Warning: spoilers ahead for Stateless.
Netflix's new limited series Stateless is an unflinching look at immigration that is loosely based on the true story of Cornelia Rau.
The six-episode series, co-created by Cate Blanchett and starring The Handmaid's Tale's Yvonne Strahovski, looks at four strangers — a flight attendant on the run from a cult, an Afghan refugee fleeing the Taliban, a young father working as a security guard, a politician looking to quiet a national scandal — whose worlds collide at an immigration detention center in the middle of the Australian outback.
The real story behind Stateless is one its creators hope will inspire others to take a closer look at the immigration practices in Australia and abroad. "Our hope is that Stateless will generate a global conversation around our systems of border protection and how our humanity has been affected by them,” Blanchett and her fellow co-creators Tony Ayres, and Elise McCredie said in a Netflix press release.
Understanding what happened to Rau could help start that conversation.
Stateless Is Loosely Based On A True Story
Fifteen years ago, an Australian-German woman named Cornelia Rau was placed in a detention center by Australia's Immigration Department. Rau's story loosely inspired Stateless, which looks at how Sofie Werner (Strahovski), an Australian citizen struggling with mental health issues, was unlawfully detained.
Rau was a German-born citizen and a permanent resident of Australia, who in March 2004, escaped from a hospital. After refusing to give her true identity to police and immigration officials, she was placed in a prison and later the Baxter Detention Centre, a facility for “unlawful non-citizens” (UNCs), for being an illegal immigrant. She was kept there for ten months.
How Did Cornelia Rau End Up Detained?
Like Sofie in Stateless, Rau was a flight attendant who found herself mixed up with a dangerous cult. In 1998, Rau began attending the self-proclaimed self-help organization Kenja Communications founded by husband-and-wife Ken Dyers and Jan Hamilton. (Blanchett and Dominic West play the duo's facsimiles on the show.) The organization, which shares similarities with Scientology, was accused of brainwashing, preying on those struggling with mental illness, and sexual abuse. Dyers appears to deny the claims of sexual abuse before his death by suicide in 2007.
After being expelled from the cult for an incident at a group event, Rau spent the next six years in and out of hospitals. During this time, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. She began distancing herself from her family, often for short periods of time before regaining contact. However, in 2004, Rau disappeared from a hospital and while hitchhiking was questioned by police. Instead of telling them her real name, she identified herself as Anna, a German tourist before changing her story several times. (She would later say she lied for fear that Kenja would capture her, according to The Monthly.)
Despite her confusion over her identity, police contacted the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, who detained her as a suspected "unlawful non-citizen." By law, Australia requires "mandatory detention" for asylum seekers who are in the country without a valid visa.
Rau was held at the Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre where her struggles with mental health were largely ignored. She was later moved to Baxter Detention Centre where additional red flags including her "childlike" German language skills, the German government's inability to identify her as a citizen, and her family's missing persons report, were also ignored.
While fellow inmates believed she needed psychiatric care, under the Migration Act, no one could act on her behalf unless Rau requested it herself in writing.
How Was Cornelia Rau Eventually Found?
In 2005, The Age wrote a story about Rau, who was described as a mystery woman being held at the Baxter Detention Centre, who appeared to be mentally ill.
“[The other detainees] believe that she is mentally ill," Pamela Curr of Melbourne’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said in the The Age's story. "Her unpredictable and bizarre behavior, 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.”
The story's description of this women led Rau's family and friends to suspect this mystery inmate was Cornelia. On February 3, 2005, five days after the piece went live, she was identified and released to a mental health facility.
Where Is Cornelia Rau Now?
Back in February, Rau's sister, journalist Chris Rau wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald that "Cornelia ended up in detention due to a mental illness." She said that her sister "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.”
While she may not remember, many in Australia will never forget her. Rau's story put the problems of Australia's immigration system into focus. Her lawyer George Newhouse called Rau the “trojan horse which exposed the cruelty and inhumanity of the immigration detention system.” It led to the Palmer Inquiry, a government report that identified the many systemic failures that resulted in Rau's unlawful detention.
Rau was paid $2.6 million by the federal government in damages, but unfortunately, little has changed in the 15 years since the publication of the report led by former federal police commissioner Mick Palmer. While Baxter was closed in 2007, it was only because a larger detention center had opened, making it obsolete. Many of the laws that led to her imprisonment, still remain.
It's why Blanchett told Australia's The Saturday Paper that she hopes Stateless will lead to questions “rather than be a piece of agitprop that proposes answers.” The biggest, in her opinion, being "how we got here as a so-called nation, and what we're prepared to tolerate."
In the years since her detention, Rau has spent time in and out of hospitals, and was again detained while traveling in Jordan in 2009. She now lives a quiet life in New South Wales. "She goes to classes, she takes part in the physical things she likes to do, swimming and sport," her lawyer Claire O'Connor told ABC News Australia earlier this year. "She's certainly in a better place than when she got out of detention."
What Does Cornelia Rau's Family Think Of The Series?
“The imminent release of the TV series Stateless has been challenging for our family," Rau's sister wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald before the series premiered in Australia in March. "We feel this anxiety despite every effort by a wonderful team of writers, actors, cinematographers and musicians."
Chris explained that, "Cornelia herself and many people involved in her plight were fully included and consulted," but that doesn't make it any easier to relive these moments. The experience "caused irreversible neurological damage" for Cornelia and her sister doesn't want to see her hurt again, which is why she kindly asked journalists and viewers to "back off my sister."
Stateless isn't a straight retelling of Rau's experience, though, it is one part of a broader story about the systemic problems of Australia's immigration system. This is why Chris considers it to be necessary viewing.
"Its exercise of these powers is often misguided, willful or capricious," she wrote of the harm her country's Immigration Department has caused for so many families including hers. "Don't believe this? Watch Stateless."