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Vivian Alvarez in the Phillipines

David Marr: 'Don't ask those questions'

Investigative Reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald David Marr tells the story of DIMIA's cover-up of the Vivian Alvarez affair

This is a copy of a 2-part article from the Sydney Morning Herald, written by investigative reporter David Marr. The report was first published on August 20 and August 22, 2005. Photos on this page courtesy Preda

"These were the last weeks of Ruddock's reign as minister for immigration. His officials are now telling Senate committees that Alvarez's deportation remained known only to a tiny number of officers - no senior executives, no one in the minister's office and certainly not the minister."

Documentation: The Palmer Report

Other pages by David Marr:

2 September 2009: In 2009, it's getting crowded on Christmas Island - Slowly Christmas Island is filling up with refugees - but in August 2009 it seemed that senior and high-profile advocates all flocked to the place. Human Rights Consultation Chief Frank Brennan, Psychiatrist Louise Newman, and Sydney Morning Herald Journalist David Marr all looked in on the bizarre scenery.

2 June 2007: David Marr: Careful, he might hear you - John Howard has ... cowed his critics, muffled the press, intimidated the ABC, gagged scientists, silenced NGOs, censored the arts, prosecuted leakers, criminalised protest and curtailed parliamentary scrutiny, and this has happened because we let it happen.

20 July 2005: David Marr and The Palmer Report - The Palmer Report, or the report of the Inquiry into the circumstances of the Immigration Detention of Cornelia Rau, is damning. And so is David Marrr's analysis from the Sydney Morning Herald.

Mr Ruddock goes to Canberra14 April 2005: Geneva versus Canberra: Australia in the dock at the UN - The UN has again attacked the Howard Government's record on race, but this time the politicians are shutting up and news of the verdict isn't getting out. Back in 2000, the UN was unimpressed - and that's the Geneva problem in a nutshell: what works in Canberra doesn't work in in this town. The Howard Government message carries no particular clout. The power of jobs and patronage, so persuasive back home, has no impact in Geneva.

29 September 2004: The Shape of the Argument: The 3rd Overland Lecture - David Marr delivers the lecture: "After nearly a decade of sustained bullying from government [...] the media is in a quandary, has lost its edge. Not everyone, not everywhere. But it has happened. What I am exploring here is how that loss of confidence has come to shape public debate..."

27 May 2003: The Role of the Writer in John Howard's Australia - The Colin Simpson Lecture in the Redfern Town Hall. "I have a simple plea to make: that writers start focusing on what is happening in this country, looking Australia in the face, not flinching, coming to grips with the fact that we have been on a long loop through time that has brought us back almost - but not quite - to where we were."

The lies that kept Vivian Alvarez hidden for years

"Would Mother Teresa proceed to arrivals." Though Calcutta's saint-in-waiting had been dead four years, travellers at Manila's Ninoy Aquino International Airport heard her being paged one night in July 2001 to meet a frail, tiny, penniless woman in a wheelchair.

Vivian Alvarez Solon had been deported that afternoon from Australia and no one was there to meet her because the Immigration Department had not made the arrangements. Yet department files seen by the Herald show it knew what it was doing: throwing out of the country a destitute cripple, unable to move without a walking frame and apparently without family or friends to care for her in the Philippines.

While her plane was still in the air, Immigration's man at the Australian embassy in Manila, Ian Simpson, had rung to see if he should show up at the airport. He was told not to bother: "There was no longer any requirements for the embassy staff to assist." Everyone believed there would be nuns on hand. Alvarez expected nuns. So did her Queensland police escort, Senior Constable Jane Beare. But there were no nuns and when Mother Teresa failed to appear, a Qantas officer led the two women to the desk of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, an agency that cares for distressed Filipino nationals returning home.

Confused as Alvarez was after a week's imprisonment in a Brisbane motel and a painful flight to Manila, she told the welfare group's repatriation nurse, Grace Olajay, what she had been telling Immigration officials for months: "I am Australian."

Later that night they took her for a check-up at the South Superhighway Medical Centre - and then the Australian citizen of 15 years, ex-wife of a Brisbane bank officer, and mother of two boys growing up in Brisbane disappeared for nearly four years into the hinterland of Manila.

