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People’s inquiry into detention

Last year The People’s Inquiry into Detention was completed and published. This is an extensive document and a most important one. It documents the experience of ordinary citizens associated with immigration detention centres in Australia. Through Mercy Matters we aim to quote sections of this document so that we can inform as many as we can of the facts about this time of our history.


We welcome any comments about these excerpts knowing that many who have met with asylum seekers would have much to add from your own experiences. If you would like to view the document in its entirety you can access it at


The following is an excerpt from the introduction to the Inquiry.


Introduction to the People’s Inquiry

In February 2005, when Australian resident Cornelia Rau was discovered in the Baxter Immigration Detention Centre where she had been incarcerated for four months despite suffering from a serious mental illness, some Australians were shocked. Others were not.


Thousands of ordinary Australians across the country had formed close relationships with asylum seekers locked in our detention centres. Overwhelmingly, these were people fleeing countries from which the Australian government ultimately accepted they had a well founded fear of persecution.


Some refugee advocates had heard about Cornelia Rau from their asylum seeker friends and had been trying for over two months to get her assistance. For them, and other refugee advocates, her situation was just one more in a long list of appalling stories and shocking incidents inside detention. For them, it was no surprise that someone who displayed disturbed and bizarre behaviour seemed quite normal in the detention context, or that nothing had been done to help her, despite authorities being alerted to her plight.


When the government announced that former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer would conduct an inquiry into the circumstances of Cornelia Rau’s detention, the terms of reference were restricted to the circumstances of her detention alone.


As Cornelia’s sister, journalist Chris Rau, said at the time:


While she was an unnamed illegal immigrant, the only treatment she got for mental illness was longer periods in lock-up as punishment for bad behaviour. Yet as soon as she was found to be an Australian resident, she was whisked away to a teaching hospital, seen by psychiatrists and medicated. During which leg of her flight from Baxter to Adelaide did she suddenly gain the basic human right to medical treatment?


How many cases like Cornelia’s will it take until detainees get the care they deserve or, more importantly, are taken out of conditions that themselves lead to mental illnesses?


There were many community calls for the government to widen the terms of reference of the Palmer inquiry to cover a full inquiry into immigration detention, but these went unheeded. The calls included one from Baxter detainees who stated:


God sent Cornelia here to send our cry to all Australian people. We are all happy that she be free from such a terrible place. We all pray that she will get well. She remains in our minds and hearts as a heroine for ever and ever.


The People’s Inquiry

The People’s Inquiry was established as open, independent, transparent and inclusive, in order to bear witness to events in Australian immigration detention facilities, whose operations were largely shrouded in official secrecy. The inquiry adopted the role of a medium for telling the stories of those people directly and indirectly affected by government policy, who may not ordinarily be consulted. Anyone with experiences of immigration detention was invited to present evidence about any aspect of the detention regime.


The response

The response to the People’s Inquiry has been overwhelming. It has travelled around Australia hearing testimony in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Canberra, Launceston, Port Augusta, Shepparton, Swan Hill and Griffith. Most presenters have given evidence to a panel of three, although there have been some private hearings. By the time the final hearings take place in Adelaide in December 2006, more than 200 verbal accounts will have been heard and 200 written submissions received. Those who have given evidence to the inquiry include: former detainees, their Australian supporters, doctors, nurses, educators, former DIMA/DIMIA officials, detention centre employees, migration agents and lawyers.


The People’s Inquiry is extraordinary not just because so many people have felt able to come forth and place on the public record the stories they have carried with them, but also because people all over Australia have volunteered to help.


To our knowledge this is the first time that such an extensive citizen-driven inquiry has been conducted in Australia. The success of the People’s Inquiry demonstrates that inclusive and flexible forms of inquiry strike a chord with community members through providing a safe platform to voice their concerns. So many people have told the organizers of their appreciation of the opportunity to come forward with the stories they did not previously know how to tell in the public domain. The rallying of dedicated people reveals support for ensuring that the policies and practices that shamed a nation are not forgotten.


Many Sisters of Mercy throughout Australia are assisting asylum seekers in varied ways either directly or indirectly. We have limited knowledge and would like to complete the list of Sisters working in this area. We would be grateful for further information.


Villawood, Maribrynong and Baxter Detention Centres are still in operation, and the Sisters working there are Helen Barnes, Lorraine Phelan, Marea Roberts, Rosemary Baker, Anne Foale and Claudette Cusack.


We are aware of the tremendous work being done around the country where people are being assisted to re-settle into the community. Please let us know of your experiences so we can share with the Institute via Mercy M@tters.


From: Specific Issues Committee, Asylum Seekers and Refugees (Sisters Sally Bradley, Claudette Cusack, Lorraine Phelan and Mary Quinn). The Committee warmly invites your response to the article or the issue. Email:


Contact: Carmel Heagerty RSM, Institute Justice Co-ordinator Email: