This six-part Australian TV show is set within an immigration detention centre, where several stories converge; an Afghani father and his family fleeing the Taliban, a local man taking a job as a security guard to support his family, and – at the centre of the story – a white Australian woman who has ended up in detention after a catalogue of errors. Here’s what you need to know.
Is Stateless based on a true story?
Yes! The central conceit – that a mentally-ill Australian-German woman is unlawfully placed in a detention centre by Australia’s Immigration Department – is based on a real incident that happened 15 years ago.
The case concerned a woman called Cornelia Rau, a German-born citizen and Australian permanent resident. She had grown up in Sydney, and she could switch between English and basic German, and between an Australian and German accent.
Cornelia Rau disappeared from hospital in March 2004. After she refused to reveal her true identity to police and immigration officials, she was put in an actual prison for six months, and then transferred to Baxter Detention Centre as a suspected illegal immigrant for another four months until she was finally discovered.
Her sister Chris Rau, who is a journalist, wrote in February: “The imminent release of the TV series Stateless has been challenging for our family… We feel this anxiety despite every effort by a wonderful team of writers, actors, cinematographers and musicians. Cornelia herself and many people involved in her plight were fully included and consulted.”
Like the protagonist Sofie (Yvonne Strahovski) in Stateless, Cornelia did work as a flight attendant – in real life she was employed by the airline Qantas.
And in 1998 she began attending a cult (or self-proclaimed self-help organisation) called Kenja Communications, founded by husband-and-wife team Ken Dyers and Jan Hamilton. (This is recreated as “GOPA” in Stateless, with Cate Blanchett and Dominic West as the creepy charismatic leaders).
She took part in ballet, choir and drama – but she was expelled from Kenja after six months; as Jan Hamilton explained, “We are not an organisation set up to help someone like Cornelia. We are for people who are seeking to enhance their abilities.” She was asked to leave after an incident at a group event in Melbourne where she apparently “walked off during the show”.
Over the next six years, Cornelia was hospitalised several times, with diagnoses ranging from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia. She had incidents of unstable behaviour and sometimes disappeared for short periods of time, but she usually re-established contact with her family (especially her sister).
When the hospital and Cornelia’s family started the process to get a “community treatment order” that would compel her to take her much-detested medication, Cornelia discharged herself from hospital and went hitchhiking. But on her journey, locals became concerned about her safety and called the Queensland Police.
Cornelia identified herself as “Anna” (using varying German surnames) and claimed to be a tourist from Munich. Her story did not hold up, and she changed it several times. Despite her clear confusion, the police contacted DIMIA (the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs) and detained her as a “suspected unlawful non-citizen”.
Under this assumption, she was sent to the Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre (a prison) and detained alongside convicted criminals. With her mental health deteriorating, she still refused to tell authorities her real name and identity. Several flags were raised about her mental health and the strange facts of her case, but they were largely ignored.
Ultimately she was transferred to a facility for “unlawful non-citizens” (UNCs) called Baxter Detention Centre, in outback South Australia. Here, opportunities were also missed. For example: German Consulate staff could not identify her, but pointed out that her German language skills were “child-like” and she probably was actually Australian with a German background. And though the police contacted the Immigration Department after Cornelia’s family reported her as a missing person, they did not make the connection. A visiting nun also officially raised concerns, but they went nowhere.
Her sister Chris Rau writes: “Cornelia ended up in detention due to a mental illness. She has no recollection of her six months in the Brisbane jail and her four months in Baxter, near Port Augusta, much of that time (more than five weeks) spent in solitary confinement.”
Finally, in January 2005, newspaper The Age ran a story about the case of this “mystery woman” in the detention centre. In the piece, Pamela Curr of Melbourne’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre explained: “They [the other detainees] believe that she is mentally ill. Her unpredictable and bizarre behaviour, lack of communication, and distress continue to worry them. She exhibits psychotic symptoms, screaming and talking to herself at times, and screams in terror often for long periods especially when locked in the cell.”
Friends of the Rau family saw the article and suspected it may be Cornelia. Over the next five days, Cornelia was officially identified and then transported back to hospital where she was committed to a mental health facility.
What happened next to Cornelia Rau?
Cornelia Rau’s ordeal became a huge story in Australia. Her plight also drew attention to the failures of Australia’s immigration detention system – and the fact that she was a white woman only made this even more newsworthy and shocking to many.
One of her lawyers, George Newhouse, has described her as the “trojan horse which exposed the cruelty and inhumanity of the immigration detention system”.
In response to this incident, The Palmer Inquiry was launched. This identified a series of missed opportunities to help Cornelia Rau and correctly identify her as an Australian resident in need of mental health treatment. Former Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer found serious and deep-seated problems in the Immigration Department, and in how it handled people in detention. But very little has changed over the last 15 years.
In 2008, the federal government agreed to pay Cornelia Rau $2.6 million in compensation. She unfortunately continued to experience mental health problems after her release, but was allowed by her official “guardians” to travel internationally – trips which ended with hospitalisation in Hamburg, Germany in 2008 and arrest in Tafila, Jordan in 2009 so that she could be placed under medical care.
Since then she has mainly flown under the radar. Cornelia lives in New South Wales, and enjoys swimming and sports. Her former lawyer Claire O’Connor said: “She’s certainly in a better place than when she got out of detention.”
Is Barton Detention Centre a real place?
No – but it’s based on real detention centres in Australia.
In real life, Cornelia Rau was detained at Baxter (not Barton). It was run by a private operator called GSL Australia (not Korvo Security Group). Australia has a policy of “mandatory detention” of asylum seekers, and these centres are where many end up while they wait to hear their fate – a process which can take years.
To give it its full name, “Baxter Immigration Reception and Processing Centre” was opened in 2002 and ultimately closed in 2007 as the building of another, larger detention centre made it obsolete. At its peak, Baxter had housed several hundred asylum seekers and immigrants.
During its five years of operation, Baxter was not without its controversies. On two Easter Weekends, protesters descended on the centre to protest against the government’s treatment of asylum seekers. In 2004 (a few months after Cornelia was removed), there were protests from the detainees themselves – including several arson incidents – and in 2005 there was a riot.