Taiwan’s refugee policy offers little help to Hongkongers

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Author: Kevin Ting-chen Sun, Taipei

Since the implementation of the draconian Hong Kong security law in June, many Hong Kong protesters feel forced to leave out of fear of reprisal from Beijing. With few other options, the international community has watched helplessly the mass arrests in Hong Kong. Though many protesters see Taiwan as an ideal refuge, Taipei has been reluctant to relax entry limits or extend asylum.

Chen Ming-tong (L), the head of Taiwan's China-policy making Mainland Affairs Council, and Katharine Chang, chairwoman of Taiwan–Hong Kong Economic and Cultural Co-operation Council, attend the opening of the Taiwan-Hong Kong Services and Exchanges Office in Taipei, Taiwan, 1 July 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Ann Wang).

Chen Ming-tong (L), the head of Taiwan's China-policy making Mainland Affairs Council, and Katharine Chang, chairwoman of Taiwan–Hong Kong Economic and Cultural Co-operation Council, attend the opening of the Taiwan-Hong Kong Services and Exchanges Office in Taipei, Taiwan, 1 July 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Ann Wang).

Taipei’s gestures have so far been largely symbolic. When the security law came into effect on 1 July, the Taiwan–Hong Kong Services and Exchanges Office began operating with the aim of offering humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers on a case-by-case basis. But a lack of clear regulations for processing asylum seekers means the office has failed to provide timely assistance.

Chen Ming-tong, Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council — the agency responsible for executing Taiwan’s mainland policy — said the office would assist Hongkongers in line with Article 18 of the Laws and Regulations Regarding Hong Kong & Macao Affairs. But these regulations lack precise procedural details, merely stating that the government would provide ‘necessary aid’.

Chen said Taiwan would offer immediate aid to refugees so long as they enter Taiwan ‘lawfully’. Many incoming refugees do not fit the legal framework set out in Article 18. The absence of sufficient legislative tools and the current administration’s unwillingness to adjust existing laws make it impossible to extend any real aid to protesters. Instead of receiving much-needed assistance, protesters who pin hopes on Taiwan and undertake the potentially treacherous journey from Hong Kong risk falling into legal limbo.

With travel documents regularly confiscated by the Hong Kong police during the city-wide clampdown, many protesters see maritime escape as the only option for fleeing to Taiwan. But according to Article 74 of Taiwan’s Immigration Act, ‘illegal aliens’ are subject to detention, limited-term imprisonment and fines. Without an amendment waiving entry permits for refugees under political threat, protesters fleeing to Taiwan are subject to the full penalties.

When Beijing announced its national security legislative proposals, all opposition parties in Taipei’s Legislative Yuan swiftly began drafting legislative proposals to offer Hong Kong aid. In the lead up to Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election, the Tsai Ing-wen administration brought attention to and promised support for Hong Kong protesters against Beijing’s coercion. But after scoring an electoral landslide, Tsai began downplaying the Hong Kong issue.

Political calculations resulted in the administration’s unwillingness to ease immigration regulations to extend political asylum to Hong Kong protesters, as incendiary moves by Taiwan may cause escalation and increased uncertainty, potentially intensifying Beijing’s intimidation.

Providing asylum for political refugees also requires a high degree of confidentiality, subtlety and professionalism. Any leak of personal information may endanger asylum seeker safety, and worse, bolster Beijing’s attempts at blocking potential applications and communications.

In addition to providing consultation for Hong Kong political asylum seekers, the new Taiwan–Hong Kong Services and Exchanges Office also provides broader consultation for education, employment, investment and entrepreneurship, immigration and settlement, and multinational enterprises in Taiwan. For regular applicants, Taiwan has indeed opened its doors, but for highly sensitive political asylum seekers, unclear regulations and mechanisms still greatly impede entry into the island.

With no legal basis for decriminalising emergent entry and inadequate procedural elements, Taiwan has had difficulty identifying political asylum seekers and processing resettlement. Three months have passed since the office’s establishment, but Taipei has barely moved the system.

Taiwan’s ambiguity also has undesirable outcomes for itself. The erosion of freedom in Hong Kong sounded the alarm for Taiwan, as Beijing is growing indifferent to foreign backlash to its ‘China dream’ and ‘reunification’. Taiwan now stands on the frontline of a broad geopolitical competition where the liberal world is determined to deter Chinese pressure.

Should Taipei fail to realise its commitments and past promises, its allies will factor Taipei’s tepid approach into their strategic decisions and may pull back from Beijing’s next attempt at intimidating Taiwan. After all, ‘one country, two systems’ was invented as way to lure Taiwan into the Chinese Communist Party’s ‘peaceful unification’ strategy.

Making policies to improve its asylum framework should be distinguished from the possible escalation of tensions with the mainland. To avoid crossing Beijing’s red line, Taipei should prudently distance itself from the Hong Kong independence issue, adopt substantial assistance for political refugees and initiate legal steps to put forward a precise mechanism for asylum seekers. This would shape the geopolitical environment and demonstrate the credibility of Taiwan’s previous commitment.

Taiwan always aspires to connect with the international community and has expressed its readiness to assume more responsibility. By developing a more holistic refugee system, covering political, climate and environmental refugees, Taiwan can demonstrate its strong democratic values.

To confront Beijing’s efforts to marginalise and isolate Taiwan, the island ought to become a shining beacon of democracy and freedom. Reforms to its refugee laws and amendments to the current legal framework will be the first true steps in bringing the world to Taiwan and fulfilling its wish to earn praise and recognition from the international community.

Kevin Ting-chen Sun is a legal aide in the office of legislator Charles I-hsin Chen, the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan.

The views expressed in this article are entirely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any group, organisation or institution.

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