Saturday, May 14, 2005

Archival Rescue 28 ~ Aus Detention & Deportation

Out of sight, out of mind
Compiled by Andra Jackson, May 14, 2005 Sydney Morning Herald

An Australian citizen is summarily deported, then lost for four years. Connie Levett and Joseph Kerr look at how Vivian Alvarez fell through the cracks.

Behind the cloistered concrete-block walls of the Missionaries of Charity home in Olongapo's Old Cabalan district, there is no sense of the outside world; no television, no radio, no newspapers.

A woman could lose herself there, unaware the world was searching for her. One small woman - 147 centimetres tall - did just that.

For Vivian Alvarez, also known as Solon, a 42-year-old invalid, life amid elderly dying patients at the hospice in Olongapo, the Philippines, was simple but reassuring. Had her Catholic priest, Father Mike Duffin, not seen a satellite television report about her wrongful deportation from Australia, it might have continued indefinitely.

And last Sunday, when he broke the news to Alvarez that she was no longer an abandoned soul, but a highly sought-after "Australian" commodity, she chose denial.

"Vivian, you are in the news, you are wanted all around the world. You are on television. The Australian Prime Minister has apologised about your case and it is a big thing in Australia," Duffin, an Australian who has lived in the Philippines for 39 years, told her.

"It's not me," she said. But it was.

As her priest pointed out, how many women named Vivian could there be who had been kicked out of Australia four years ago, after a debilitating accident, having lived there for 17 years?

Yet Alvarez does not blame the Australian Government. "She told me she was sent back to the Philippines because she was sickly and Australia really could not look after her," Duffin said of his first meeting with her in about August or September 2001.

He thought it was odd she should be sent back after so long in Australia, but did not ask her then if she was an Australian citizen. "It apparently didn't occur to her" that a wealthy nation such as Australia should be able to provide health care for its own citizens. She "thought they were helping" by sending her back to the Philippines, Duffin said.

It was left to Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity nuns to take her in. They never refuse an abandoned soul.

How did it come to this? An Australian citizen jettisoned from her own country at the most vulnerable point in her life. In all the weekly hospice visits since 2001, Duffin never asked Alvarez details of her former life. "You never, ever ask where someone came from in [the hospice]; you give them some privacy," he said. Until now. With the deportation revelation, he asked for the full story. Later in the week the Australian authorities were asking the same question.

The full story is yet to come to light, but the known facts are fairly shocking, and point to gross inadequacies within the Department of Immigration.

According to the Government, Alvarez was mistakenly deported in July 2001 after an accident - Alvarez said she was in a car accident - that left her in a Lismore hospital for a month in April. Hospital officials had called immigration officers, who interviewed Alvarez in May, concluding she was illegally in Australia.

Her brother, Henry Solon, confirmed that his half-sister disappeared in 2001. Her younger child had been fostered out and, as his sister was missing for four years, the family considered she might have died. "When she was reported missing - I'm not really a person with money, that I can actually hire a private investigator or that sort of stuff," he said. "I really trust[ed] the authorities to do the looking. I didn't have the resources. All I was doing is wait - we even thought that she's already dead."

Extraordinarily, an immigration official who contacted Solon in Brisbane on April 30 this year - the same day the then acting Immigration Minister, Peter McGauran, revealed an Australian had been deported in 2001 - failed to tell Solon that Alvarez had been deported. Solon thought the official was merely making inquiries as part of the four-year-old search. He was not told his sister might still be alive and that an international search for her was under way.

Even more shocking was the fact that while the office of the Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone, confirmed reports from the Philippines on Wednesday night that Alvarez had been located in a hospice near Manila, Solon told the Herald on Thursday afternoon that he had not received any formal notice that his sister had been found alive.

On Thursday, in a two-hour meeting with Frank Evatt, Australia's consul-general in the Philippines, Alvarez told her side of the story. Duffin, two sisters from the Missionaries of Charity, and Cecile Solon - Alvarez's half-sister from Manila - were also present.

In 2001 Alvarez was in a serious accident and was taken to Lismore's St Vincent's hospital. "I think she was a bit groggy, and gave her name as Alvarez [her mother's maiden name] rather than her husband's name [Young] or Solon [her father's name]. They were asking straight questions and she was giving crooked answers. They said she was mentally ill," Duffin said.

Reports in Australia have described Alvarez as mentally troubled, however Duffin said that in four years of weekly visits, he had "never seen a sign of mental trouble". Her sister, Cecile, had referred to a mental breakdown a long time back, he said.

"She must have been reported [to the authorities]. After hospital, she was asked: 'Do you have someone to look after you?' She said no. They said: 'We can't find any care for you so you will have to go back to the Philippines."'

