17 April 2012

Chinese asylum seekers get top Australian immigration lawyer

A group of 10 Chinese asylum seekers who raised eyebrows last week by insisting on attempting to reach New Zealand, despite becoming stranded in Australia, are to receive pro bono legal help from a top Australian immigration lawyer.

Australia visa

The group of 10 asylum seekers are set to receive legal help from a top immigration lawyer.

The 10 Chinese asylum seekers claimed to be Falun Gong members, a Chinese spiritual movement which has suffered extensive persecution in China since 1998, and were attempting to reach New Zealand to claim asylum there having heard about the mandatory detention policy in Australia. However, when their boat encountered difficulties, they were rescued by Australian immigration authorities and escorted to the mainland.

As the group did not attempt to claim asylum and insisted on maintaining their trip to New Zealand, a perilous trip across the Tasman Sea and one which no asylum seeking vessel has ever completed successfully, Australian officials had no recourse to detain them and instead granted several members of the group an Australia visa to allow them to replenish their supplies before resuming their trip.

Immigration, particularly asylum seeking, is currently a controversial topic in Australia with record numbers of asylum seekers arriving in Australia over the past couple of years and politicians embroiled in a fiery row over policy.

However, as the Falun Gong members were not trying to claim asylum, their story sparked attention on both sides of the Tasman Sea with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard having to explain why the group could not be detained in Australia and New Zealand's immigration minister, Nathan Guy, preparing for the group's arrival.

Refugee and humanitarian groups spoke out against both countries permitting the group to embark on what could have been a fatal disaster; none of the group had ever been on a boat before and had only a handheld GPS device to guide them.

The calls for Australia to offer the group asylum in the country were heard and immigration officials spent almost six hours with the group to persuade them to apply for asylum in Australia.

Despite the group's fears of mandatory detention and having to split up, eventually they relented and were placed in a low-grade detention facility in Darwin. The group have spoken to journalists several times throughout their ordeal and praised the Australian government's treatment as kind and compassionate.

Now one of the country's top immigration lawyers, David Manne of Melbourne's Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, has volunteered to represent the group, free of charge.

Mr Manne has advocated refugee rights in Australia for several years; in 2011 he challenged the government's attempt to implement the controversial people swap deal with Malaysia as in contradiction of domestic and international laws which protect refugees.

The Australian Visa Bureau is an independent Australian immigration consultancy specialising in helping people lodge applications with the Australian high commission.

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