Taiwan opened a new office in July to assist Hong Kong residents seeking stability and safety on the self-ruled island after the passage of the Beijing-enacted national security law. Weeks later, Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Tony Chung, 19, was arrested on suspicion of inciting secession. Local police ultimately released him without charge, but not before seizing his passport, along with Taiwan entry permits he never had the chance to use.
Chung’s story echoed among Hong Kong protesters, who have considered seeking refuge in Taiwan but have struggled to navigate a byzantine, often informal process to get there.
On July 21, just days before he was arrested, Chung said he called Taiwan’s new humanitarian aid office for help. He had contacted Taiwan authorities multiple times since last year, according to Radio Free Asia.
Taiwan responded by saying Chung was unable to enter due to travel restrictions put in place to curb the coronavirus spread.
Taiwan has liberalized channels to provide work and student visas to Hong Kong residents. For everyone else, including people whose travel documents have been seized, the path to settling in Taiwan is riddled with ambiguity.
Dozens of pro-democracy activists have embarked upon clandestine boat journeys to Taiwan in recent years, which quietly allows them to stay should they safely reach its shores. But last week, a boat containing 12 Hong Kong residents was detained by the Chinese coast guard, leading to fears that Chinese and Hong Kong authorities have started patrolling these secret escape routes.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen won domestic popularity and global plaudits last year when she spoke in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, buoying her successful reelection campaign against a China-friendly challenger. At the same time, her government gave conflicting statements about its commitment to helping Hong Kong residents seeking refuge in Taiwan.
NGOs and other civil groups took on the responsibilities of providing financial, medical and legal assistance to hundreds of Hong Kong protesters without work or student visas, said Chen Yu-jie, an assistant research professor at Taipei’s Academia Sinica. While the government allowed them to stay, it refused to give them direct aid.
“The Taiwan government played little role in all of this until President Tsai’s pledge to put in place the action plan,” she said, referring to the humanitarian assistance action plan, which allows Taipei to invoke an article of an existing law and assist residents of territories whose freedoms are threatened for political reasons.
The action plan was finalized in June—just before the implementation of the new national security law in Hong Kong. The law criminalizes acts including secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces, and has already been used to arrest dozens of pro-democracy activists.
But the plan did not directly address the issue of asylum seekers—Taiwan, which is not a member of the United Nations, has no formal refugee law. Taiwan’s borders also remain officially closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Without some clarity and protection, Hong Kong asylum seekers are likely left in limbo,” Chen said.
Taiwan’s new office has said little publicly about its ability to assist asylum seekers and has always maintained it will handle requests on a case-by-case basis.
The office has received over 1,000 calls since opening in July, mostly regarding immigration and settling in Taiwan, the Mainland Affairs Council, which oversees relations with China and its territories, said in an email to VICE News.
Specific requests for humanitarian aid are considered by the office before being referred to Taiwan’s cabinet, the council said.
This has created confusion for Hong Kong residents planning to flee to Taiwan, said Lev Nachman, a Fulbright research fellow in Taiwan who co-authored a recent study showing Taiwan is the top preferred destination for Hong Kongers hoping to emigrate.
“They’re putting their lives at risk to get here,” Nachman said. “When they get here, how are they being taken care of?”
There are political reasons for the ambiguity, as Taiwan is reluctant to take actions that incur accusations from China of meddling in what Beijing considers its internal affairs.
The silence could also come from fears that a formal refugee policy for Hong Kong residents would lead to calls to open Taiwan to waves of Chinese dissidents, said Jeffrey Ngo, a former researcher for the Hong Kong activist political group Demosisto.
“I think it’s very difficult for Tsai to do much of anything,” Ngo said, noting that Taiwan is not known to have deported any Hong Kongers for illegal entry. “The absolute majority of Hong Kong protesters know that they need Taiwan more than Taiwan needs them.”
The lack of clarity means that some protesters have tried and failed to make it to Taiwan—like Chung, who told reporters in Hong Kong he would have to report to the police station every month and no longer holds his travel documents.
However, Ngo noted, Taiwan has still done more than any other country to create migration channels for Hong Kongers as China continues to clamp down on the semi-autonomous city.
“Nothing is perfect,” he said. “But this is as good as it gets.”