In an unusual Australian refugee case, eight Falun Gong practitioners and two other Chinese asylum seekers had a closed-door meeting in Darwin with immigration officials today, as they tossed up whether to continue on a dangerous voyage by boat to New Zealand or stay in Australia.
The meeting commenced at 9 a.m. Darwin time and continued for several hours as each member of the group was interviewed separately. Officials expressed earlier that they were concerned the group would not make it to New Zealand, as their boat is too small and conditions too perilous for the voyage.
Queensland Falun Gong practitioners have been in constant contact with the arrivals. John Andress, the Queensland Falun Dafa Association spokesperson, said the group was originally prepared to risk the dangerous journey, fearing that being in the Australian refugee detention system would remind them of the persecution they experienced in China.
However, the group has now decided to stay in Australia until their asylum case is accepted, says Mr Andress.
“They are extremely thankful for the compassionate treatment of the Australian Government and are prepared to follow all the laws in order to receive refugee status here,” said Mr Andress.
The group was allowed onshore and has been supplied with water, food, and a mobile phone since their arrival. They have also been appointed a legal representative for the claim.
“They would never have received such treatment in China. They now trust the Australian government. They are very grateful,” says Mr Andress.
The ten Chinese nationals were rescued off the shores of Australia on Thursday after they sent out an SOS message. Their vessel, travelling from Malaysia, had run out of water and was in need of urgent restocking.
There are believed to be eight Falun Gong practitioners—five members from a family of six—and three non-related adults. The tenth person is a democracy activist.
The practitioners said they are escaping persecution in China for their beliefs in Falun Gong–an ancient spiritual discipline.
While Australia has seen a sharp increase in refugee boat arrivals in the last two years, under relaxed Government policies, none have insisted upon travelling another 5,000 km to New Zealand
“The fact they were willing to risk their lives is a real indicator of the severity of the persecution they received back home,” says Mr Andress.
Falun Gong saw unprecedented popularity in China in the 1990s when the number of practitioners reached up to 100 million people. However, then leader of the Chinese Communist Party Jiang Zemin launched a violent campaign of persecution against the practice in 1999 which has continued unabated.
Human rights groups have reported the widespread use torture against Falun Gong prisoners in China’s notorious labor camp system, including harvesting organs from still living practitioners to sell for profit.
One of the asylum seekers, Mr Ling Hongbin, said was tortured in China during his seven years in jail. “When the persecution first started I was in my twenties and had a small baby. When I got out, my child was all grown up,” he told Queensland Falun Gong practitioner, William Luo.
Ling said while in detention he saw many torture methods used on Falun Gong practitioners and was most afraid of his organs being harvested—a common practice used on China’s prisoners that is worth billions of dollars to the regime.
The same fears were expressed by his fellow asylum seeker, Wu Xiaohong, who nearly died after being beaten with electric batons, hung up for hours, and made to sit on a so-called “tiger bench”–a wooden plank where the hands are tied behind the back.
“These people have been through the most horrific situation. They did not know if they’d be pulled out [at] any time to have their organs removed,” said Mr Andress.
The Australian Government has indicated that the trip to New Zealand is out of the question and the group will remain in Darwin for further processing of their refugee status.
“They respect the law. They trust the law, they will do whatever is needed. Obviously they prefer not to stay in mandatory detention here for more than a short period,” said Mr Andress.