OPINION: It's Time for Taiwan to Act on Refugee Protection

OPINION: It's Time for Taiwan to Act on Refugee Protection
Credit: Reuters / TPG

What you need to know

Taiwan's treatment of asylum seekers and refugees lags behind global standards.

Australia has a new solution to its asylum seeker regime: a secret deal with the Taiwanese government for critically ill asylum seekers held on Nauru to be transferred to Taiwan for medical treatment, where that treatment is inadequate or unavailable on Nauru. The arrangement raises serious questions about the protection for refugees and asylum seekers in Taiwan.

Taiwan has struggled to implement a human rights framework for the protection of refugees and asylum seekers. Unlike the majority of countries worldwide, Taiwan does not have a domestic protection framework for refugees and asylum seekers. A national refugee law bill has been before the Legislative Yuan since 2005. There has been no progress since the government round table with civil society actors in April 2017. There have also been no other steps to implement the 1951 Refugee Convention and its related 1967 Protocol.

Credit: Reuters / TPG
Refugee advocates hold placards as they participate in a protest in Sydney, Australia, against the treatment of asylum-seekers at Australia-run detention centres located at Nauru and Manus Island, Nov. 18, 2017.

Taiwan’s human rights track record

Although Taiwan is largely excluded from international human rights institutions and regimes, the Taiwanese government has nonetheless demonstrated its commitment to international human rights standards to wide acclaim.

The Legislative Yuan has given effect to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (‘ICCPR’), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (‘ICESCR’) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (‘CEDAW’) as a matter of domestic law. The passage of these enforcement acts mark a bold and significant step in bringing Taiwanese law in line with international norms and obligations.

The effect of these enforcement acts has been to enshrine the rights in these international treaties in Taiwanese law giving them priority over all domestic laws and creating binding obligations on all levels of government.

What has followed is a deliberate effort to prioritize international human rights standards including amending all Taiwanese laws and administrative measures that contravene the international instruments, training and capacity building of over 2,145 judicial officers on human rights protection and regular monitoring and reporting by the International Review Committee on the government’s compliance with ICCPR, ICESCR and CEDAW.

Whilst these are significant steps in the nation’s promotion and protection of core international human rights, Taiwan’s human rights record with respect to asylum seekers and refugees has fallen behind world standards.

Taiwan’s obligation of non-refoulement

For refugees in Taiwan, Articles 6 and 7 of the ICCPR and Article 2(d) of CEDAW, which now form part of Taiwanese law, create an obligation of non-refoulement. This means that Taiwan’s law prohibits the Taiwanese government in all circumstances from extraditing, deporting, expelling or removing a person from Taiwan where there are substantial grounds for believing that their life or freedom will be threatened.

There have been cases in which the Taiwanese government has breached its own law by forcibly returning people to a risk of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Non-refoulement is an absolute prohibition under these instruments. It is the cornerstone of international refugee protection and cannot be reduced or overridden in any circumstances. Despite this fundamental obligation, last year, the International Review Committee reported that Taiwan continues to forcibly return asylum seekers to their country of origin despite the risk of irreparable harm on their return.

The Taiwan Association for Human Rights reports at least 10 cases of forced repatriation since 2014. This means that over the last four years, there have been cases in which the Taiwanese government has breached its own law by forcibly returning people to a risk of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, including capital punishment.

This action severely undermines the government’s commitment to freedom, its commitment to international human rights norms and its campaign for United Nations membership and international recognition.

Taiwan is lagging in the international community. Its lack of commitment to international refugee protection leaves it amongst the countries with the worst legal conditions for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Improving refugee protection: how Taiwan can make a difference

It is critical that the Taiwanese government re-examines its involvement in Australia’s offshore processing regime on Nauru and PNG, which has been widely condemned by the international community and found to amount to torture.

Taiwan has previously demonstrated its commitment to human rights and international standards. When it comes to asylum seeker and refugee protection, Taiwan’s commitment to human rights should be no different.

Taiwan has been at the verge of another milestone in its international human rights record with the national refugee law bill. It is time for the Taiwanese government to once again reaffirm its commitment to international norms. The 15-year delay of the national refugee bill is an aberration. The Taiwanese government must act quickly to pass the bill and implement the Refugee Convention and Protocol as a matter of domestic law in the same way it has implemented the ICCPR, ICESCR and CEDAW.

Taiwan is on the verge of being a beacon of international refugee protection in the Asia Pacific region. Taiwanese leaders must deliver on their pledge to international human rights standards and make refugee protection a priority.

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Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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