A travel restriction imposed by Taiwan to help contain the coronavirus outbreak has created a new dilemma for protesters and dissidents from Hong Kong seeking asylum on the self-ruled island.
Since February 6, Taipei has banned all visitors from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, with the island’s Central Epidemic Command Centre saying the restriction would remain in place until the contagion had been brought under control.
For people like Lam Wing-kee, the announcement came as unwelcome news. The Hong Kong bookseller fled to Taiwan in April last year fearing he might be handed over to the authorities in mainland China under a now-withdrawn extradition bill.
The former manager of Causeway Bay Bookstore was detained in mainland China in 2015 after being accused of selling books critical of China’s leaders. The same fate befell four other Hong Kong booksellers.
Lam said his entry permit for Taiwan was only valid for another two months and then he would have to return home.
“My visa will expire on April 23 and I will have to leave Taiwan if I do not get a business licence to open a bookstore here,” he said.
Lam wants to reopen Causeway Bay Bookstore in Taiwan, after which he would be eligible to apply for permanent residence on the island. But the application process for the business licence takes time and he fears it will not be completed in time.
“And because of the ban, I won’t be able to apply for a new permit to re-enter Taiwan,” he said.
Lam said he was aware of about 100 Hongkongers in Taiwan who had fled there to avoid prosecution over their involvement in the anti-government protests in Hong Kong and were now facing the same dilemma over their right to stay.
One of them is 22-year-old former university student Chan, who said his visitor permit expired in two weeks’ time.
“I came to Taiwan nearly six months ago but will have to leave on March 14,” he said.
Chan, who asked to be referred to only by his family name, was among a group of people who stormed the Legislative Council chamber in Hong Kong on July 1 as part of the protests against the proposed extradition bill.
More than 7,000 people have been arrested for their roles in the protests against the proposed legislation – which would have allowed for the transfer of criminal suspects to mainland China, where critics say there is no guarantee of a fair trial – which began in June last year.
Chan said he had applied to study at a university in Taiwan but had yet to hear if he had been successful. He said he hoped the authorities in Taipei would lift the travel restriction to support the Hongkongers seeking asylum.
“The Hong Kong police have continued to arrest and press charges against the protesters despite the coronavirus outbreak,” he said. “But Taiwan’s ban has made it difficult for protesters to find shelter.”
Wang Hsi, legal affairs director at the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, said the lack of legislation regarding political refugees in Taiwan made it impossible for Hongkongers to seek asylum on the self-ruled island.
Under Taiwan’s usual border control rules, visitors from Hong Kong can apply for a tourist permit, which allows them to stay for up to six months, After that time, the permit can be extended, but the holder must leave Taiwan and re-enter – something Hongkongers are now unable to do because of the coronavirus restriction.
Chiu Chui-cheng, vice-chairman of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, which handles the island’s affairs with Beijing, said the government would do all it could to help Hongkongers in need.
“We understand that Mr Lam Wing-kee is in the process of opening the Causeway Bay Bookstore here and that certain procedures and paperwork are required by the authorities in charge,” he said.
“If Mr Lam runs into any problem in his application, he is welcome to contact us and the government will give him all necessary assistance.”
As for other Hongkongers, Chiu said Taiwan’s authorities would deal with their cases “properly and in line with the existing regulations and humanitarian considerations”.
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