident, Cornelia Rau. It's
also the story of a clash of bureaucratic cultures: between the scrupulous
Germans and their insistence on hard evidence, and the sloppy Australians who
never found a shred of evidence to support the only plan they ever thought up to
solve this mess: to deport to Germany the woman known as Anna. Cornelia was
German, of course. Anna was not. Anna was a mad woman's delusion. Australian
officials believed in her to the end.
And if the result was cruel, what does that matter? Isn't having an Immigration
Department that's known to be nasty, dilatory and inflexible as much part of the
deterrence system as putting the navy into the Indian Ocean and building
detention prisons in the desert? Isn't this how Australia sends a message to
refugees and would-be illegal immigrants across the world: don't try it on?
ANNA was flown down from Cairns by Queensland Police Air Wing on April 5 last
year and taken to the Brisbane Women's prison. In his report published last
week, the former commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Palmer,
wrote: "She was not a prisoner, had done nothing wrong, and was put there simply
for administrative convenience." Prisoners report that was Anna's mantra through
the months ahead: "I have done nothing wrong."
The Immigration Department did not move swiftly. It was a couple of days before
Ben Stoneley, the compliance officer responsible for liaising with detainees in
prison, went out to Wacol to visit Anna. She gave him the same messy, incomplete
biography she had given the police and Iris Indorato, the honorary German consul
in Cairns: she was German, had grown up on a farm near Dresden but the hippie
lifestyle she led as a child left her unsure of her parents' names or her own
date of birth. She thought she might be 25. She claimed her lost passport was in
the name Schmidt.
Immigration already knew Anna's story was fundamentally flawed. Stoneley had
confirmed that none of the various permutations of names Anna had given -
Schmidt, Schmitz, Brotmeyer - turned up on the department's database of
movements in and out of Australia. Palmer wrote: "Australia has one of the most
effective Movements databases in the world." If a name doesn't appear there,
then the name is false or that person has never travelled in and out of the country.
Palmer says this should have alerted Immigration Department staff "at an early
stage that there was something strange about this situation and that more
thorough assessment was called for". Instead, Anna was left to come to her senses.
Stoneley waited three weeks before visiting her again. After that inconclusive
meeting, he did not visit her at Wacol for another five months. This was, Palmer
noted, a breach of Departmental Instruction 244 that requires case officers "to
undertake monthly personal visits with detainees".
Debbie Kilroy from the prison reform group, Sisters Inside, met Anna and began
to lobby Stoneley on her behalf. Anna had come to Kilroy in great distress. "I'm
not supposed to be here. I don't know what's going on. I haven't done anything
wrong." According to Kilroy, Stoneley explained that Anna would be held "until
she gives better information on her identity". He told Kilroy they needed
After a month, Immigration sent Anna an application form for German papers. The
Germans had already dismissed the shabby biography Anna presented up in Cairns.
Now Anna made a pathetic attempt to comply with the republic's bureaucratic
demands. She could not even fill in her own date of birth. The German consulate
in Sydney advised Immigration not to bother lodging the application as it was so
That was in mid-May. From time to time, the immigration office in Brisbane
talked about this case but essentially Anna was just left out at Wacol, parked
in a women's prison. Palmer is scathing about the failure to get her out of
there, to review her case, to think afresh. But the department plodded down the
only course it ever chose to pursue: prove the woman German and deport her.
In mid-June, the Australian embassy in Berlin was asked to lend a hand.
Diplomatic efforts to identify Anna would drag on into August. In these months
of absolute inaction, Anna's behaviour deteriorated dramatically.
Prisons everywhere face the problem of distinguishing bad behaviour from mental
collapse. Anna's behaviour had been odd from the beginning. The first doctor to
examine her at Wacol put this down to her being "a stranger in a strange land".
By May, Anna had been two months without medication for schizophrenia and was
showing distressing signs of what prison records called "unusual behaviour and
poor hygiene". She paced; she stared; she hoarded food; her moods swung about;
she wouldn't wash.
Was she to be treated or disciplined? A psychologist from the Prison Mental
Health Service saw no evidence of mental illness and when Anna's behaviour
deteriorated further in June, she began to be disciplined by being placed for
days at a time in "separate confinement". She was extremely distressed.
Finally on August 10 a psychiatrist, Dr Dominique Hannah, was called in and
after only a few moments with Anna realised something was badly amiss. She
reported: "The behaviour of Ms Brotmeyer had been becoming increasingly bizarre
and her presentation was consistent with a psychotic disorder." She recommended
Anna be taken to hos