The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday did the sensible thing and revised its guidelines governing emergency assistance to Taiwanese traveling abroad, which has long been abused by the public for trivial matters, thanks to a loose definition of “emergency.”
Unlike their foreign counterparts, Taiwanese diplomats live in constant fear of losing another of the nation’s diplomatic allies to Beijing and are burdened with the overwhelming task of having to fend off Chinese pressure at almost every international event.
Despite their seemingly impossible job descriptions, what really frustrates most diplomats posted overseas is probably their experience in carrying their office’s emergency hotline phone.
While the hotline is supposed to be for emergencies only, some diplomats’ experiences suggest the public clearly thinks otherwise.
One diplomat said he once received a call from a Taiwanese student in the middle of the night because he feared his roommate could hurt him. As the student sounded like he was in imminent danger, the diplomat instructed him to call the local police station immediately, but he refused.
The envoy felt he had no choice but to continue pacifying the student, only to realize later that the student’s fear could have been just imaginary, as nothing happened during the long phone call.
Another diplomat said she received a call from a Taiwanese tourist who left her wallet at a restaurant and asked for help to retrieve it, as she was already on a train to another city.
Fearing that a refusal to help could have ended up on the news, the envoy helped the tourist telephone the restaurant to see if it had the wallet, before making a 30-minute train trip to pick up the wallet herself.
Both cases should have been dealt with by local police, or the friends or parents of the people involved. Instead, diplomats trained to handle diplomatic crises and issues of national interest are forced to act as babysitters for those who do not know how to take care of themselves when overseas.
Ministry statistics offer a rough idea of the extent of the problem.
Of the more than 65,000 calls received last year by the emergency call center at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, just 700 could be categorized as true emergencies, ministry Secretary-General James Lee (李光章) said.
That means only one in every 100 people who phoned the emergency center were actually in an emergency.
Lee said the percentage of non-emergency calls made to the emergency hotlines of consular offices might be lower, but only sightly.
To make matters worse, Taiwan’s populist culture makes it extremely difficult, if not risky, for diplomats to turn down even the most absurd requests for assistance, which has in turn reinforced the public’s misconception about the role of consular offices.
“Inconvenience does not equal emergency” is the message Lee wants to deliver to the public through the ministry’s revised guidelines, under which consular offices are now only required to provide help in the event of an incident involving personal safety, such as a kidnapping, sexual assault or murder.
It could take a while for that message to sink in. Until it does, consular staff are going to have to learn to say no.
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