Understanding remains key to changes in refugee situation

A slightly edited version of the following feature appeared in today’s Taipei Times:

An interactive display at Together — Voices Across Borders, an exhibition curated by Alicia Ying-yu Chen, Yunjie Liao and Hsiao Chi-chu that ran between June 20 and June 26 at Minim Photographic Studio in Taipei’s Dadaocheng neighborhood. This exhibit involved visitors ripping scraps out of newspapers that featured words or phrases expressing their feelings on regfugeeism and then gluing them to the display.
Photo: Alicia Chen

A recent exhibition in Taipei highlights the lack of comprehensive refugee legislation — an issue politicians are unwilling to tackle

In his 1958 book, A Nation of Immigrants, then United States Senator from Massachusetts John F. Kennedy wrote the following words: “Little is more extraordinary than the decision to migrate, little more extraordinary than the accumulation of emotions and thoughts which finally leads a family to say farewell to a community where it has lived for centuries, to abandon old ties and familiar landmarks, and to sail across dark seas to a strange land.”

As an epithet, the book’s title is commonly associated with America., and, in the face of the xenophobic rhetoric that has marked US President Donald Trump’s tenure as president, the phrase currently seems more relevant than ever. Trump is hardly an anomaly in this regard: Brexit was largely premised on anti-immigrant bombast, as has been – if not their outright ascent to power – the considerable ground populist politicians have gained elsewhere in Europe.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro last year announced his country’s withdrawal from a UN migration accord, insisting “not just anyone can come into our home.” Meanwhile, though South African President Cecil Ramaphosa has been at pains to distance himself from the xenophobic violence directed at Zimbabwean immigrants in recent years, in March, his African National Congress government announced a Trumpesque wall project to deter illegal immigrants at the border with its northern neighbor.

With the UN updating its COVID-19-exacerbated figures for globally displaced persons to a record 75.9 million in June, the plight of refugees is more critical than ever.

Such considerations are rarely on the political agenda in Taiwan where, despite the massive influx of refugees from China during the civil war period, the relatively homogenous makeup of the population means people rarely think of the country in Kennedy’s terms.

A visitor reads the story of an Afghan migrant taking a boat from Turkey to Greece at Together — Voices Across Borders, which ran from June 20 to June 26 at Minim Photographic Studio in Taipei’s Dadaocheng neighborhood.
Photo: Alicia Chen

Most Taiwanese do not identify with refugee issues,” says Alicia Yingyu Chen (陳映妤) a freelance journalist and cofounder of Voices Without Borders (VWB), a nongovernmental organization that Chen established with two classmates at Sussex University’s Institute of Development Studies in the UK. Working to raise awareness about the lives of refugees, VWB has placed particular focus on their struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It might be hard for many to imagine themselves as a refugee; in fact anyone could become one, regardless of race, class or nationality,” Chen says.

It is with this in mind that Chen put together an exhibition on refugee experiences with co-curatorsYunjie Liao (廖芸婕) and Hsiao Chi-chu (朱筱琪) to coincide with World Refugee Day on June 20. Hosted at Minim Photographic Studio (攝影工作室) in Taipei’s Dadaocheng (大稻埕) neighborhood until June 26, the multimedia show documented migrant lives through a style of reportage known as “humanitarian storytelling.” Using interactive displays, the exhibition drew on work by Migrants of the Mediterranean, an Italy-based NGO for whom Chen is the Asian correspondent.

On the first floor, Chen’s own What’sApp correspondence with an Afghan friend deported from Greece was displayed on a cell phone, while on the snug gallery’s second level, an overview of interviews with Taipei’s Turkish community was presented. Some of the members of this mini diaspora belong to the Gulen movement, which Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayipp Erdogan has declared a terrorist organization.

Since the abortive 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan’s Justice and Development Part Government (AKP) in which the Gulenists were implicated, the situation for the 20-odd members of the movement in Taiwan has become increasingly precarious. Prevented from renewing their passports or relinquishing their citizenship – a prequisite to obtaining Taiwanese citizenship – they are in a state of limbo. Osman Cubuk, a professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at National Taiwan University, is a case in point. “Because I am a ‘terrorist,’ the Turkish government don’t handle any of my documents or applications,” says Cubuk, who spoke at the opening of the VWB exhibition. “So, I’m in danger of becoming stateless.”

Visitors interact with the various exhibits at Together — Voices Across Borders, an exhibition curated by Alicia Ying-yu Chen, Yunjie Liao and Hsiao Chi-chu at Minim Photographic Studio from June 20 to June 26.
Photo: Alicia Chen

Efforts to reform Taiwan’s refugee and asylum laws have stalled in the Legislative Yuan since the first draft bill was presented under the Democratic Progessive Party (DPP) administration of former President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in 2006. A further two draft bills were submitted under Chen’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) successor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) but met the same fate, failing to pass a first reading. Hope was rekindled in 2016, when the latest formulation became the first draft to pass initial review by the Legislative Yuan’s Internal Administration Committee. However, a roundtable with civic groups in 2017 failed to move things forward.

