Ten Chinese nationals are currently sitting on a ferry docked in Darwin after sending a distress signal for Australian Customs officials to collect them after running out of food en route to New Zealand, where they plan to seek asylum. They claim their membership in thought movement Falun Gong, and that persecution within China has caused them to flee their homeland.

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has said that those with the appropriate documentation have been provided temporary visas while the boat supplies are replenished. Those on the boat have reportedly said they have been given four days by Australian Customs to decide whether or not to proceed to New Zealand as planned.

What can the government do?

While a boat arrival would normally result in the immediate detention of potential asylum seekers on board, in these circumstances the federal government has no powers to detain the vessel or those travelling on it. The yacht, which is seaworthy and in working order apart from lack of supplies, has no intention of docking permanently in Australia. Prime Minister Julia Gillard noted this morning the government has no legal grounds on which to hold the boat.

The federal government is, however, able to offer temporary visa protection to those needing to leave the boat in order to access the supplies needed for the completion of their journey.

Why is New Zealand the goal destination?

Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition says that an absence of mandatory detention policy in New Zealand would be the primary reason for a boat to bypass Australia and head there. “Those on the boat understand that they will live in community facilities in NZ,” he told Crikey.

Docking in New Zealand is a more attractive option than to remain where they are in Darwin, since “their chances of getting processed [as refugees] are also likely to be considerably higher than in Australia”, said Rintoul.

A New Zealand government statement says they are “currently working with the Australian authorities to find out more about the situation”: “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.”

Who is responsible for them on the next leg?

Provided the yacht continues to abide by Australian law, it can call on Australia for assistance should problems emerge during the journey. “It’s my understanding that they have the right to proceed down the east coast and get that assistance [if required],” explained Rintoul.

It has been suggested Australia may be able to delay departure of the vessel should they believe it too dangerous to travel, but there would remain a requirement on the part of Australian Customs to assist the vessel should it strike danger once it departs from Darwin.

Why not just apply for asylum here?

There is a possibility that the 10 individuals currently docked could apply for asylum in Australia given that Australia and New Zealand are signatories to the same UN refugee convention.

Rintoul says there may be encouragement or temptation to simply apply for asylum in Australia, but those on the yacht should be wary of this — the process of seeking asylum in Australia comes with problems not present at current in NZ.

Should any of the Chinese nationals apply for Australian asylum, they will be submitting to mandatory detention and likely lengthy delays, said Rintoul: “It’s my understanding of the legal situation that Australia has no option but to let the boat stay [in Darwin] for now.”

For now the boat remains docked in Darwin, with those on board deciding which path to take.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey