The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused a huge wave of refugees, with more than 4 million Ukrainians having already fled the country since February. The conflict has also triggered a wave of solidarity with Ukrainians across the globe. Taiwan has joined the ranks of supporters with (substantial) financial and medical aid, as well as announcements of easier access to visas for Ukrainians.
However, not to all of them. Only Ukrainian nationals who have relatives in Taiwan — who are either Taiwanese nationals, or Ukrainian Alien Resident Certificate (ARC) or Alien Permanent Resident Certificate (APRC) holders — can apply for a special visa to travel to Taiwan. This special visa is an entry permit for the purpose of visiting relatives and can be issued for a period of 30 days up to six months.
While it is admirable that Taiwan has reacted to a crisis so far from its shores, is the announcement of easier access to visas more of a public relations ploy than actual assistance?
The first question that arises is how many Ukrainian alien residence holders are there? Currently, there are only 49 APRC and 205 ARC holders from Ukraine in Taiwan, including students, engineers, missionaries and individuals working in other sectors.
Second, what is the definition of a relative? Can, for example, a cousin apply? The announced visas are available for family members within three degrees of kinship.
According to the Taiwanese civic code regulating this system, called qindeng (親等), the degree of relationship between a person and their blood relative is determined by counting the number of generations upward or downward from themselves. One generation is considered one degree of kinship and, because married couples are counted as one, their spouse’s relatives are considered to be direct family.
This means that while the aunts and uncles of a person’s spouse fall into this category, their own cousins do not; they fall under the fourth degree of kinship.
The third issue is that applications must be made with a passport that would be valid for six months. Many people fleeing this war do not have the necessary documents and would not be able to apply.
On the other hand, Ukraine’s neighbors in Europe have allowed all people, with or without documents, to pass the border into safety.
Due to these limitations, there are few Ukrainians who stand to benefit from the special visas. So, while this announcement was a nice gesture, a more efficient and systematic plan is needed, one that establishes transparent rules for people seeking refuge and enhances Taiwan’s human rights record.
Although debates on the issue have occasionally occurred in the past 10 years, there has been no real progress. A draft asylum law in 2016 passed a first reading in parliament, but did not progress any further.
Recently, a new draft to the law was submitted, but its contents have not yet been publicized or discussed in the legislature.
It seems there is not enough political will to push an asylum law through, as there are many lingering questions over the definition of a refugee and limits on numbers, as well as their rights and obligations.
Nevertheless, adopting an asylum law is part of a broader push to bring Taiwan’s legal system in line with international human rights law.
In the absence of an asylum law that would regulate the entry of people from Ukraine, it is great to see initiatives by Taiwanese universities and educational institutions. Academia Sinica and the Ministry of Science and Technology have launched a program offering three-month scholarships to Ukrainian students and researchers, which cover airline tickets, accommodation and living expenses.
Similarly, Tunghai University in Taichung has announced full scholarships for degree programs for at least 10 Ukrainian students, which cover tuition fees, living expenses, accommodation and Mandarin language classes.
These are only temporary substitutes compared with what an asylum law could accomplish.
Whether Ukrainians would take up the option to flee to Taiwan is questionable, even if looser requirements were in place. Many people have chosen to wait out the danger in neighboring countries to return and rebuild their country as soon as possible.
While Taiwan is far and might not be the first choice for many Ukrainians, they should, nevertheless, have this choice.
Kristina Kironska is a socially engaged interdisciplinary academic with experience in Myanmar studies, Taiwan affairs, central eastern Europe-China relations, human rights, election observation and advocacy. She is also advocacy director at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies.
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