There appears to be little, if any, progress on the enactment,” says Shuhan Lin (林姝函), a refugee project specialist with Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR), which is at the forefront of the push for reform.“Social groups published a civil version on World Refugee Day this year, and will seek support in congress [the legislature] next term.”

As things stand, there are special provisions for several groups of people: stateless Tibetans, Thais and Burmese – the latter two groups comprising descendants of KMT irregulars who settled in the border regions of those countries post-WWII – dissidents from China and, finally, Hong Kong and Macau residents facing political persecution. Applications for asylum or residency by individuals from these groups are decided on a case-by-case basis according to separate articles of law.

In May, a court overturned an attempt by the National Immigration Authority (NIA) to repatriate four Tibetans. However, a resolution to the lack of clarity in the current article relating to Hong Kong democracy activists has not materialized. Fears that Chinese “spies” who have obtained Hong Kong residency could take advantage of the situation have been cited in local media.

Despite unprecedented pressure recently due to the pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong, the government holds that Article 18 of the Laws and Regulations Regarding Hong Kong and Macao Affairs suffices to fix the loophole,” says Lin. “It therefore doesn’t show commitment to developing a comprehensive asylum mechanism.”

E-ling Chiu (邱伊翎), the Taiwan section director for Amnesty International reinforces this point. “Article 18 of the Hong Kong regulation is very short and without clear procedure,” she says. “It’s not enough information and due process for the [NIA] officers’ enforcement.”

What is striking about the various articles and regulations that do exist in concrete form is that they refer specifically to individuals of Chinese descent or, in the cases of Tibetans, people who were historically considered ROC subjects. However, Chiu emphasizes the principle of universality behind Amnesty’s efforts. “AI ‘s position is that any asylum seekers’ rights should be protected, no matter where they came from.”

A visitor stands in front of two exhibits at Together – Voices Across Borders, an exhibition curated by Alicia Ying-yu Chen, Yunjie Liao and Hsiao Chi-chu at Minim Photographic Studio from June 20 to June 26.
Photo: Eva Huang

Technically, the legislation is already in place for all cases to be considered on an ad hoc basis. For, while Taiwan has yet to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has ratified three key human rights agreements that directly affect the treatment of refugees – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Although the UN predictably rejected Taiwan’s official documentation for these treaties, they are now enshrined in domestic law, superseding any contending legislation, which has been amended to reflect the primacy of the international instruments. This means that Taiwan is legally bound by the principles of non-refoulement that state a person cannot be extradited, deported or expelled from a country in cases where there is reason to be believe that that person’s life or freedom is under threat. The issue, thus, appears to be one of consistent enforcement.


Still, many advocates believe the problem remains one of establishing unmabiguous legislation. “Without a legal basis, there will be no clear procedure and standard to follow, not enough staff and budget to deal with cases, and no proper training for the officers who are in charge of these cases,” says Chiu.

An interactive work at Together — Voices Across Borders, an exhibition curated by Alicia Ying-yu Chen, Yunjie Liao and Hsiao Chi-chu at Minim Photographic Studio from June 20 to June 26. This exhibit comprised envelopes with key words related to refugeeism and the themes at the exhibition written on them. Visitors were encouraged to write their own thoughts on pieces of paper and place them in the most appropriate envelope.
Photo: Hsiao Chi-chu

Others continue to focus on “soft” approaches: Alicia Chen believes a push for new legislation would be a bonus but stresses this was not the primary goal of the VWB exhibition. “The purpose was to spark discussions about refugee issues and how they are relevant to our life experience. We thus hope to bring this topic closer to the audience and to blur the line that separates ‘them’ and ‘us’.”

To reinforce this, a pair of workshops was held, giving participants an immersive experience of being a refugee. “Through role play activities, they realized how hard it is to flee Taiwan to another country when they have limited resources,” says Chen. “At the end, participants also interacted with refugees in Taiwan or overseas. One participant, a teacher, told me she got inspiration of how to discuss refugee issues with her students.”

Education was a powerful motif at the exhibition. Among the works at the VWB show, the verses of Rohingyan poet Ro Yassin Abdumonab give a particularly stark view of this aspect of the refugee experience. Despite the atrocities Abdumonab recounts, the following plea is perhaps most poignant:

Throw me in the fire

Kill me with gun

But please

Don’t make me separate from education

For Chen, the learning process cuts both ways. “Many Taiwanese are not educated about this issue” Chen says. “Ninety percent of the people who came to the exhibition were unaware that there are even refugees in Taiwan. Even if you pass a law, there won’t be understanding of who these people are and where they came from.”

In 1958, Kennedy was optimistic in this regard. “Today, when mass communications tell one part of the world all about another,” continues the quote which opened this article, “it is relatively easy to understand how poverty or tyranny might compel people to exchange an old nation for a new one.”

More than 70 years on, with access to information having increased exponentially, understanding seems to have advanced very little. Yet Chen remains upbeat: “It’s important just to start this conversation.”

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