When Daniel Helmdach arrived at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport on March 8 last year, he was informed by National Immigration Agency (NIA) officials that he could not enter since he had been banned from entering Taiwan for three years in 2011 and was immediately sent back.
The ban, effective to July this year, prohibits the 22-year-old German from entering Taiwan — where he resided for a year in 2010 and 2011 as a volunteer for two non-profit organizations — and was given to him for participating in a peaceful anti-nuclear protest at Tainan Station on June 11, 2011.
According to immigration officials, Helmdach violated the Immigration Act (入出國及移民法) by engaging in “activities or employment that is different from the purposes of their visit or residence.”
The problem with that explanation is that Helmdach says he did not participate in the rally.
“When I was told that I couldn’t enter Taiwan at the airport, I first thought it was a joke. It didn’t make sense to me that the authorities would deny entry to a 21-year-old university student for attending a protest against nuclear power,” Helmdach, who now lives in Germany, told the Taipei Times in an e-mail.
Helmdach said he felt “somewhat helpless after spending a whole day on planes and in airports only to be told that you would have to go back straight away” and also embarrassed for being banned from a country that he had had a great impression of.
“But what affected me most is that I was accused of participating in a demonstration that I never went to,” the student said.
The Ministry of the Interior did not rescind the ban until August last year, citing police’s failure to produce evidence that Helmdach took part in the 2011 protest.
With the assistance of Taiwanese lawyers, Helmdach is now planning to seek compensation from the government in a lawsuit, and the German student’s case is not an isolated one.
In September 2010, Kenji Tanabe, a Japanese national, was refused entry to Taiwan and deported for raising a banner in support of Taiwanese independence.
According to the immigration agency, the act was seen as engaging in political activities, which Tanabe would not have been permitted to do since he was in the country as a tourist. Tanabe’s ban was not lifted until earlier this month, after several Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lawmakers took the case up with the agency.
A total of 18 Europeans are currently banned from entering Taiwan: one from Portugal, two each from France and Romania, five from the Netherlands and the remaining eight from unidentified countries, according to agency data obtained by Taiwan Corner, a Denmark-based association that supports Taiwanese democracy.
Other annual statistics showed that between 312 and 461 foreigners were banned from crossing into Taiwan between 2008 and last year, with most of them coming from Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. The reasons for these foreigners’ ban are not disclosed in the data.
Asked by the Taipei Times about the banned Europeans, the European Economic and Trade Office said it has not received any information on the bans and is seeking to study those cases.
Taiwan Corner chairman Michael Danielsen said that Helmdach’s case revealed “a systematic problem with Taiwan’s current laws and Taiwan’s respect for human rights and democracy for foreigners,” as well as a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that Taiwan signed in 2009.
The root cause of such cases lies in Taiwan’s immigration laws, which some rights advocates say are unfriendly and discriminatory because foreigners on short stays are not allowed to participate in activities that “do not match their purpose of entry,” especially those acts deemed by the authorities as “endangering public safety, social order and national interests.”
DPP Legislator Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), who was involved in Helmdach’s case, said the regulations are discriminatory, outdated, contravened global trends and must be revised.
“With the social and civil movements in Taiwan going global, it’s ironic that foreigners are not allowed to participate in assemblies when in the nation,” Hsiao said.
“For years, Taiwanese have voiced their wish for their nation to have a seat at the UN in New York, Washington and Geneva without any problems. Their freedom of speech has been respected by other countries,” she added.
Hsiao said she and other lawmakers have submitted an amendment that would legalize foreign visitors’ right to assembly.
While the majority of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators did not oppose the proposal, it has been sent to party caucus discussions and no time table has been given on when it will be screened.
Hsiao said the ministry “welcomed the proposal in general,” but had some reservations about it.
Another reason for the stalled review of the draft amendment is that lawmakers are simultaneously eyeing an ambitious overhaul of the Immigration Act, Hsiao said, adding that the proposal also aimed to legalize dual citizenship so naturalized foreigners can retain their original citizenship after becoming Taiwanese.
NIA public relations director Hsu Chien-lin (徐健麟) said the agency supported amending the act based on the universal value of freedom of speech.