Taiwan is considered to be one of the most progressive countries in Asia, but it has no asylum law. Due to its precarious political status and complicated relationship with China, there are serious concerns.
However, what makes the situation direr is the lack of a discussion on the issue in Taiwanese society.
What do the Taiwanese think of passing an asylum law and how do they perceive refugees? Taiwan has accepted international human rights treaties and incorporated them into domestic law, thus having the obligation of non-refoulement, but in the absence of an asylum system, the nation has not been able to handle people coming to Taiwan seeking protection.
The international review committee of the human rights covenants that Taiwan has adopted as domestic law has repeatedly recommended a “speedy adoption of an asylum law, which should also include the principle of non-refoulement.”
However, there has been little progress.
There are serious concerns surrounding the topic of asylum, and there is no social dialogue on this (with the exception of 2019 when Hong Kongers started arriving en masse to Taiwan). The nation’s political elites have perhaps purposely kept it that way.
There have been only few nationwide representative polls on people’s perceptions and attitudes toward refugees and a hypothetical asylum policy, and even fewer surveys that had a broader focus than on people arriving from Hong Kong.
Why are such polls important? They give a good glimpse into people’s perceptions, and taking them into consideration is important because they often have real-world implications.
Taiwanese politicians heavily depend on public opinion, especially on sensitive topics that involve the nation’s relationship with China, and discussing a potential asylum law in Taiwan inevitably touches on cross-strait relations.
One of the few large-scale nationwide representative surveys was conducted in May and June, providing a comprehensive picture of people’s preferences when it comes to refugees and potential asylum law.
Regarding potential asylum mechanisms in Taiwan, slightly more people agreed than disagreed with passing some kind of a refugee act (regardless of whether that included Chinese nationals), while most people did not have an opinion on this — which reflects the lack of discussion in Taiwanese society.
If Taiwan were to pass an asylum law, 33 percent of respondents believed it would worsen relations with China, while 19 percent believed it would not, and 47 did not have an opinion. If Taiwan were to pass such a law, 56 percent believed it would be too costly for Taiwan’s budget.
On the other hand, 50 percent believed that passing such a law would highlight the human rights values of Taiwan, and the difference between Taiwan and China.
However, on all three questions, the answer given most often was “neither agree nor disagree,” which can be interpreted as people not having clear opinions on the issue.
There was almost no difference between the answers of pan-blue and pan-green camp supporters, except for on the human rights values question, where more pan-green supporters (59 percent) than pan-blue supporters (46 percent) said it would highlight Taiwan’s values.
When it comes to asylum seekers, the potential beneficiaries of such a law, most groups (whether ethnic or religious) — Muslims, immigrants, Africans, Rohingya, Uighurs, and Tibetans — were viewed rather positively, with immigrants in general viewed most positively (63 percent), followed by Tibetans (62 percent) and Uighurs (59 percent). Chinese constitute an exception, being viewed negatively by 49 percent of respondents.
Rohingya, while viewed more positively than negatively, had the most neutral answers (20 percent), which might indicate that they are not well-known in Taiwan, and people thus tend not to have an opinion.
Rohingya are a displaced minority from Myanmar, mostly living in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
More specifically, asked about accepting certain groups of refugees, Taiwanese were most favorable toward people from Hong Kong (66 percent), Tibet (58 percent), and war refugees from other countries (55 percent), but again rather unfavorable toward refugees from China (44 percent).
Young people were the least willing to accept Chinese refugees, while they were the most willing to accept Hong Kongers. Men were more willing than women to accept refugees. (The data does not provide enough information as to why.)
Overall, the acceptance rate of refugees was quite high, with pan-blue-leaning people being more willing to accept refugees, especially Chinese (57 percent of pan-blue-leaning people versus 42 percent of pan-green-leaning people), but also war refugees. Interestingly, people without such political leanings seemed to be less decided on whether to accept refugees.
Looking closer at people’s attitudes toward various segments of Chinese people, respondents were most critical of Chinese politicians (76 percent), surprisingly followed by Chinese dissidents (57 percent), and the least critical of Chinese students (33 percent) and spouses (32 percent).
Most respondents (58 percent) even supported the resettlement of Rohingya to Taiwan, compared with 29 percent who were against it. Clearly, younger people were more inclined to resettle them than older people, and again, men a little more than women.
While it is apparent from the data that there has long been a lack of discussion about asylum, the data also showed that Taiwanese tend to agree that the nation needs a proper asylum system and should not handle incoming people on a case-by-case basis as has been done until now.
Also, refugees are seen rather positively than negatively, with people from China as an exception, and Taiwanese are willing to accept them in Taiwan.
Nevertheless, the results from the survey should be understood in the context of the political climate in which the answers were collected — only a few weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which fueled concern over China’s plans for Taiwan.
Many in Taiwan speculate that the odds of an invasion by China have increased. With such fears of their own future, people tend to be more compassionate toward others who are forced to leave their country and seek refuge elsewhere.
At the same time, the lower willingness to accept Chinese as refugees leads back to the issue of complicated relations between Taiwan and China and highlights the need for social dialogue before any solution — whether an asylum system includes or excludes Chinese — can be accepted.
Kristína Kironská is a socially engaged interdisciplinary academic with experience in Taiwan affairs, central and eastern Europe-China relations, Myanmar studies, human rights, election observation and advocacy. She is conducting research within the Sinophone Borderlands project administered by Palacky University Olomouc. She is also the advocacy director at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies and board director of Amnesty International Slovakia.