Since the stories of Alvarez and Cornelia Rau broke earlier this year, the scandal of Rau - the schizophrenic Australian resident imprisoned for 10 months by the Immigration Department - has attracted most public attention. But the tale of Alvarez's fate is, if anything, more appalling. When Rau was discovered in Baxter Detention Centre she was released at once. When officers of the department learnt they had deported an Australian citizen, they turned their backs on Alvarez and her Brisbane family.

The Herald has documents that reveal the chaotic mess of her deportation in 2001 and the indifference the Immigration Department showed in 2003 when the terrible blunder was discovered. That indifference - or cowardice - extended to the Department of Foreign Affairs, which also learnt, in September 2003, that an Australian citizen had been deported to - and then lost in - the Philippines.

A perfunctory search was soon abandoned. No steps were taken to alert her family. When her ex-husband, Robert Young, began asking questions, Immigration fobbed him off in 2003 and again in 2004. But Young kept at it and his persistence finally led to Alvarez's rescue. Young is one of the few heroes of this story.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, has apologised. The Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone, has promised cultural change in her department and vowed that Alvarez will "get what she wants". The former Australian federal police commissioner Mick Palmer produced a damning interim report on the case last month. Investigations are continuing and the former Victorian police commissioner Neil Comrie is expected to produce his final report early next month.

But some things never change: Canberra is still playing hard ball. Negotiations between the Government and Alvarez's lawyers have stalled. George Newhouse has told the Herald his client is safe and being well cared for in the Philippines and she should not have to return to Australia until her future is certain. Meanwhile, Vanstone and Immigration officials questioned in recent months by Senate committees are sidestepping and obfuscating in what looks like a last-ditch campaign to obscure the horrors of the Vivian Alvarez Solon story.

SHE WAS found by a culvert that runs through Lismore's Spinks Park on a Saturday night in late March 2001. To this day she claims she was knocked off a pushbike by a passing car, but the medical view has always been that she was bashed. She arrived at Lismore Base Hospital dirty, drunk and screaming in pain. She was put into the psychiatric wing for a couple of days before being sent to Sydney for emergency spinal surgery. By late April she was back in Lismore recuperating at St Vincent's Private Hospital.

That her bashing - or accident - was never reported to NSW police was a little catastrophe right at the start of this story. It meant professional investigators were not put to work unravelling the mysteries of this woman. Instead, the task was handled by Immigration officers who Palmer concluded "frequently lack even basic investigative and management skills and have an inadequate knowledge of the capability of DIMIA information systems".

When Immigration officers appeared at St Vincent's on May 3, she told them she was Vivian Alvarez, the estranged wife of a man called Philip Smith who had turned "very nasty" after their return to Australia. She had no idea how she travelled from the Philippines - perhaps drugged on a boat - but insisted she had a right to be in the country. The officers noted: "Alvarez would not readily provide information. When asked questions she would generally state that she cannot remember. She was vague on details."

Because they could find no record of a Vivian Alvarez entering the country, they assumed they were dealing with "an unauthorised undocumented arrival" - and a piece of trash. The notes of that first interview record the officers "consider it possible that she has been manipulated by certain people for sexual purposes". Later a note would appear among her papers: "smuggled into Australia as sex slave". This was not true but the department's notion that Vivian Alvarez was a bit of Filipina low-life coloured this case from the start.

They left her to recuperate at St Vincent's. In those two months the department did not carry out any effective sleuthing. It made only two attempts - the last in early June - to talk to Brian Lucas, the one man in Lismore who appeared to know her. Her hospital admission notes record information from Lucas: "Says she is on a pension. Brian claims she has a brother in Brisbane who is a chemist and an ex-husband who is a bank manager. He has custody of child? Ten years old."

Roughly right - but never investigated by Immigration. Nor did it ask the NSW or Queensland police about this woman. No inquiries were made with the passport office; none with Centrelink; and none with the Electoral Commission. Officials questioned by Senate committees have admitted they didn't even look for her in the phone book. They were hardly trying.

