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Australia: We can't stop asylum seekers

10 April 2012, 15:09

Sydney - Australia said on Tuesday it had no power to stop a boatload of Chinese refugees rescued in a yacht off its north coast from pressing on with their planned journey to New Zealand to seek asylum.

The 10 Chinese nationals, who say they are from the outlawed Falungong movement, were helped by Australian authorities to reach the northern port city of Darwin after sending a distress signal from their yacht.

They reportedly set off from Malaysia a month ago and called for help in Australian waters after exhausting their fuel and supplies, but said they wished to continue their journey to neighbouring New Zealand to seek asylum.

"We met in Malaysia at the UN and left Malaysia together by boat to go to New Zealand as refugees," one of the group told ABC radio through a translator.

The 10 include a family with two children, aged six and eight, according to ABC radio, and they claim to have no sailing experience with just a handheld GPS to guide them.

Temporary visas

Australian immigration officials have granted them temporary visas to allow them to restock their boat, but Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the government had no power to stop them from continuing to New Zealand.

"They have not asked for asylum in Australia and they are on a seaworthy vessel," Gillard said.

"So we are not in a position where we could detain them against their will."

New Zealand Immigration Minister Nathan Guy said it was "understood the yacht may have been bound for New Zealand".

"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," Guy said.

The group has until Saturday, when their temporary visas expire, to decide whether they want to proceed to New Zealand.

Guy said Wellington "will continue to work closely with Australian authorities to monitor the situation over the next few days and to get more information from the group about what their intentions are".

Darwin is some 5 139km from the nearest major port in New Zealand - Auckland - with no place to stop in between.

Local sailors say the open seas are treacherous at this time of year, particularly off northern Australia, where the tropical wet season whips up cyclones and monsoonal rains.

Falungong - a movement loosely based on Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian philosophies - enjoyed growing popularity among the Chinese in the 1990s.

China outlawed the movement as an "evil cult" in 1999 and has since detained tens of thousands of members. The group says its members are tortured for refusing to give up their beliefs.



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