Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency (NIA) has stated that migrant workers in temporary detention centers are expected to use their own money to pay for food, but it denied claims by rights groups that migrant workers were being starved in the centers when they could not afford meals.

The policy, as stated by the NIA, violates global standards of humane treatment of temporary detainees and prisoners. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners state the following: “Every prisoner shall be provided by the prison administration at the usual hours with food of nutritional value adequate for health and strength, of wholesome quality and well prepared and served.”

These minimum standards are not always met globally, but most countries do provide at least three basic meals to detainees every day. For instance, immigration detention centers and prisons in the United States, which have been harshly criticized for serving inadequate and inedible food, serve three daily meals for free and make additional food available at personal cost.

Taiwan fails to meet this standard, according to a NIA statement released on Wednesday. Hsu Yun (徐昀), deputy head of the agency’s International Affairs and Law Enforcement Division, admitted that migrant workers must pay for their own food while they are being detained. Those who cannot pay can borrow money from a government employment security fund, she said, but the expenses are expected to be paid back.


Credit: CNA

Protesters stand outside NIA offices in Taipei on Wednesday.

At a Wednesday protest outside NIA offices, Liu Hsiao-ying (劉曉櫻) of the Hsinchu Catholic Diocese Migrants and Immigrants Service Center said one migrant worker could only drink water for three days as they could not borrow money from other detainees.

Wu Ching-ju (吳靜如) of Taiwan International Workers Association (TIWA) said multiple migrant workers have reported being charged NT$190 daily for food and were not offered food if they did not have enough money.

“Their freedom has been restricted already,” Wu told The News Lens. “How can the government ask them to shoulder the costs?”

Courts in other countries have determined that governments cannot ask detainees or prisoners to bear the costs of food. In the United States, courts have ruled that correctional facilities must provide adequate food to satisfy the “minimum” constitutional rights of inmates.

Liu said Taiwan’s detention centers are currently full and noted that delays in processing time mean detainees are charged higher food costs prior to their deportation. The Lunar New Year holiday may have exacerbated processing delays due to lack of staff and lower availability of plane tickets from Taiwan to the home countries of detainees.

The NIA said in its Wednesday statement that detention centers were slower to process overstaying foreign nationals during the Lunar New Year holiday.

The agency, which says it detains nearly 100 overstaying foreigners every day,said that an internal investigation of Taiwan’s 17 temporary detention centers found that there were no cases of starvation and that detainees without money were given food paid with government funds or through donations.

Protesters on Wednesday called for the NIA to expand its budget to provide meals for detainees, saying the agency should have enough money to give food to detained foreign nationals if it has a sufficient budget to seek and arrest overstaying foreigners.

Many detained foreigners from Southeast Asian countries are potential victims of human trafficking, such as the 152 Vietnamese nationals who disappeared in December after entering Taiwan through a group tourist scheme under the New Southbound Policy, a signature agenda of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) aimed at forging closer relations with South and Southeast Asian countries.

Many others are “runaway” migrant workers, or workers who leave their jobs to avoid paying high fees to third-party brokers which they only learn about once they land in Taiwan.

Taiwan’s Employment Services Act prevents migrant workers from legally transferring from one job to another once they sign a three-year contract to work in Taiwan. (It does not prevent employers from terminating migrant workers.)

Screenshot from a NIA video promoting a voluntary departure program for overstaying foreigners who turn themselves in to authorities.

The New Southbound Policy has come under fire for creating other avenues of exploitation of Southeast Asian nationals, such as illegal work-study schemes for international students at Taiwanese universities.

Wu told The News Lens that she had only heard of Southeast Asian nationals starving in Taiwan’s detention centers. She questioned whether the policy of making detainees pay for food was implemented universally.

“If they are not from Southeast Asia, if they are overstayers from Japan, Korea, the United States, would they do this to them?” she asked me.

“You should try overstaying and see what happens. Would they do that to you?”

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