And it didn't cross the department's mind that her improbable story might be explained by illness. The department's then deputy secretary, Philippa Godwin, told Senate estimates: "We were not specifically aware, at that point, of mental health issues."

All they did from time to time was crunch their mighty databases. Even there, they failed. Immigration officials are still contesting the point, but Palmer made an emphatic finding in his interim report that "a competent systems search" using the key details Alvarez always got right - her first name and date of birth - would have solved the mystery. Palmer concluded: "The capacity existed in 2001 for DIMIA officers to have identified Vivian Alvarez as an Australian citizen."

SHE WAS Vivian Alvarez Solon, born on October 30, 1962, in the Philippines. She married Robert William Young, of Brisbane, in May 1984 and arrived in Australia a couple of months later. She became a citizen in March 1986. Later that year her first Australian passport was issued in the name Vivian Solon Young. She had no other passport and no other nationality. She had not left Australia since 1993.

By that time, her respectable life had begun to unravel. What follows are the sorts of details the Immigration Department would not have on file but they go some way to explaining her hitting rock bottom in 2001. She and Young had a son but divorced in 1992. She had another son with another man, Graham Cook, in 1996. They lived in public housing; there were problems that led to court appearances for Alvarez and spells in psychiatric institutions. Young lent a hand. At some point he took custody of their son.

In mid-February 2001, she turned up with her four-year old son at her brother Henry's house behaving extremely erratically. The police were called. She and the boy were allowed to go. She left the boy at the Kindercraft Child Care Centre in Brisbane City Hall the next day, but failed to collect him that night. Vivian Solon Young had disappeared.

Weeks later Vivian Alvarez was down in Lismore, drinking and drifting. Brian Lucas says he found her in the street, gave her cigarettes and tried to look out for her. She was seen on the night of March 31 being doubled on a pushbike by a couple of Aboriginal teenagers. Hours later she was found injured and taken to Lismore hospital. She was not only distressed and dirty but looked foreign and didn't have a Medicare card. No one was paying for this. The hospital rang the Immigration Department.

IT WAS touch and go whether she would ever walk again. She lived in a passive daze. The department was impatient. Its records show a local officer, Troy Sanders, seizing on a comment by doctors at St Vincent's: "Her rehabilitation is not progressing as well as it should be, they believe this may be because recovery could mean returning to the Philippines."

The decision to deport her had been made but Mick Palmer was at a loss to discover how: "There is no documentary or other evidence that any DIMIA officer personally made the decision to remove Ms Alvarez from Australia. Rather, DIMIA officers have said they acted as a matter of course, under the provisions of the Migration Act."

Palmer was especially scathing here because Immigration officers were exercising "exceptional, even extraordinary powers" to decide the fate of this woman "without adequate training, without proper management and oversight, with poor information systems, and with no genuine checks and balances". He found it "difficult to understand" how this situation had been allowed to continue "unchecked and unreviewed" for so long.

This was mid-2001. Philip Ruddock was minister for immigration. The department's compliance division was working at full throttle. In a couple of months the Tampa would appear over the horizon. At such a time, what chance did a confused Filipina have? Immigration had no idea who she was, no idea how she came to the country, nothing to contradict her claim that she was an Australian citizen - yet she would go.

There were immigration officers clearly concerned that Alvarez needed legal representation, but nothing effective was done to get her a lawyer. Bill Farmer, then secretary of the department, would later remind senators that Immigration is not obliged "to take steps to make legal representation available to people if they do not ask for it".

They came for her at St Vincent's on July 12. Her discharge note reads: "C4-5 incomplete quadriplegia 11 to central disc herniation and she walks with a 4-wheel walker for safety (gait problems and hand weakness)." A social worker added: "Vivian is independent with self-care, with encouragement." As a farewell gift, St Vincent's gave her a walker.

Assessing, rightly, that this woman couldn't do a runner, Immigration decided not to hold her pending deportation in Brisbane's women's prison but to lock her in a ground floor room at the Airport 85 Motel in the Brisbane suburb of Ascot. She would stay there for a week with guards on the door supplied by Australian Correctional Management while the department worked to overcome a last hurdle: the Philippines had to be persuaded to issue this woman with travel papers and they weren't happy.

