On New Year’s Eve 1991, Chen Xing Liang landed in a wooden fishing boat – code-named Isabella on the far north coast of Australia. Aboard were 56 Chinese Nationals.
After walking more than 150 kilometres, over 10 days, through crocodile and snake infested country, the first members of the party stumbled upon a remote cattle station in the Kimberley. Within hours one of Australia’s biggest manhunts was in full swing. Gradually day by day all 56 were found.
Headlines hailed them as heroes – but the Australian authorities branded them illegal immigrants.
All were charged with illegal entry and transported to an isolated detention centre in Port Hedland. Here they waited behind bars, with hundreds of other boat people, whilst their applications for refugee status were processed. The long march had become the long wait.
‘The first sentence I learnt in Australia was ‘the sun is shining, no clouds in the sky.’ When I looked at the sky there were no clouds but the sky was divided into pieces by the iron bars. No matter what – there were obstructions.’
The Isabellas tells the story of Chen Xing Liang, a teacher and political dissident who left his family, job and friends in China to embark upon a remarkable journey in pursuit of democratic ideals and a new life. He recounts his tale of survival as he travels for the first time back to the Kimberley where he is reunited with his rescuers at the cattle station. At Port Hedland he meets boat people still held in detention and shares his own experiences of waiting for asylum – including going on hunger strikes and being placed in Roebourne jail.
Chen Xing Liang asks the Australians he meets:
‘Would you like to be a refugee? No. Australian people don’t understand what is a refugee. No Chinese people want to leave China – so why do people leave? You are working in a company – the manager maybe kill you, you’re in jail you don’t know what’s happening… China is a difficult country, it’s different to Australia’.
Alongside his personal story is the High Court battle of the 26 Isabellas who still remain in Australia without asylum. Until they are granted refugee status, they cannot work, are not eligible for any Benefits and rely on the help of charity. They live in constant fear of being deported back to China.