Sinead Watson (left), 24, and Jennie de Jong, 23, were sent back to Istanbul after the stopover. Photo / Nick Reed
Sinead Watson (left), 24, and Jennie de Jong, 23, were sent back to Istanbul after the stopover. Photo / Nick Reed NZ Herald

Pair detained during unexpected stopover seeking compensation

TWO New Zealand travellers who say they were interrogated and detained in a high-security immigration "detention centre" under armed guard during an unexpected Chinese stopover are claiming human rights breaches and seeking compensation from their airline.

Jennie de Jong, 23, and Sinead Watson, 24, were returning from an enjoyable six-month European jaunt when they became trapped in a "journey from hell".

The friends had travelled to Istanbul to catch flights home to Auckland via Beijing where they planned to spend a 72-hour transit sightseeing in the city. But during the August 11 flight to China's capital, the pair were surprised to hear an in-flight announcement that they would be making a "one-hour stopover" at Urumqi - a city of four million people in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, 3700km from Beijing.

Travel documents and boarding passes made no mention of the Urumqi diversion.

When they got off the China Southern Airlines plane, their travel papers were scrutinised by immigration officers. They say they were told Urumqi issued only 24-hour visa exemptions - not 72-hour exemptions as Beijing does.

Since their Beijing flight wasn't leaving the country for another two days, officials refused to let them travel on. When the distressed pair tried to bring forward their connecting flight, they said "rude and unhelpful" staff at the China Southern Airlines ticket office allegedly claimed it would cost them US$5000 ($7900).

"We weren't sure if that was each or total," Ms de Jong said. "And they didn't show us any proof how they got to that figure. They would just laugh and say, 'No English'."

Since Ms de Jong and Ms Watson had no current travel insurance and were unable to cough up the cash for a new flight, immigration officials told them they would be deported to Istanbul.

The friends then said they were escorted, with their luggage, to an immigration van, which drove them to a high-security "detention centre", with armed guards and barbed wire, just outside the airport.

They were put in separate rooms.

"It was very scary ... not a nice place at all. We were made to feel like prisoners," Ms de Jong said.

Two hours later, they were ferried back to the airport and told the 10-hour flight back to Istanbul would cost them 300 ($530).

"We were exhausted and decided to pay it because we were scared of being put in prison," Ms de Jong said.

During their 11-hour ordeal, they were given no food or water.

When they asked for water, airport staff refused their request.

Once back in Istanbul, Ms de Jong and Ms Watson shelled out a further $4344.65 to get new flights to New Zealand.

"The whole experience was incredibly draining and stressful. All up, it was pretty horrific," Ms de Jong said.

Since returning home, the pair have tried to get China Southern Airlines to compensate them for their financial loss. They are also critical of the way they were handled at the airport and claim their treatment violated their human rights.

The airline's Auckland office originally couldn't find any record of their flight ever stopping at Urumqi.

But the company's Guangzhou headquarters has since claimed the travellers were informed of the stopover when they booked online.

The pair reject those claims, and point to both their itinerary and boarding passes, neither of which make mention of any stopover.

A spokesman for China Southern Airlines' Auckland office yesterday advised them to continue communicating with head office. "We don't consider it a stand-off at all," he said.

"Standard practice is that we treat all of our complaints with due respect. We try to resolve such situations as quickly as possible."

- NZ Herald

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