GERMANY dug in its heels when Australia tried to deport Cornelia Rau because there was no proof she was German. It absolutely refused to take her. But the Philippines is more forgiving of such technical requirements. The embassy in Canberra was happy enough to issue travel papers to Alvarez on a hunch that she might still be a Filipina. The snag was her health.

The embassy was urging "therapeutic counselling" for Alvarez even before the Brisbane consulate sent a nurse to see her at Airport 85. Mayette Mackintosh was shocked by what she found. "She was physically present, but not there. She was just staring," Mackintosh told the ABC's Lateline.

Alvarez began to convulse. "She was sitting upright and just shook like that, you know, was shaking and I just sort of hold her, 'Are you OK, are you OK?' And I was just reassuring her, and then only less than five minutes, she just stop, and she said to me, 'I'm sorry, aunty.' Very apologetic. 'This happened after my accident."' Mackintosh told the guards: "She's having a fit, she's having spasms. She should not go at the moment, she should not be deported. She should see a doctor."

The guards were keeping Filipino priests and nuns out of the room but the next day they allowed a social worker, Guing Coop, in to see the prisoner. Coop and Mackintosh both spoke to Alvarez in Cebuano, the language she had grown up speaking. Later a Senate committee would be told by George Newhouse that "Vivian gave her correct name two independent witnesses, the nurse and the social worker, in the days before she was deported."

Coop rang Immigration after leaving the motel to be told it was deporting Alvarez "because she didn't have any identification, no paperwork, no nothing". Coop told ABC radio. "So I said, well, what about her entry documentation? And I was told that they couldn't find any, so I even said to them, well surely she didn't come on a broomstick."

Alvarez was booked out on a flight that Friday. But the day before, the Philippine embassy dropped a bombshell: it did not consider Alvarez fit to travel. The consul-general, Laureano C. Santiago, rang the Department of Foreign Affairs several times to say this had "the potential to affect the bilateral relationship. He demanded that we did not remove her. In fact, the Philippine embassy would not be issuing travel documents."

Immigration needed a certificate. The same outfit that provided guards on the motel door - Australian Correctional Management - was asked to find a doctor. Peter Wynn says he was not given a medical history for Alvarez, and was not told of the fits Mayette Mackintosh had seen earlier in the week. He would later tell Lateline that, had he known of these, he would have ordered neurological tests before clearing her for the flight. He made no psychiatric assessment of the woman.

Late that afternoon, he provided the certificate: "No fits. Walks with a walker. Will not be a problem on aeroplane." Presented with this verdict, the Filipinos caved in.

ON THE same frantic Thursday, all these plans might have come unstuck. After caring for a little boy abandoned at Brisbane's Kindercraft Child Care Centre since January, Queensland's Department of Family and Community Services had finally reported his mother - "Vivian Solon also known as Young" - as a missing person. Police now came to Immigration to find out if she had left the country.

Immigration's reply threw up the name Alvarez: "Departmental records show that Vivian Alvarez Solon also known as Young (30/10/62) last arrived in Australia 2/9/93. There is no record of departure since that date." But inside the department the penny didn't drop. The police were dealing with the Investigations branch; Alvarez's jailers were Compliance.

She flew out the next day under police escort. Nothing useful had been done to confirm the vague belief that the Missionaries of Charity would be there to look after her. The department's files give the game away with the weasel words "arrangements ... appeared to be on track". They weren't.

It was night when they landed in Manila. No one - no nuns or officials - was waiting at arrivals. It was Alvarez who suggested paging Mother Teresa. "Negative results" reads the dry entry in the records of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. Constable Beare left her in the welfare group's hands and at 10.30pm rang home to report mission accomplished. "Ms Alvarez was met on arrival by Ms Grace Olajay, the Overseas Welfare Administration Office from the Australian Embassy."

That made no sense. The embassy has no such branch. Who was Olajay? Where were the nuns? No one from Immigration rang to untangle this bizarre message and check that the cripple they had just deported was OK.

