On Monday, the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission gave a glimmer of hope to a group of more than 100 Tibetans in exile who made their unfortunate way to Taiwan in hopes of gaining residency here.
The commission promised shelter for the Tibetans while their fate is decided and said the Cabinet might propose amending the Immigration Act (出入國及移民法) to allow them to stay.
As the law stands, the Tibetans would have no hope of help from the government. Many in the group have lived here illegally for years. They entered the country on forged travel documents — passports from India and Nepal — thus deceiving immigration staff. But most importantly, the policy that at one time helped Tibetans in exile come to Taiwan and stay here has been defunct for years, while the nation has no asylum law.
Yet the Tibetans, many of whom probably have no legal passport, cannot easily be returned to India and Nepal — countries they entered from Tibet before continuing to Taiwan, and which can refuse them entry based on their lack of travel documents. The worldwide irony of asylum law is that would-be refugees must usually enter a country illegally before they can legally seek asylum: There is no internationally recognized right to enter a country with the purpose of seeking asylum.
The other option — returning the Tibetans to their home country — can hardly be considered. Having fled once, they would likely meet harassment from authorities, compounding the oppression that prompted them to flee in the first place.
While the Tibetans are here illegally under local law, the fact that Taiwan has no procedure to judge their claim to stay is illegal under international law. The nation has a responsibility to create a mechanism to deal with applications from potential refugees.
Taiwan should consider that this obligation applies to it regardless of the nation’s limited participation in international bodies. During the decades when international asylum law took form at the UN and the UN High Commissioner of Refugees was established, the Republic of China was a member. The governments of the world, it was decided, share a responsibility for the tragic reality that hundreds of millions of people face political persecution or violence within their own countries.
Taiwan cannot continue to decide the fate of those in need on a case-by-case basis, seeking loopholes or adding piecemeal amendments to the Immigration Act.
This group of Tibetans are not the only people in Taiwan who find themselves in limbo, nor should the government expect that this case will be the last. The nation does attract a small number of would-be refugees, such as from African countries, and earlier this year, two Chinese asylum-seekers drew the media’s attention. Asylum seekers will continue to make the sad mistake of coming to Taiwan to apply for help under a law that doesn’t exist.
Unless this is addressed by the legislature through the creation of an asylum law, the fate of those who say they suffered persecution in their home countries may depend on their ability to win public sympathy through media coverage. Where the public’s concern is sufficient, the government may be moved to act, if only to avoid controversy.