Advocates in Taiwan are hopeful of reforming what they call “absurd” marriage migrant laws despite entrenched discrimination against women from Southeast Asia on the island.

Liang Tsu-ying (梁組盈) is executive secretary of the TransAsia Sisters Association, Taiwan (TASAT). She says flaws in the current immigration system mean that the tens of thousands of women who have immigrated to Taiwan from Southeast Asia often lack basic rights, face being ostracized from their children in Taiwan or are unable to return to their home country.

TASAT is part of a wider group of NGOs and academics which have for several years called for changes to legislation – namely the Nationality and Immigration Acts. The advocates are now anticipating lobbying to be more successful with Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) taking power from the Kuomintang (KMT) and the greater number of independent lawmakers now in office.

“Now it is majority DPP, they are a little bit more friendly than KMT towards married migrants,” Liang told The News Lens. “There are some long-term NGO-friendly partners there. So we are more positive than before.”

Changing mindsets difficult

Whilst being optimistic for change, Liang remains cautious given her view that the “the majority” of the main political parties “and the majority of the Taiwanese society” have not previously been open to allowing an easy path for foreigners to become Taiwanese.

“Their mindset is: Taiwan is a small island with limited resources, so foreigners will take our jobs and drain our resources.”

There is also an underlying issue of racism, she says.

“We discriminate against people with darker skin, and from Southeast Asia and developing countries.”

She believes married migrants are not properly recognized for their part in Taiwanese society.

“They go out to work, pay tax to the government, give birth to children, raise their children.” She adds that in Taiwan’s largely patriarchal society, foreign spouses often take care of and provide financial support to the families they marry into.

“They contribute more than [people] could ever imagine but the government doesn’t care.”

Liang notes some recent progress in recognizing Southeast Asian culture and heritage in Taiwan, particularly in promoting Southeast Asian languages, but suggests there have been mainly superficial overtures to embrace multiculturalism.

Subjective ‘decency’ naturalization requirements

The group of advocates working to change the law is known as the Alliance for Human Rights Legislation for Immigrants and Migrants (AHRLIM).

AHRLIM wants to change what it sees as “very unclear” rules requiring that a migrant “behaves decently and has no records of crime” in order to become naturalized. The group likewise says people who have committed petty crimes should not be excluded from naturalization.

“It is too abstract,” Liang says. “That means the government can have very subjective power to decide what is not decent and what is decent.”

She gives the recent example of a woman who was involved in a minor traffic incident and later settled with the other party – a police record of the incident remained. When the woman applied for naturalization, the government found the police record and decided that she had not “behaved decently.”

The group also wants Taiwan to withdraw the current requirement of making immigrants forego the nationality of their home country.

“That means you have to give up your Thai citizenship, Vietnamese citizenship, before you apply for nationalization in Taiwan,” Liang says, noting that it is “very difficult” to regain original citizenship once it has been forgone.

“If the [Taiwan] government rejects you in the application process, you become stateless.”

Cases of this nature do not occur frequently, Liang says, though she points to several instances involving marriage migrants who have given up their previous citizenship and, after working in the sex or entertainment industries, fail the “decency” requirements in the naturalization application process.

“These are the cases that we are dealing with. We think without dual nationality there is no protection in every aspect of your life,” Liang says. “What we are talking about is not common, but we think one stateless person is bad enough.”

Adultery and divorce

After an immigrant becomes a naturalized Taiwanese, there is a five-year period during which the government can review their status. The association wants this reduced to two years, with one reason relating to adultery – cheating on one’s spouse is illegal in Taiwan and the law appears to retain popular support.

“If I cheat on someone it is a private matter,” Liang says. People should not be deprived of their nationality for committing adultery, she says.

In Taiwan, there are two types of naturalization process – one relating to foreign spouses and another for all others. People who are not foreign spouses applying for naturalization have to be either earning twice the national average wage or have NT$5 million. The status of foreign spouses, who do not initially have to meet these financial requirements, changes to the other category if they are divorced or their spouse dies prior to becoming naturalized. When a marriage fails – the divorce rate is higher among married migrants than the rest of the population – women who are not yet naturalized will often have to face a custody battle.

“If you lose, you have to go back home, separated from your children,” Liang says. Even if a migrant wins full or joint custody they can only stay in Taiwan until their children reach 20.

“The government says, ‘Hey you can get naturalized within these 20 years.’ But how? She is a foreigner, remember, she needs NT$5 million or NT$40,000 monthly salary.”

“We think it is very absurd,” Liang says. “Imagine you have raised your children, as a single mom, for 10 or 20 years, but you have to go back.”

Ultimately, some women who cannot legally remain in Taiwan chose to stay on the island, Liang says, and become “undocumented workers.”

“We think there are certain laws making them become illegal here,” Liang says. “They are divorced, but they cannot get naturalized because they committed some petty crime. But they don’t want to be separated from their children, so they become illegal, overstaying here in Taiwan.”

TASAT has worked with several undocumented workers, including petitioning decision makers to allow them to gain naturalization.

An okay life

Liang notes that before becoming naturalized citizens, married migrants have no access to Taiwan’s social insurance system under the national pension, family assistance in special circumstances, and public assistance laws.

Despite the challenges and legal uncertainties they face, the women, “try to tolerate everything,” Liang says.

“Most of the marriage migrants, they can have an okay life here in Taiwan.”

  • According to a Channel NewsAsia report from January, there are some 170,000 foreign spouses from Southeast Asia living in Taiwan.
  • More than 200,000 elementary school and junior high school students, one in every ten students in Taiwan, is the child of an immigrant.
  • As of 2013 there were more than 40,000 foreign spouses in Taiwan who were yet to acquire Taiwan nationality, according to a 2014 report from The Diplomat.

Edited by Olivia Yang


Thinking Taiwan


Focus Taiwan

The Diplomat

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Channel NewsAsia