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Taiwan’s Human Rights Priorities After the 2024 Elections

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Taiwan’s Human Rights Priorities After the 2024 Elections

Despite demonstrating a strong human rights record, there is still room for Taiwan to improve – especially on migrant workers’ rights and refugee law.

Taiwan’s Human Rights Priorities After the 2024 Elections

Representatives from Human Rights for Migrant Fishers, a coalition of NGOs, demand greater responsibility from Taiwan’s authorities during the International Workshop on Strategies for Combating Human Trafficking, July 25, 2018.

Credit: Human Rights for Migrant Fishers.

On January 13, 2024, Taiwan held its eighth presidential election. Lai Ching-te from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected with over 40 percent of the vote, marking the first time that a single political party has won the presidency three consecutive times. Several leaders and politicians around the world issued congratulatory statements, defying pressure from the Chinese government in Beijing, which considers Taiwan a renegade province. Since then, Taiwan has received a stream of parliamentary delegations from Europe and the United States seeking to strengthen bilateral exchange and cooperation with the incoming administration.

In Washington, D.C., the discourse about Taiwan often centers around cross-strait security and the possibility of war with China. Numerous U.S. government officials and members of Congress have reiterated their commitment to defend Taiwan. President Joe Biden has stated more than once that U.S. forces would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. On April 24, he also signed into law a bill that provides security assistance to U.S. partners including Ukraine and Taiwan. Republican Representative Mike Gallagher, former chair of the House Select Committee on China, told reporters after he visited Taiwan in February that “the people in Taiwan should be confident that regardless of how fractious our election gets, America will stand firmly with Taiwan.”

While it is in the United States’ interest to have a safe and secure Taiwan Strait post-election, the U.S. government should also leverage its amicable relations with Taiwan to ensure the authorities fulfill human rights obligations at home and abroad. Despite demonstrating a strong human rights record, there is still room for Taiwan to improve.

Several outstanding human rights issues need to be addressed for Taipei to fully comply with international human rights standards. These include the long-standing mistreatment of migrant workers, the absence of a refugee law that provides protection to asylum seekers, climate justice for the generations to come, technology and human rights issues that include gender-based violence and personal data protection, as well as the restrictive Parade and Assembly Act that impedes the right to assemble.

Both migrant workers and refugee rights were mentioned in the State Department’s 2023 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Taiwan, drawing attention to two issues that the U.S. government should continue to press Taipei to act on.

Migrant Workers

Taiwan is one of the largest distant water fishing (DWF) nations worldwide. The majority of more than 22,000 crew are migrant workers from Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. According to Global Labor Justice – International Labor Rights Forum, investigations by human rights monitors have consistently revealed egregious human rights abuses in Taiwan’s fishing industry, with problems ranging from dangerous working or living conditions and wage deductions, to confirmed cases of forced labor, human trafficking, murder, and disappearances of migrant fishers at sea.

A survey from 62 vessels published by the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation in 2020 shows that violent abuse of migrant workers and flagrant illegal fishing are systemic problems across Taiwan’s DWF fleet. Crew from 24 percent of the vessels reported physical abuse and 92 percent reported having their wages withheld.

The aforementioned rights groups are frustrated that the Taiwanese authorities have not done enough to improve conditions for migrant workers on fishing vessels. These workers often have their passports retained by their employers or their wages deducted for various reasons. They are frequently subject to violence and threats at sea. Abused workers are often unable to communicate with their families and support networks because they are either denied Wi-Fi access by employers or they are employed on ships where internet access is unavailable.

The United States should urge the Taiwanese government to enact and enforce relevant laws relating to the provision of onboard Wi-Fi rather than providing inadequate subsidies for the ship owners to install Wi-Fi. Even with repeated calls from rights group’s “Wi-Fi Now for Fishers’ Rights at Sea” campaign, the Ministry of Labor stated in mid-January that the government will only amend existing law to ban companies from retaining migrant workers’ passports.

As the U.S.-Taiwan Initiative on 21st Century Trade, an initiative established in June 2022 to develop concrete ways to deepen the trade relationship between the United States and Taiwan, is still being discussed, now is the optimal time to raise aforementioned human rights concerns with Taipei.

Labor rights were mentioned during the negotiation round for the initiative, as Washington seeks to support the protection of labor rights, including the elimination of forced labor in global supply chains. The U.S. government should continue to raise the notorious human rights abuses in Taiwan’s fishing industry and push for relevant regulations’ enactment.

Refugee Law

In the absence of a refugee law, people who are seeking a new home in Taiwan risk deportation and instability, though the country has amended laws to decriminalize arriving unlawfully to seek political asylum. Currently, the Taiwanese government deals with asylum cases on a case-by-case basis, taking international practice and the protection of human rights into consideration. 

In recent years, the National Immigration Agency has employed specific resolutions and policies to support refugees from war-stricken Myanmar and Ukraine who seek to remain in Taiwan. However, these are only temporary measures, which rights groups deem insufficient.

Taiwan’s constitution, which was penned by the Kuomintang (KMT) government in 1947, considers people from the mainland, Hong Kong, and Macau as under the Republic of China’s jurisdiction. Yet they are regarded as neither foreigners nor citizens. The Cross Strait Act’s article 17 permits awarding “long-term residency in the Taiwan Area” on a case-by-case basis, “out of political, economic, social, educational, science-tech or cultural consideration.” This places them in a gray area where they fare better than foreigners who have no legal basis to seek asylum in Taiwan (due to the lack of refugee law), but they also struggle to stay without a clear guideline and system in place for the relevant offices to approve their applications.

While thousands of Hong Kong nationals who landed in Taiwan after the 2019 pro-democracy movement are entitled to a Hong Kong humanitarian aid project within the Mainland Affairs Council, which helps people get visas and provides other assistance, asylum seekers from China face more scrutiny and often find themselves in limbo or at risk of deportation. The Ministry of the Interior only allows a small percentage of Chinese refugees to remain in Taiwan – they have to either obtain approval from a third country to receive them later, or a local group that is willing to assist with their living arrangement and costs.

The DPP government has been reluctant to enact a refugee law, citing national security concerns, espionage, and fear that extending asylum to PRC citizens risks offending Beijing. Officials claim that existing mechanisms are adequate in addressing this issue, while rights groups continue to call for the passage of a refugee law.

Taiwan’s Executive Yuan should propose more concrete actions with regards to the passage of refugee law mentioned in the “National Human Rights Action Plan (2022-2024).” Merely setting a timeline for a law to be enacted without actively engaging with the Legislative Yuan and taking measures to ensure that Taiwan complies with relevant international conventions is insufficient. Meanwhile, refugees currently in Taiwan should not be treated differently based on their nationalities.

In addition, the Taiwanese authorities should be urged to implement and comply with the “non-refoulement principle” in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; guarantee the right to health of asylum seekers and detainees in foreigners’ detention centers; and provide refugee-related training to immigration officers, judges, and civil servants who work on refugee and asylum-related matters.

A great ally is not just there to assist and support; it should also motivate the other side to do better. The U.S. government needs to begin working closely with the incoming Lai administration to further improve human rights in Taiwan and to keep his government accountable.