What is driving the quest for millions of dollars in compensation for the woman Australia wrongly deported?
JAMES MORROW reports
When it was revealed that the federal government had mistakenly deported 42-year-old Vivian Alvarez, an Australian citizen, back to her native country of the Philippines four years ago, the media had a field day: commentators wasted no time in suggesting that the deportation was based solely on racial grounds, and that non-white Australians had better carry their identity papers with them at all times lest they suffer a similar fate.
Never mind that Vivian was mentally ill and had been using at least three other different last names (including Solon, Young, and Wilson) at the time of her deportation, making her identity tough to establish. Or that, according to diplomatic cables, she had married a man in the Philippines in early 2001 and re-entered Australia on a Filipino passport with a tourist visa six months before being kicked out of the country.
But as the saga of Vivian Alvarez has played itself out in the media, all these facts have become irrelevant. Add to the mix a gang of Australia-based family members that suddenly appeared for tearful reunions in the Philippines, and lawyers talking of millions of dollars in compensation claims, and the waters become even more muddied.
Enter Rina Quistadio. Rina, a 21-year-old divorced single mother, is in a unique position to shed light on the saga of Vivian Alvarez and her family, and the legal struggle that could cost the taxpayer millions of dollars in legal and compensation costs. Rina, you see, is Vivian Alvarez’s half-niece, and it is her parents – whose house she left when she was just sixteen years old, never to look back – who have been at the forefront of the quest for compensation for Vivian.
‘All of us are waiting for an answer, an explanation’, Henry Solon, Rina’s father and Vivian’s half-brother told ABC Radio recently; Solon has also filed a complaint with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, saying that the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs discriminated against Vivian on the basis of her race, and led the charge for legal representation and compensation. (Vivian has not sought compensation herself, and has forgiven the government for what she has termed a mistake).
But Rina is skeptical of the motives behind her father’s and other members of her estranged family’s quest for compensation for Vivian, and alleges that it is more dollars than a desire for justice for a family member that is pushing them.
‘When I first saw my dad on the news, and then hopped on-line to find out more about the story, I thought it was a bit of a joke’, Rina says, recalling when she first found out it was her aunt who was at the centre of a media and political firestorm. (‘First I recognized the set of encylopaedias, and then I recognized the sofa, and then I thought, “Hey, that guy looks a lot like my father!”’, she laughs, remembering the moment a few weeks ago when the story broke).
‘As far as I know my parents had seen Vivian exactly once in my entire life,’ she adds. ‘About nine years ago, I remember she contacted us at our house, and she brought her two kids and a boyfriend, I don’t remember his name. But she seemed a bit mentally sketchy at the time. It was all pretty emotionless, but that’s the kind of family we were. I was excited about having two new cousins whom I’d never met before, and I remember that Vivian asked my mum and dad if they’d look after her kids while she sorted herself out, but my parents said no.’
‘My mother was working as a daycare mum at the time and was already looking after kids. I was just young and didn’t know what the family budget was, but I assumed at the time mum and dad wouldn’t take the kids because Vivian couldn’t pay them’, she adds.
After that brief meeting, which Rina recalls lasting a couple of hours, there was no contact whatsoever between Vivian and her parents. Rina left home two days after Christmas in 2000 – she chafed under the family’s strict traditional structure, which forbade her from doing any of the normal things Australian kids did. Barely six months later, Vivian was detained and deported by the Department of Immigration.
‘I think it is ridiculous that they are all fighting for the rights of a woman they barely knew’, says Rina, who alleges that her family is more concerned about sharing a compensation payout than caring for their relative.
‘She was only there once for a couple of hours nine years ago, and now they are pushing for all this money for her. I don’t think this incident was one bit troubling for my family – it has been for Vivian – but not for them.’
(For the record, Henry Solon has denied that he is trying to ‘cash in’, and when questioned on ABC Radio about why he moved so quickly to retain lawyers when he heard of Vivian’s plight, responded, ‘I had to move quick, you know what I mean? Otherwise, I would…Vivian, not me, Vivian would miss out.’)
Rina also has harsh words for those, including her father, who has tried to turn the deportation into a racial issue. ‘I just don’t know why they care so much now, and why it took four years for them to speak out about it. It doesn’t look like they’d made a massive effort to look for her before this.’
‘I found it a bit rich that it is being insinuated that this is a racially motivated bungle, because we’re living here and Australia has given us everything we needed and wanted’, Rina continues. ‘I hate to see Australia get a bad name and get called a racist country, because it’s not, because it’s one of the most welcoming countries in the world. I think that’s one of the best things about this country. The really ironic thing is that growing up, my family always said that if you marry a white man you’ll look like a mail-order bride!’
‘Every institution is bound to cock up. My thing is that Vivian didn’t make it easy for herself to be found and verified as an Australian citizen, and she seemed pretty scattered when they found her’, says Rina.
‘From what I’ve read, the government did what they were supposed to do as per procedure. They thought she was here illegally and they sent her back – she must have said something to make them think that. Whether she was in the right frame of mind or not, they thought they had good cause.’
One of the biggest problems Rina has with her family’s story is that they seem to have made no effort to find Vivian before she was discovered by the media, though it fits with a pattern of estrangement from the family that has played out in her own life. Says Rina, ‘the whole story was preposterous the first time I read it. Then it hit me that this was really a big thing. Then I asked myself, “why do they care so much?” There’s just no caring in that family, and if they do care so much, how come they don’t get in touch with me? If they cared so much for Vivian when they first met her nine years ago, she would have become part of our lives.’
Although Rina doesn’t care to see her family, or Vivian, she is concerned that she get back to Australia, get the treatment she needs, and be reunited with her children. She says it would be a shame for Vivian’s sons not to get to know their mother, something she can identify with, having been cut off from her own parents for the past five years.
‘When I first left home, I sent them letters until Christmas of 2001, but never got a response’, Rina says. ‘After I had my daughter I went up to Brisbane and put a photo album of pictures of my daughter in their letterbox and I still never heard a thing from them.’