Saturday, May 14, 2005

Vivian starts journey back to family in Australia

Inquirer News Service

OLONGAPO CITY—Wearing a pink dress and a shy smile, wheelchair-bound Vivian Alvarez left her hospice home of four years yesterday to begin the journey back to her family in Australia after a deportation bungle that has embarrassed Canberra.

The 42-year-old mother of two was picked up by an Australian Embassy official from a convent here amid uproar back home over Canberra's immigration policy. Later yesterday the embassy said she was reunited with three of her siblings, who were flown by the embassy from Cebu.

The reunion took place yesterday afternoon, with only a few embassy staffers present, in an undisclosed hospital in Metro Manila.

Philippine-born Alvarez would undergo a medical checkup, Consul General Frank Evatt said.

Alvarez has lived nearly forgotten in the care of nuns of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity since 2001.

She was deported by mistake as she recovered from serious injuries sustained in a car accident, even though she had two children in Australia and had lived there for up to 18 years.

Alvarez's family in Australia said they had searched for her for four years unaware she had been deported and until last week believed she was dead.

Prime Minister John Howard has offered a qualified apology to Alvarez in Parliament. Earlier this month, the Australian government admitted that immigration officials had wrongfully detained 33 people, usually briefly, between July 2003 and February 2004.

Alvarez said she remembered little of the incident leading to her deportation, only that she knew she was in a car accident and had told immigration authorities who picked her up that she was an Australian citizen.

"I had an accident, I told them I was an Australian citizen and that my passport was not with me," she told reporters here.

She said she was to have picked up one of her sons at a day care center that day, but was instead detained by immigration authorities.

Reports from Australia said her first son had been in foster care for the past four years, while another son was to set to finish high school.

Accepts apology

Alvarez said she wanted to stay in Australia, but was told by authorities nobody would care for her there. She was then flown to Manila, and taken to the hospice by "an Australian woman. I don't remember her name."

"It was a mistake," Alvarez said, but answered "yes" when asked if she accepted the conservative government's apology. "To err is human," she added.

Reports said the Australian government had known about her case for the past two years, but had done nothing to locate her.

The woman said no embassy official contacted her while she was in the hospice. She had wanted to locate her family in Australia, but she lacked the means to do so, did not have a telephone or money to pay for long distance calls.

Asked if she wanted to fly back to Australia and be reunited with her family, she said: "That would be nice. I am too sore to think," she added, when asked about her future plans.

Cause celebre

She said she did not hold any grudges against the Australian government and did not realize until a few days ago that she had become a cause celebre in Sydney and that she was wrongfully deported.

Evatt said Alvarez would be well taken care of in Manila and given enough time to recover.

"We are going to be taking Vivian down to Manila today and we're going to do some medical examination," Evatt told reporters here.

"(We will) make sure she is okay and give her an opportunity to meet with some of her family and to try to do some planning for her future."

"What we need to do is give Vivian a little bit of space and with dignity leave this place. A lot has happened to her in quite a short period of time and we are just trying to do the best thing by her," Evatt said.

The embassy, in a press statement yesterday, said it was ''very pleased" that Alvarez has been found and reconciled with her family.

Aussie envoy's statement

''She is being assisted by members of the embassy including our consul general. Her family has been contacted and advised of her whereabouts. We are doing all we can to provide her with assistance," Australian Ambassador Tony Hely said in a statement.

Three of Alvarez's siblings arrived in Manila from Cebu, their flight tickets and accommodations paid for by the embassy.

''The family of Alvarez requests that under current circumstances, the public and media respect their need for privacy to enable them to reunite with their sister in peace and for her to recover from the growing media attention given to her," the embassy said.

Alvarez has indicated her desire to return to Australia soon. The embassy said the Australian government ''will continue to provide support for [her] whether she chooses to remain in the Philippines or return to Australia."

Hely explained that Canberra's "most immediate priority" was Alvarez's health and welfare. He added that she would receive full medical assessment here to determine what health services and other care she may further require and would be given enough time to recover.

Surprised by priest's comments

''Long-term decisions about ongoing care for her will be made in consultation with ... members of her family based on medical and other expert advice," the statement added.

The embassy also said it was surprised by comments of Australian priest Michael Duffin who said Australian authorities knew all along where she was since they were the ones who brought her to the convent.

''The information by Father Duffin is not an accurate account of the incident. From the time of [her] arrival in the Philippines in 2002, Australian officials have had neither knowledge of her involvements nor her whereabouts," it explained.

The embassy added: "[She] was met by Overseas Workers Welfare Administration officials here in the Philippines who were responsible for her placement. The embassy has devoted an enormous amount of effort in locating [her]."

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