Alvarez spent two days in a halfway house before she was collected by the Missionaries of Charity and taken to their Manila house for a couple of months before being sent four hours north to their hospice for the dying in the city of Olongapo. Alvarez would sit there for nearly four years, unaware that she had been deported and strangely grateful to Australia. She explained to a local priest: "She was sent back to the Philippines because she was sickly and Australia really could not look after her."

THE police kept looking for the mother of the abandoned boy. By late 2002, the search had drawn in Queensland's Homicide Investigation Group and the NSW police. Palmer commended their efforts: "The police missing persons inquiries throughout this period seem to have been extensive and thorough."

In July 2003, two years almost to the day after their first inquiries with the Immigration Department, Queensland police checked again to see if "Vivian Solon a.k.a. Cook and Young" had entered or left Australia. They gave exactly the same name they had given Immigration in 2001, but this time computer searches at head office in Canberra turned up something within a day.

Natalie Catlin was accessing the files of Vivian Alvarez and Vivian Alvarez Solon on July 15, 2003. Records seen by the Herald show she worked on both files the following day - and found a card that showed "Vivian Alvarez" listed as a "related name" of "Vivian Young". That card had been created in 1999, years before this drama began. The department had made its match: it was now beyond dispute that in July 2001 they deported an Australian citizen.

Did they call the police? No. What follows strongly suggests an attempted cover-up by the department partly sabotaged by Immigration officers.

For five weeks there was no contact with Queensland police. Then, on the night of August 20, Channel Nine attached to the end of an episode of the US drama Without a Trace a photograph of the missing Australian Vivian Solon Young and appealed for anyone with information on her whereabouts to ring a police 1800 number.

Natalie Catlin, who had made the Young/Alvarez match more than a month earlier, called the number. Why she did this is not known, but the day after the Channel Nine show went to air, Immigration finally fessed up to the Queensland police: "Miss Young came to DIMIA's attention ... using the name Vivian Alvarez. Ms Young was removed from Australia on 20 July 2001 using the name Vivian Alvarez."

Immigration sat tight while the Queensland police searched quietly for the one woman in Manila who might know what had happened to Alvarez. That meant asking the Australian embassy about its supposed employee, Grace Olajay. That inquiry alerted Foreign Affairs to the scandal. Was there now uproar behind the scenes as a second department learnt what had been done to this missing Australian citizen? Not a bit of it. Foreign Affairs also sat on the story.

Olajay was tracked down easily but a Foreign Affairs officer emailed one of his colleagues: "We need to write to the main office of OWWA. Please advise if you need the record." The reply came back that it would be left to the Queensland police: "If need be they can come back and ask for assistance."

Police efforts were feeble. They wrote in early September but apparently did not make it clear they were looking for an Australian citizen. The welfare administration prepared a case summary that was never sent. The police didn't follow up on their original request. The first search for Vivian Alvarez in Manila died in September 2003.

Philippines authorities would later declare: "An official inquiry/request coursed through the Philippine embassy in Canberra stating the true status of Ms Alvarez would have produced better and immediate results." But such a high-level strategy was clearly not going to be pursued by the Australian bureaucrats. The idea - perhaps instinct is the better word - was to keep the Alvarez scandal very quiet - for ever if possible.

The trouble was that Robert Young had learnt from the police that his ex-wife had been deported. He was fobbed off at his first attempt to talk to Immigration about this and on September 28 an insulting email was circulated in the department - "Brisbane police told him wife removed from Australia July 2001. His initial query is: 'How can this be?' I asked for his name and number. He wouldn't give it to me. He took my name instead and said he would ring again. Didn't sound irate or annoyed; sounded more like Anthony Hopkins from Silence of the Lambs. And I kid you not. Enjoy."

These were the last weeks of Ruddock's reign as minister for immigration. His officials are now telling Senate committees that Alvarez's deportation remained known only to a tiny number of officers - no senior executives, no one in the minister's office and certainly not the minister.

Believing that is a hard ask. Even so this story might have died about the time Ruddock handed the reins to Amanda Vanstone - except that Robert Young kept searching.

