Thursday, October 20, 2005

`Shameful episode’ in Australia

A visiting friend from Melbourne brought with her an October copy of the Australian newspaper The Age that has the Vivian Alvarez Solon case as banner story. The ombudsman’s report on the bungled immigration case has been released and the axe was expected to fall.

The banner article, Vivian’s huge photo, blurbs and cartoon occupy three-fourths of page one of the daily (which, in this age of shrinking broadsheets, maintains a size that is two columns wider than the Inquirer).

Inside are three more articles, Vivian’s photo as a missing person, and other related items.
The Age doesn’t have a one-liner for a headline like the Inquirer does.

The banner headline is long: ``It is a `shameful episode’ (in red) in the history of immigration in Australia. The management of Solon was `catastrophic’ (in red). The unlawful removal of one of our citizens is `almost unthinkable’ (in red).

The small kicker above it says: ``The Alvarez Solon verdict: A damning judgement against the Immigration Department.’’

A small cartoon, similar to those in the Inquirer, shows a reporter with mike in hand asking a woman, ``What qualifications do immigration officials require?’’ The interviewee, a look-alike of immigration minister Amanda Vanstone, answers, ``A degree of ignorance, a degree of stupidity and a degree of cruelty.’’

And the online question: ``Should Amanda Vanstone resign over Vivian Alvarez Solon’s deportation? Cast your vote at’’

The Australian media have given this case a lot of mileage. This is not just any human interest story, this has brought to light lapses in immigration law enforcement. This could stoke issues of racism, discrimination and stereotyping.

The investigation of Vivian’s case came in the heels of another damning case--the detention of mentally ill Australian resident Cornelia Rau.

Some months ago, the Inquirer also had Vivian on the front page when it was discovered that she had been wrongfully deported.

Vivian was found wounded and disoriented in a park in the New South Wales town of Lismore. She could have been in an accident, was assaulted or had fallen into the drain. An immigration officer wrongly assumed she was a sex slave and an illegal immigrant despite Vivian’s statement that she was an Australian.

In 2001, Vivian, an Australian citizen, was ``removed to the Philippines’’ and placed in a Catholic hospice in Olongapo City, there to heal in loneliness and anonymity. The persistent search of Vivian’s former husband Robert Young was a big factor in uncovering the wrong. The Age called him ``the lone hero’’.

Former Victorian police commissioner Neil Comrie of the office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman who prepared the investigation report described the case as a ``shameful episode’’ in the history of the immigration department.

Here are the Ombudsman’s findings as summarized by The Age:

• The unlawful removal of Vivian Alvarez Solon was a consequence of systemic failures in the Immigration Department including inadequate training programs, data base and operating system failures, poor case management and a flawed culture.

• Alvarez Solon’s serious physical and mental health problems received insufficient attention.

• The chance to find Alvarez Solon (who had been bundled up and sent to the Philippines) was by then was lost because of the limited ability to connect names using immigration Department data bases.

• Case management was catastrophic, beginning with the assumption Alvarez Solon was a sex slave.

• The fact that in 2003 and 2004 senior (immigration) officials knew an Australian citizen had been removed in 2001 but failed to act is inexcusable.

The Australian government is responding to each of these. $50.3 million for College of Immigration, Border Security and Compliance to train staff and enhance skills; $17.9 million for improved immigration detention health services, referral of alternative detention and improved mental health services; introduction of a single-entry client search facility for all Immigration Department IT systems. Plus a few more.

Vivian’s case has shaken the establishment.

One of the stories on the case, ``A victim, plenty of villains, and a lone hero’’ by The Age political editor Michelle Grattan details how Vivian’s nightmare began and worsened.

``On July 12 (2001), Immigration officials collected her from the rehabilitation unit; next day she told Immigration she was an Australian citizen and wanted to stay here. But arrangements for her removal proceeded apace, despite her being disabled enough to the need help with dressing and hygiene.’’

The Philippine embassy, according to the story, was deeply concerned Vivian wasn’t well enough to travel and refused to issue a travel document. But Immigration got someone to declare Vivian as medically fit. And so this Australian citizen put on a plane headed for Manila.

Wrote Grattan: ``A Philippines consular representative and members of the Philippine community visited (Vivian) on July 18-19 (2001) at the Brisbane motel where she was detained. She told a Filipino social worker she’d been married to a Mr. Young, but the information wasn’t passed to Immigration.’’ Why?

The Australian government seems to have done a good investigation. But there should be some lessons for the Philippine side.

Didn’t our own immigration bureau and embassy officials have a way of knowing that Vivian was an Australian citizen? Don’t we have a way of checking who are and who are not our citizens? Should we allow foreign governments to dump back former Filipino citizens (especially the mentally disabled and infirm who have no way of claiming their rights) on our shores?