Australia claims it is powerless to stop a group of Chinese asylum seekers setting sail for New Zealand after granting them temporary visas to stock up on food and supplies for the trip.
In a bizarre new twist on Australia's boat-people headache, Prime Minister Julia Gillard insisted yesterday that the yacht carrying 10 Chinese nationals, including several children, was seaworthy and they had not asked for asylum in Australia.
The group have been given until Saturday to decide whether to stay in Australia and be detained, or push on to New Zealand – a destination they chose apparently because asylum seekers do not face mandatory detention here.
Ms Gillard said yesterday that Australia had no legal authority to stop the group, despite children being on board and the possibility of treacherous conditions during the journey. "We are not in a position where we could detain them against their will."
The group apparently set sail from Malaysia in March and their yacht was escorted into port at Darwin last week with mechanical problems. It is understood they have only a hand-held GPS to guide them to New Zealand.
The New Zealand Government said yesterday that it was fearful for the group's safety if they tried to sail to here – but refused to answer questions over how it would deal with the asylum seekers if they succeeded.
A Government spokesman said immigration officials were working with Australian authorities to find out more about the group's intentions.
"Both New Zealand and Australian authorities would be extremely concerned for the safety of the passengers should they attempt what would be a very hazardous voyage to New Zealand."
The New Zealand Government is known to have been working for months on a plan to deal with boat people after a Sri Lankan group was intercepted in Indonesia last year on their way here.
While it has kept those plans under wraps, Prime Minister John Key took a hardline over that incident and said the Sri Lankan refugees were not welcome, which suggests the Government would use mandatory detention as a deterrent.
Refugee Council spokesman Gary Poole said his organisation had been working with the Government on that plan, though he believed a mass arrival was unlikely.
The case in Darwin was unusual, he said.
Some reports suggested the group had already received refugee status in Malaysia, which meant "they don't have a leg to stand on in relation to seeking protection in either Australia or New Zealand".
That was because they had already been granted protection in Malaysia from the persecution they faced in China as members of Falun Gong, and international refugee conventions did not allow them to "pick and choose" which country they got to live in.
Those same refugee conventions meant that if they wished to claim asylum, they should do it in Australia, since that was where they had landed, Mr Poole said.
"It's interesting that our Government has been pretty silent on this. It puts our country really in a difficult situation. If these people are just trying to exploit the system then it would be most unfortunate."
He said New Zealand received only about 300 asylum seekers by air each year and 60 per cent of those applications were rejected.
According to Amnesty International, tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been arbitrarily detained in China.
The group, has been outlawed since it staged a gathering in Tiananmen Square in 1999.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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