Link to the original location at SMH

The cover-up comes unstuck

But for the persistence of her ex-husband, Vivian Alvarez may never have been found, writes David Marr.

ROBERT Young made a heartfelt appeal to Amanda Vanstone in early April this year. He was trying to track down his ex-wife, Vivian Alvarez Solon. He knew she had been deported but the Department of Immigration had been giving him the run-around for 18 months. Young was now appealing directly to the minister: "For the sake of her two children who just want to know what happened to their mother, your intervention would be appreciated."

The Herald now has documents which detail the lengths gone to by Immigration and Foreign Affairs officials to keep a lid on the Alvarez scandal once it was discovered that the destitute, crippled Filipina deported in 2001 was an Australian citizen and the mother of two boys growing up in Brisbane.

Queensland police had told Young the bare bones of the story in 2003. Their search for Alvarez had led them back to Immigration in July of that year, and it was then that the department's terrible blunder was discovered. A perfunctory - and very quiet - police search in Manila had turned up nothing and been abandoned. Young found himself beating his head against a brick wall.

Young is a bank officer in Brisbane, intensely shy of media attention. He and Alvarez married in 1984 and she became a citizen two years later. Their son was born in 1988 but after a few years their marriage came apart; they were divorced in 1992. Later, there was another son to another man. As Alvarez's life spiralled down - there were court appearances and spells in psychiatric hospitals - Young did what he could to help and took custody of his son.

Now he wanted to find her. He would later tell Queensland police that in 2003 he rang Immigration "and was advised that because his ex-wife is an Australian citizen she was not deported". Unknown to Young, his first inquiries had provoked an insulting email widely distributed in the department: "Didn't sound irate or annoyed; sounded more like Anthony Hopkins from [The] Silence of the Lambs. And I kid you not. Enjoy."

By September 2004, Young was annoyed. He approached the Queensland police to find him a contact inside Immigration. In an email giving the history of the case, Detective Senior Sergeant Rose Walker warned Len Mitchell of Immigration's head office that Young "wants to take the matter further and make a formal complaint".

Mitchell was familiar with the Alvarez matter, for he had been one of the team involved the year before in the database searches which revealed that the Vivian Alvarez they deported to Manila was, in fact, an Australian citizen called Vivian Solon Young. And while there is no evidence Mitchell and his colleagues in Canberra ever learnt of Young's inquiries in 2003, that long email from the Queensland police a year later put them on notice that this woman's ex-husband was out there and still determined to find her.

Young was fobbed off again. Immigration officials have told Senate committees this year that there is no record of him being given a contact in the department to see; no record of a complaint; and none of him having any contact with Immigration after that police email in late September 2004. Yole Daniels, head of the department's Compliance and Analysis branch, told senators: "Our trail ends just about there."

Young's treatment in 2003 and 2004 will be a key issue addressed by the former Victorian police commissioner, Neil Comrie, in his final report on the scandal due early next month. But documents in the Herald's possession suggest Immigration may have sheltered behind its catch-all defence of "privacy".

Young himself would complain to Vanstone that his search kept coming up against the department's "privacy considerations". And privacy was very much on the mind of Walker of the Queensland police in her long email to Mitchell: "I am reluctant to provide any information whatever to him as he did not report [her] missing ... could you please provide advice re release of any info should it become appropriate".

Young was given nil "info" but his reappearance on the scene provoked a fresh round of database searching that swiftly reconfirmed the Alvarez blunder. By now, more than 15 Immigration officers named in documents in the Herald's possession - plus several Queensland police and an unknown number of embassy officials in Manila - knew what had happened. Even so, the fresh scrutiny of 2004 did not provoke any fresh action to find the deported Australian and bring her home. As far as the bureaucrats were concerned, the case was closed.

THE ground shifted under the Department of Immigration in February this year when the news broke that a schizophrenic Australian resident, Cornelia Rau, had been imprisoned by the department for 10 months while it tried to have her deported to Germany. So many scandals had been forgiven by the press and the public in the past, but Rau was not a boatperson, not a queue jumper, not even a foreigner. She was one of us and she had been treated callously by the department. There were no excuses. The Prime Minister immediately ordered an inquiry.