After that, she told him, she was taken to a place and held there for a week with two carer-minders. She could not bathe herself and was never left alone. She was taken to a different place for one night before she was put on a plane in Brisbane and escorted by an Australian woman to Manila. There, she was handed over to a Filipino man.

She said that a couple of days later she was delivered to the Missionaries of Charity's Manila house. She stayed there for two months before being moved four hours north to Olongapo. "Vivian said [that] before she left Australia they told her they were taking her to the sisters of Mother Teresa," Duffin said.

The Immigration Department played only a limited role. Vanstone told Parliament this week that the officers who oversaw Alvarez's deportation in 2001 had not been interviewed in the search for her.

She has refused to make those officials available for interview, because the Alvarez matter has been referred to the former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer for investigation. She did not want to undermine Palmer.

"Because the Palmer inquiry is looking into the matter, and Mr Palmer has rightly requested that more senior people in the department do not second-guess the inquiry and go and speak to potential witnesses, we have desisted from interviewing the people who made those file notes," Vanstone said.

Palmer was brought in during early February to get to the bottom of the Cornelia Rau case, which grabbed headlines when it emerged that Rau, a German-born Australian resident with schizophrenia, was locked up by Queensland police, and then by the Immigration Department, for months.

Having given confused information about her identity, Rau was suspected of being an illegal immigrant and spent extended periods in isolation.

But Palmer's has not been a speedy inquiry. While he was initially expected to report his findings by March 24, the scope of his investigations has widened dramatically. At least 33 more cases of concern have come to light, suggesting it could be months before he finishes his work.

All the time, there have been consistent calls, even before the Palmer investigation was announced on February 8, for an open, royal commission-style inquiry. But the Government has resisted these calls.

Public concern about the fate of mentally ill people held in immigration detention has grown - culminating in a coalition of mental-health experts attacking the Government's policies on Thursday - despite the fact Vanstone expanded the identification powers available to her officers in February.

Detainees can be forced to give fingerprints and Vanstone has set a 28-day limit - which can be extended in exceptional circumstances - on how long they can be kept in a prison or watch-house.

She admitted the changes might not have made any difference in Rau's case, however. "It is hard to imagine that the exceptional circumstances of such a case would arise again, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't examine our procedures and be prepared to make improvements."

NOW Alvarez can come home. But to what? She would need someone to help her 24 hours a day, at least at first. She has two children, one of whom she was accused of abandoning. After initially appearing unmoved by the thought of seeing them again, she is warming to the prospect, according to Duffin.

She has isolated and shelved her past life and is living it from day to day, he said. She has adjusted to this situation perfectly.

He is more worried about how she will cope with her new circumstances. "I am very concerned; you get $100 million in Lotto and how are you going to cope?"

Vivian's Journey

  • 1988 ~ Vivian Alvarez arrives in Australia with her Australian husband, Robert Young. The couple, who have a teenage son, separate in the early 1990s.
  • 1996 ~ Gives birth to another son by a different Australian partner.
  • February 16, 2001 ~ Fails to pick up five-year-old son from a Brisbane child-care centre. He is taken into care by Queensland Family Services Department.
  • April ~ Alvarez brought to Lismore Base Hospital with head, neck and spinal injuries. Later taken to a Sydney hospital. At the time it was thought she had been hit by a car, but the hospital believes she might have been assaulted.
  • May ~ Returns to Lismore and placed in St Vincent's rehabilitation hospital.
  • July ~ Immigration officials are called when the hospital is unable to establish her identity.
  • She is reported missing to Queensland police. Later located and questioned by immigration officials in Coolangatta.
  • Interviewed by Philippines consulate officials, who say they have no record of her.
  • Deported to the Philippines and handed to the Overseas Women's Association in Manila, which takes her to a convent.
  • August ~ Moved to the Sisters of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity convent in Olongapo City, where the sisters run a hospice for the dying.
  • 2003 ~ An Australian immigration official discovers Alvarez has been wrongly deported, but does not release the information to the public.
  • March, 2004 ~ Interpol in the Philippines is asked to look for a missing Australian woman under the names of Vivian Alvarez or Vivian Solon.
  • April 30, 2005 ~ The acting Immigration Minister, Peter McGauran, announces an Australian citizen has been mistakenly deported. Federal police ordered to look for her.
  • May 4 ~ ABC-TV's Lateline claims Alvarez was wrongly deported to the Philippines and was mentally ill.
  • May 9 ~ Philippines Interpol chief Ricardo Diaz says Australian officials have not provided him with sufficient information to begin searching.
  • May 11 ~ Australian priest Father Mike Duffin contacts authorities after recognising a photo of Alvarez on an ABC satellite telecast. He says she is alive, but ill, in the Olongapo City hospice.


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