New Zealand has halted the deportation of a Falun Gong follower who entered on fake papers, granting her refugee status on the grounds she could face serious harm if returned to China.
The Chinese woman and her "husband" landed at Auckland International Airport in November 2019 , clearing customs with visas applied for using false marriage and work papers.
She had never met the man who posed as her husband until the travel agent brought them together at the airport, according to the summary of facts in the recently released tribunal decision dated 30 March 2022. She never saw him again after that.
The single, divorced mother in her early 40s had paid an agent some RMB 70,000 (about NZ $14,000) to get her New Zealand visa, money borrowed from her sisters and a friend who knew they might never get the money back.
In Auckland, she stayed at a rented room arranged by the agent and began visiting parks looking for others like her.
She was a follower of Falun Gong, a controversial spiritual movement founded in the 1990s whose teachings emphasise truth, compassion, and tolerance through study and meditation, but declared an illegal cult in China.
At one park, she found a group she has stayed with ever since, distributing pamphlets and gathering for protests.
Photographs show her sitting in the lotus position with others outside the Chinese Consulate in Ellerslie, or holding a protest banner at Aotea Square, their faces uncovered.
The woman lodged a refugee claim in 2020 and was declined one year later. But after hearing her case afresh in March this year, the Immigration and Protection Tribunal granted her refugee status, saying she had a well-founded fear of persecution.
"Given the repression of perceived Falun Gong practitioners in China over more than 20 years, the tribunal is satisfied that, if she returns to China, the appellant faces a real chance of arbitrary detention and physical and mental mistreatment of sufficient severity to constitute serious harm," said the decision signed off by tribunal chair Judge M. Treadwell.
Treadwell found the woman's account credible despite her limited knowledge of Falun Gong principles.
"The reality is there is no minimum level of knowledge that qualifies a person as a believer in a faith or a belief system ... however she personally perceives it, she is a Falun Gong practitioner," his decision read.
The woman had learned about Falun Gong from her mother, a long-time adherent. She became a practitioner herself in 2016 after seeing how the exercises helped her son recover from a serious illness and brought her back from depression.
The mother and son practised it together at home until her divorce, when she moved out and her husband's parents gained custody of her child.
Living on her own, she practised with a group she called "the aunties". One of them was arrested while distributing pamphlets in 2017, and never seen again.
Her son and ex-husband remain in China.
The tribunal decision referenced reports by US research and advocacy group Freedom House about ongoing repression against Falun Gong practitioners in China, who are "arrested, detained in unregistered detention centres or re-education centres, tortured, unlawfully killed and subjected to other forms of persecutory harm."
"Dozens of Falun Gong practitioners were reported to have died in custody, or shortly after their release, during 2021."