In the aftermath of Rau, Young sent his email to Vanstone's website setting out the story of his search for his ex-wife. A précis appears in departmental records: "She is the mother of two children who presently live in Brisbane, one with Mr Young the other in foster care. Prior to going missing in Brisbane she had been hospitalised due to mental illness. This may be similar to the Rau matter ... For the sake of the children he is keen to know what happened to their mother."

Young's email took more than a fortnight to work its way up through the department to the deputy secretary, Philippa Godwin. She ordered a search be made on the evening of April 20. It didn't take long. Early next morning, Godwin was warned that the news was as bad as Young claimed. At 2.15pm she was briefed "on inquiries so far which indicated the strong likelihood that Ms Alvarez (removed 21 July, 2001) is in fact Vivian Solon Young, Australian citizen."

A key detail was the mole under her left eye: her citizenship application and the file of the deported woman record the same mole. Another photograph was rushed over from the passport office: the match was undeniable.

That night, the then-secretary of the department, Bill Farmer, was tracked down in Washington. The minister was briefed at some point in all of this. Later Vanstone would claim to be "completely perplexed" by the "inexplicable" failure of her bureaucrats to alert her to this mess years before the looming scandal.

Someone had to tell Robert Young. The call came the next day, April 22. According to the acting secretary of the department, Ed Killesteyn: "We had a request from Ms Solon's ex-husband to ensure that the matter was kept as confidential as possible." That suited the department just fine.

Killesteyn was onto the Australian embassy in Manila the same day. "They were cabled with quite a number of details that we had on our file about Ms Solon. I spoke personally to the ambassador on the evening of 22 April to express the urgency and the importance of immediately instituting search action for Ms Solon." That day the ambassador, Tony Hely, set up a taskforce inside the embassy of Australian Federal Police, immigration officials and the consul-general. Hely wrote to Killesteyn on about May 11: "The taskforce has met on a daily basis since to review progress and brainstorm additional possible lines of inquiry."

The operation was hamstrung by two fundamental decisions - not to make any public appeals for information about the missing woman and not to alert the Philippines Government. The search was getting nowhere.

Filipino Interpol was given Alvarez's names and possible addresses to check in the cities of Cebu and Tacloban. These inquiries also proved fruitless. The Filipino Interpol chief, Ricardo Diaz, later told The Age that they were not told the woman was Australian or briefed on her physical and mental health problems. "I never knew what this case was about," Diaz said. "We need this kind of information if they really would like us to help them better."

Right from the first encounter between Alvarez and the Immigration Department - at her bedside in a Lismore hospital in April 2001 - the strong suggestion appeared in departmental files that they were dealing with a prostitute. This speculation was to colour the entire case. Now the Australian embassy was using what Hely called "informal networks" to trawl through Manila's bars. "There have been two supposed sightings of [her] in these bar areas, but these are unconfirmed."

What is inexplicable in retrospect is that the embassy was not pursuing the belief - clearly recorded in departmental files seen by the Herald - that Alvarez was to be met and cared for on her arrival in Manila by nuns. Instead of searching the brothels, they should have been asking the church.

THE search was a week old when Vanstone's deputy minister, Peter McGauran, made the first cryptic admission that, "Four years ago, a person subsequently found to be an Australian citizen was removed from Australia." McGauran would not name her nor the country to which she had been sent. He did say: "What happened to this woman is as utterly unacceptable to the Australian Government as it is to the Australian people."

Investigation of the case was to be handed to Mick Palmer, the former Australian Federal Police commissioner who was already investigating Rau's detention. Along with the new deportation case, Palmer would be investigating 33 further cases of people possibly wrongly detained by Immigration. That number would climb to 201. The scandals were coming thick and fast.

The secret of the lost woman's identity lasted only a few days. On May 4, ABC TV's Lateline reported that the mentally ill woman "was sent to the Philippines, the country where she was born". A couple of days later, The Australian gave her name: Vivian Alvarez. The report led with sex: "An Australian woman who claimed she was kept as a sex slave in Queensland is at the centre of the latest Immigration Department scandal." Someone wanted Australia to know this woman was trash.

