Overall, governments across Asia have a long way to go when it comes to providing a robust protection regime for refugees inside their borders. In fact, less than half of all countries in the region have signed the Refugee Convention or have any domestic legislation in place. This means that refugees in Asia often find themselves stuck with very little opportunity for employment, healthcare, education or a durable solution. From India to Indonesia, Thailand to Taiwan, these are common issues faced by almost all refugees.

taiwan taipei
Photo: Daymin, via Flickr.

However, it is important to provide a balanced perspective and highlight that it is not all doom and gloom and there are a few somewhat positive examples out there. Broadly speaking, East Asia is leading the way in the region as many countries such as South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong have – to some extent – specific laws and policies in place to protect refugees. Of course these countries are by no means perfect and each system is fraught with a number of very complex challenges. This includes but is not limited to low rates of recognition, long status determination wait times, detention, xenophobia and racism. Notwithstanding, systems and processes have been put in place by the government for refugees to access to have their claim assessed.

Interestingly, there is a new potential actor entering the arena i.e. the Republic of China – Taiwan. As many countries in the rest of the world are attempting to sidestep their obligations to protect refugees under both international and domestic laws, Taiwan has decided to take a stride in the opposite direction. Despite not being a UN member state and therefore unable to sign the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Taiwan has taken a number of active steps to introduce domestic refugee legislation. Since July 2016, a Draft Refugee Bill has been sitting within the Legislative Yuan pending passage through the various legislative processes. Such a progressive move by should be encouraged and celebrated both until enactment occurs and all the way through to implementation.

File photo: Pixabay.

It is a well-known fact that Taiwan faces many barriers regarding its ability to engage on the international stage. In addition to only formally being recognised by 20 other nations worldwide, it also has significant difficulty in engaging with any UN mechanisms or receiving invitations to international fora. As such, Taiwan is somewhat ostracised from the rest of the world and is compelled to forge its own path. Even with such difficulties, policymakers and parliamentarians in Taiwan have realised that the status quo for the treatment of refugees, i.e. no system at all, is by far much harder to maintain and is simply not a tenable option to provide some of the world’s most vulnerable people with the protection they require.

In April 2017, the Taiwanese government and civil society convened a two-day roundtable to discuss the draft refugee law including sharing legal norms and practices from across the region. Bringing together legislators, government officials and international human rights advocates, the forum provided a space for constructive dialogue and debate to help create momentum towards the passage of legislation. Participation in such a forum highlights the government’s openness and willingness to engage on an issue that is both sensitive and complex. This is extremely positive and should be a sign for greater support to be provided to Taiwan in this regard.

refugees human rights
Photo: Dan Garrett.

For context, at present Taiwan is completely devoid of any legislation that specifically protects refugees. As such, all refugees are currently subject to an ad hoc process that does not afford them the rights they need to ensure they remain free from persecution and are not returned to a country where their life may be in danger. One person who knows the East Asian context only too well is Mr. Yiombi Thona. Originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yiombi has been based in South Korea for the past 17 years. Six years after arriving in Korea – during which time he struggled to eek out an existence and simply survive – he was finally granted refugee status. During this time he was unable to legally work, receive financial assistance, housing support or social welfare. Since arriving in Korea, Yiombi has not received any financial support from the Korean government.

Yiombi is now a university professor and teaches more than 500 Korean students each year (in Korean) across five different university subjects. As a professor, Yiombi is “contributing to the development of Korea just like any other Korean citizen.” He also notes that “refugees are an untapped resource and should not been seen as a burden. I have contributed, am contributing, and will continue to contribute both economically and socially to the betterment of Korean society.” Also serving as the current Chair of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, he has made working for the betterment of refugees his life’s mission.

yiombi thona
Yiombi Thona. Photo: GICTALK, via YouTube screenshot.

In 19 September 2016, former President Barack Obama hosted a Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis, bringing together governments from across the world to discuss solutions for the large movements of refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants. Despite governments referring to a ‘global refugee crisis’, it soon became apparent that what the world is actually facing is a ‘global responsibility crisis’. This crisis relates to the unwillingness of many states to step up and take responsibility for refugees instead of pushing their obligations to other states. During this global responsibility crisis, it is heartening to see Taiwan put up its hand and take this big step forwards. Admittedly, Taiwan is not there just yet and there are still many hurdles to overcome. However, should the law be passed, Taiwan will undoubtedly be a shining light in the region if not the world. Such a move will showcase Taiwan’s leadership in the human rights sphere and create an impetus for other governments to similarly follow suit and step up.

Evan Jones is a South-East Asia based refugee advocate and a member of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN).