SHE WAS OFF THE PLANET
By SAMANTHA TURNBULL
BYRON BAY refugee campaigner Parijat Wis- mer knew something was wrong with Corne- lia Rau when she spoke to her from inside the Baxter detention centre last month.
Ms Rau, who suffers from schizophrenia, was mistakenly detained for six months in a Queens- land prison and four months in South Aust- ralia's Baxter detention centre before being re- leased last Friday.
Authorities believed she was an illegal immi- grant, but later discov- ered the German-born 39-year-old was a perma- nent resident of Aust- ralia.
Ms Wismer was the first person from outside of Baxter to contact Cornelia and became instrumental in the fight for her freedom.
She was alerted to Cornelia's plight by other detainees, who had written to refugee support groups about her welfare.
Ms Wismer said because she spoke German, she thought she would be able to gain Cornelia's trust and find out where her parents were.
However, when Cornelia picked up the telephone she was incapable of holding a regular conversation.
"She was off the planet. There were long silences and then she would start laughing uncontrollably," Ms Wismer said.
"I told some friends of mine about the conversation and they said 'she sounds like a schizophrenic'.
"They accurately diagnosed her with schizophrenia after one phone call, and the department couldn't work it out in 10 months!"
Ms Wismer said it would have been obvious to detention centre staff that Cornelia was mentally ill.
"The Government's response has been unbelievable ? what does it take to say 'sorry, we stuffed up'?" she said.
After Ms Wismer's phone call she, along with campaigners from several refugee support groups, began the task of trying to publicise the story of the 'mystery detainee' in the Baxter detention centre.
The story was eventually picked up by a Melbourne newspaper and read by Cornelia's family, who identified her, resulting in her release.
Modestly, Ms Wismer said her role in Cornelia's freedom was only minor.
"It was the other detainees who gave us her name and ID number so we could get in touch with her," she said.
"If they had not spoken up for her and cared we would never have known."