In Manila, these public disclosures gave the ambassador a freer hand. His team was checking bars, hospitals and prisons but with no result. On about May 11, he sent Immigration an account of the search that was intended for Vanstone's eyes. He was pleading to be allowed to do what so far had been forbidden.

"In Philippines society people can easily go underground and not have any official status. Our basic assessment, however, is that the best prospect of locating [her] would be to publish her photo in local media and also distribute it widely to community social agencies."

Vivian Alvarez in the Phillipines

The ABC had already done the job. An Australian priest, Father Michael Duffin, was watching the ABC satellite news service in Olongapo City north of Manila. "At about 9 o'clock or so I switched on the news and it was her case and they mentioned her name. And they mentioned a woman who had been 17 years in Australia and had been in an accident and they said, 'Vivian'. And as soon as they said 'Vivian', I said, 'That's our Vivian'."

SHE had arrived at the Missionaries of Charity hospice for the destitute and dying in 2001, so ill she could not feed herself. Over time, her condition improved but she remained in pain, subdued, forgetful and more or less confined to her bed in a ward of 20 dying women. She rarely left the hospice grounds. One of the nuns told The Age: "She can't go out by herself ... She walks very slowly and after a while, she can fall over any time."

There were no newspapers and no television in the hospice. She read the Bible to the blind. Those who knew this refined, sad little figure wondered about her sanity. Duffin thought she was fine. But Father Shay Cullen judged her "mentally disturbed. She has been harassed and is in shock from the trauma. She is a very nervous type."

When the news reached Australia on the night of May 11 that Alvarez had been found in Olongapo, Young broke his silence to say he was "naturally relieved", and that he and his son were "still just digesting the news".

Also in Brisbane, Alvarez's half-brother, Henry Solon, now realised why Immigration had called out of the blue a fortnight before - asking after his sister without saying she had been deported. He was angry but relieved. His wife Yolande added: "We thought she might be wandering the streets or digging in rubbish bins for food, if not dead."

Heading north to Olongapo after hearing the news was Australia's consul-general in Manila, Frank Evatt. Not until he saw the woman in the hospice could Australian authorities be absolutely sure this was Alvarez. There was no doubt: Evatt found among her few possessions the travel document that had been issued by the Philippines consul in Brisbane and the passenger card that had been completed on her departure.

Vanstone announced that day: "I'd like to see Ms Alvarez get what she wants ... She'd be entitled to Australian benefits, but she'll need more than simply money ... And we'll be making it very clear that that is, not so much on offer, that is her entitlement."

That was three months ago. Since then, Palmer has given a damning interim report on this scandal. His colleague Comrie continues to investigate and his final report is due within weeks. Vanstone and senior Immigration officials are being interrogated by Senate committees about who knew what when. This is the answer: a large number of bureaucrats a long time ago.

Vivian Alvarez Solon remains in Manila until the Government and her lawyers reach a decent settlement to mark the end of this saga.



March: Vivian Alvarez Solon found injured in Lismore.

April: Spinal surgery in Sydney.

July: Deported to the Philippines.


July: Queensland police ask Immigration about missing citizen "Vivian Solon a.k.a Cook and Young". Database searches reveal this is Vivian Alvarez. Nothing said to police.

August: Channel Nine appeals for information on the missing woman. Immigration now admits she was deported two years earlier.

September: Manila embassy staff alerted to the Alvarez blunder. A brief police search in Manila fizzles out. Inquiries by ex-husband Robert Young rebuffed by Immigration officials. No further action taken by Immigration, Foreign Affairs or Queensland police to find Alvarez.


September: Young tries again to trace his ex-wife and is again fobbed off.


February: Cornelia Rau case breaks. Palmer inquiry begins.

April: Ex-husband appeals to Minister Vanstone for help. Immigration Department scrambles. Deportation confirmed. Search begins. Deputy minister Peter McGauran admits: we have deported an Australian.

May: Vivian Alvarez discovered in a hospice for the dying in Philippines city of Olongapo.

Link to the original location at SMH