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The Isabella's
Project History - Director's Statement
Background to Events
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The Isabella's

Project History - Director's Statement
I became interested in this story when it first hit the headlines back in 1992. What was fascinating was that on one hand this group of people were being applauded for their ingenuity and survival skills and on the other it triggered Australia's deepest fears about the Asian invasion.
I began researching the story in mid 1993. It took nearly a year to get the agreement of the Isabella boat people to participate in the making of the film. Their reluctance was due to their perceived vulnerability and the possibility of further persecution of their families back in China.
Many people do not understand is how difficult it can be living under a 'totalitarian regime'. We take basic freedoms for granted - especially freedom of speech and human rights. These are simply dreams to most people from China.
All of the boat people interviewed for this documentary had fled China because they feared political persecution. Many had been involved in the democracy movement of 1989 and had been detained or sent to Hard Labour Camps after this event. As a result many had lost their household registration, job seniority and their families had been discriminated against. They believed they had no future in China whilst the present regime was in power. Unfortunately some of those interviewed whilst in detention at Port Hedland have already been deported back to China.
The current process of assessment for refugee status in Australia is under resourced and flawed. Lawyers describe it as a lottery. For most asylum seekers it is a maze of confusion.
The film's intention is to present the story of one person who arrived by boat. We see Australia through his eyes - a strange and alien landscape filled with potential.
Chen Xing Liang:
'When I was kept in the detention centre, I watched the outside world. It was green. The trees were green. I could feel Australia. The air in Australia was free and fresh. How I wished that I could go out and walk around. When I was together with the others, we could talk and it's not so bad, but at night when I'm on my own, I would lie down and think. Sometimes I would feel so lonely that my eyes would be filled with tears.
THE ISABELLAS is a personal story which gives an understanding of what it is like to be a refugee.
Background to Events
'Refugees are people who because they fear persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, flee their country of origin and are unable to avail themselves of the protection of that country'.
Definition of Refugee : United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Who are the boat people?
On 25 April 1978, an 18 metre fishing boat limped into Darwin. Aboard were 5 people who had travelled all the way from Vietnam to escape political persecution. They were the first 'boat people'. Over the next few years 54 Vietnamese boats arrived on Australian shores bringing a total of 3566 men, women and children. All were granted refugee status but their arrival made many Australians nervous about the mythical 'Asian hordes descending upon our spacious land'.
Even though the numbers reaching Australia were minimal in comparison to those fleeing their country of origin - some 100,000 people per month fled Vietnam by boat during the late seventies/early eighties - strict immigration procedures were developed as a deterrant to those thinking of heading for Australia. At the same time family reunion schemes were established which assisted many Asians to join relatives who had first survived the seas.
Second Wave post 1989
In 1989 a new wave of boat people began to arrive - mainly from Cambodia and most recently from the People's Republic of China. Since 28 November 1989 - 1727 ( at Jan 4 1995) have arrived on Australia's coastline, sparking off an intense political debate in which they have been accused of being economic refugees or 'queue jumpers'.
Unlike those who arrive in the country legally (with passports and visas) and then apply for refugee status, the boat people have been treated as illegal entrants and criminals. They have been locked up; denied legal assistance; been relocated several times; separated from family and friends; had their mail opened and been subjected to legislative changes which have disadvantaged their case.
Since mid 1994, 829 people have arrived by boat - mainly from Beihai in Southern China. Many are Chinese -Vietnamese and are seeking asylum because they see themselves as being 'stateless'. One boat of 51 such asylum seekers (Unicorn) was granted refugee status in June '94. This may have sent a signal to others in a similar plight that their claims would be favourably received in Australia. Five boats arrived in December 1994 carrying 404 people and it is alleged they are Chinese-Vietnamese seeking asylum because their housing has been demolished by Chinese authorities and they are now homeless.
The media have been quick to brand them as economic migrants - thus jeopardising their chances of receiving a fair hearing. This occurred previously with the Cambodians. Court Judgements later ruled they had been unfairly discriminated against. Immigration authorities may find themselves in a similar position with compensation claims from this latest group further down the track.
Port Hedland Detention Centre
Port Hedland is an isolated mining town on Australia's West coast. Summer temperatures reach 45-50 degrees C. The asylum seekers are supposedly detained here because they are a long way from refugee and community support groups.
There are currently 767 detainees being held at Port Hedland (4 Cambodian; 127 Chinese; 625 PRC/Vietnamese; 11 Vietnamese).
Asylum seekers claim what is hardest is the waiting. Waiting for a decision and not knowing what the authorities plan to do with them. They live in constant fear and as the months and years drag by - many have suffered mentally from the ordeal.
No media are allowed access to the centre. An exception was made for this film.
Australia's Migration Policy.
Australia has one of the lowest acceptance rates for refugee status in the world (14% 1993/1994 compared with Canada 64% or New Zealand 55% -1992). This is partly because Australia is obsessed with controlling its borders and prefers to choose its refugees off shore rather than on shore. It could be argued this policy is discriminatory.
Australia's current migration policy is framed to suit migrants from the U.K. and Europe. In countries such as China, Vietnam and Cambodia it is impossible for people to apply for migration because up until recently (in Cambodia) no infrastructure existed for such schemes, and if they were wanting to leave for political reasons, their enquiries would make them targets for persecution. Usually the only way to leave is through bribery or escaping by boat.
This is where the cases of the boat people differ considerably from the other 20,000 plus people currently seeking asylum in Australia. If an asylum seeker arrives legally - with papers and a visa - then applies for asylum once in Australia they can work, study and live in the community until a decision is made. If an asylum seeker spends months on a leaky boat risking all, and arrives with nothing then they are placed in detention until a decision is made.
The boat people are by far the most publicised of Australia's illegal immigrants, yet are only a fraction of the 78,000 people now residing in Australia without authority. Of the 1.5 million people who fled Indochina by boat over the past 20 years, fewer than 5000 have made it to Australia.
Update - Chen Xing Liang now lives in Perth WA and is now maried to his Chinese sweetheart who came to join him in 1997. All of the Isabella people have been granted refugee status.
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