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It will be difficult to verify the recent arrivals’ claims to have taken part in the Hong Kong protests. Photo: Antony Dickson

Exclusive | Taiwan struggling to deal with influx of Hong Kong protesters seeking refuge

  • Anywhere between a dozen and 60 protesters have arrived on the island since July, but there is no clear legal road map for how to process their cases
  • President Tsai Ing-wen has said their cases will be handled ‘appropriately’ but it is not clear if the government will give them refuge

Taiwan is struggling to handle the sudden arrival of dozens of extradition bill protesters from Hong Kong who want to seek refuge on the self-ruled island.

Although members of Taiwanese civil society have already offered safe houses for the new arrivals, their status remains unclear since the protesters have not yet been charged with criminal offences in Hong Kong and verifying their claims to have taken part in the mass protests will be tricky.

Legal analysts also warned that the situation would be further complicated by Taiwan’s lack of clear and specific laws on handling asylum and refugee claims.

Although President Tsai Ing-wen said on Thursday that Taiwan would “handle their cases in appropriate ways” and on “humanitarian grounds”, the government has yet to indicate if it would offer refuge to the protesters.

According to Taiwanese activists who are assisting the new arrivals, between a dozen and 60 protesters have arrived from Hong Kong since early July, most of whom are currently staying in hostels with the aid of local civic bodies.

Activists argue that Taiwan urgently needs to speed up its legislative process for handling refugees and asylum seekers as the island has seen an increasing number of applicants from places such as mainland China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East in recent years.

Tsai says ‘friends from Hong Kong’ will be considered for asylum on humanitarian grounds

However, they said the new arrivals from Hong Kong were a surprise and questioned whether the Taiwanese public would welcome them.

“Would the Taiwan public accept their vandalising of the legislature in Hong Kong as an act of non-violence?” asked Bei Ling, a researcher from the National Chung Cheng University in Taipei. “Would they be seen as democracy activists who are fighting for political freedom?”

“I think such a consensus may not even be shared among the politicians in Taiwan,” Bei said, pointing out that the protesters from Hong Kong – many of whom wore masks during the July 1 protests – could not be compared with the local activists who campaigned for greater democracy without concealing their identity during Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement in 2014.

Bei said that the protesters’ case was also weakened because they would need to prove that they would face political persecution if they returned to Hong Kong, but they had not been officially charged and were able to leave the city legally.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, pictured in St Lucia on Thursday, said she would follow “humanitarian principles” in dealing with the cases. Photo: AP

Under Taiwanese law, the government is obliged to offer the “necessary assistance … [to] Hong Kong or Macau residents whose safety and liberty face immediate threats for political reasons”.

But Tseng Chien-yuan, chairman of the New School for Democracy and a consultant to the Taipei city government, said there were other options available for the Hong Kong protesters who want to stay in Taiwan.

“The Hongkongers can stay in Taiwan by extending their tourist visas as a temporary solution or they can apply for longer-term options such as work or study visas before they can apply for residency,” he said.

“They can extend their one-month tourist visas upon expiry on political grounds, although Taiwan doesn’t have a system to handle asylum applications,” he said.

“One can apply for residency [in Taiwan] with an investment of no less than NT$6 million [US$193,000), get a job that pays no less than NT$50,000 a month or get a student visa by enrolling with a local university. They can then apply for residency if they work in Taiwan for five years after graduation and stay here for at least 183 days each year.”

The island, which Beijing insists is part of China, is not a party to the United Nations’ Refugee Convention – which outlines the rights of those who are granted asylum and the responsibilities of nations granting asylum – and does not have its own legislation on refugees.

Chiu E-ling, secretary general of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, called on the Taiwanese government to speed up legislation to process refugees and offer protection to asylum seekers because of the rising number of claims.

Some activists question whether the Taiwanese public would regard the storming of the Legislative Council as a peaceful protest. Photo: Winson Wong

Katherine Tseng Hui-yi, from the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, said the fate of the protesters could become a political issue that may influence Taiwan’s presidential elections in January.

“Tsai Ing-wen can claim credit from these cases,” she said.

However, Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry in Beijing, ridiculed the independence-leaning president using a slang term for someone standing on shaky ground.

“Save your false compassion [for Hong Kong people],” said Geng on Friday when asked about Tsai’s comments. “You are nothing but a clay idol crossing the river.”

Separately, Hong Kong lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, a member of the city’s Executive Council, or cabinet, said the relationship between Hong Kong and Taiwan would suffer if Taipei offered refuge to the protesters and the island would be seen as a “haven” for lawbreakers.

“It could affect our law enforcement agencies’ future communication and cooperation with Taiwan police. It will also send out a bad message that Taiwan is willing to grant asylum to criminals,” she said.

The Hong Kong Security Bureau and police did not comment on the cases.

Additional reporting by Linda Lew, Tony Cheung and Catherine Wong