Us and them

The story of Cornelia Rau seemed at first to be an isolated personal tragedy. But we now know that more Australians have been wrongly detained. One Australian woman was deported, and could not be found for some years.

The question initially asked about Cornelia Rau was why an Australian citizen should be treated so badly—jailed, detained, and despite clear mental disturbance, sanctioned as if she was responsible for her bizarre behaviour. This question was morally adrift. We should ask why any human being could be treated in this way. The answer is clear and disturbing. She, and other people wrongfully detained and deported, was not like us.

The Queensland authorities passed Cornelia Rau over to the immigration department because she spoke in German and acted bizarrely—unlike us.

The immigration authorities failed to establish her identity, kept her in police cells, transferred her to Baxter and left her imprisoned for ten months, because she did not look or sound like one of us. She behaved for all the world like an asylum seeker.

The prisoners at Baxter were able to see clearly that she was mentally disturbed, but the ‘best of psychological counsel’ declared her problems to be behavioural. The former recognise mental disturbance because she was one of them.

We should not be too hard on the psychologists who failed to see?what was before their eyes. It is hard for psychologists paid to work in detention centres to retain the moral and human compass which guides their craft.

It is also understandable that Cornelia Rau was placed in a ‘management unit’—a small, windowless cell, with only a mattress, in which the subject is under perpetual video surveillance, with the light never turned off. For people who are not like us, such methods work. Like the cells at Port Arthur, they can turn rebellion into whimpering apathy.

Those responsible for the detention of asylum seekers have created a culture in which we expect that people who are not like us should be treated differently. They have created a regime of inhumanity.

It is not surprising that Australians who seem to be unlike us are wrongly detained, imprisoned and deported. That is not the scandal. The scandal is that we should fail to be outraged by the distinction between people like us and people who are not like us. And that we should fail to be outraged that any human being, Australian or not, should be subjected to the treatment asylum seekers meet at the hands of our representatives.             

Andrew Hamilton sj is the publisher of Eureka Street.



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