It has been well covered by the world’s press that the Keleti Palyaudvar train station in Budapest has been packed beyond capacity of late, but what is getting less media attention is the makeup of that transient population. Yes, there are the refugees fleeing Syria, forced by geography and bureaucracy to wait for the next leg of their journey in the Hungarian capital. But there is also another group, namely, the throngs of onlookers: mostly members of the press, or amateur street-photographers, or average Hungarians hoping to help. It was there recently that this author, there to assist some friends as they distributed relief supplies, became uncomfortably embroiled in an argument between two members of these respective groups.
“Take your money, I don’t want it,” yelled Tarek (not his real name), a middle-aged man huddled with his family in a shaded corner of space just outside the entrance to the station. A reporter and her cameraman, seemingly overcome with a sense helplessness, as were we all, and hoping to do something, anything, to alleviate that feeling, was trying to push a wad of bills into Tarek’s hand. We could do little but watch the argument unfold until the reporter, perhaps confused, perhaps exasperated, left to get more footage elsewhere.
Tarek, seizing upon us and desperate to explain his situation to someone, began to describe his family’s exodus from Syria, including the humiliating treatment at the hands of the Hungarian guards at the border camp. Almost in tears, he conveyed how they had tried to simply survive through to the end of the civil war, for three years until, giving up on the prospect of normal life ever returning, decided to leave it all behind and set out for greener pastures. He had been successful in Syria: a small-business owner, he owned a home, and two cars, and ran a successful import/export enterprise. He didn’t need the reporter’s pocket change, he insisted. All he wanted was perhaps a little respect, and half a chance to rebuild his life somewhere else, somewhere safe.
At this point, the mind starts searching for answers—grasping at straws, really—and the thought emerged: why not Taiwan? It’s a strange leap, to be sure: the Republic of China (ROC) is on the other side of the world; has a radically different culture; and is not directly affected by the current crisis. But it has been this author’s experience, having spent much of his adult life as an economic migrant of sorts in Taiwan, that the island is a welcoming, modern, attractive place to live, and with a culture that encourages entrepreneurialism, opportunities abound. So, crazy as it sounds; why not Taiwan?
Why Not Taiwan?
As the nations of the world scramble to react to this fast-moving crisis, the ROC would do well to resist the temptation to remain on the sidelines, and use this opportunity to do its part as a responsible member of the international community by assisting in the resettlement of those left homeless by the chaos that now reigns in the post-Jasmine revolution Middle East and North Africa.
In order to accomplish this, however, the government and people of Taiwan would have to adopt a less parochial view of citizenship. What is needed is the adoption of immigration and refugee policies that are appropriate for the 21st century. As it stands now, official policy, and the social conception on which it is based, are predicated on a perception of citizenship that is based on the principle of jus sanguinus, whereas what is required is a shift to a jus solis orientation.
The jus solis principle, simply put, means a person’s nationality, or identity, is dependent on where he was born. The jus sanguinus principle, in contrast, assigns identity on the basis of blood heritage. Most of Europe, for example France, Holland, Sweden and the United Kingdom, rely on jus solis, as do (almost by their very definition) Canada and the United States. In these nations, citizenship is largely determined by place of birth. Germany, on the other hand, retains even today a philosophy of jus sanguinus. This is largely a relic of the creation of the modern German state. Though antiquated, this “law of the blood” is carried on even today, where the German identity is based on race. As pointed out by Rado Pribic, the Oliver E. Williams Professor of Languages & Literatures and Chair of International Affairs at Lafayette College, those with German ancestry are easily conferred German citizenship regardless of acculturation, whereas second- and third-generation descendents of immigrants, though born in Germany, have a difficult task obtaining such citizenship. It is this conception of blood heritage in Germany that famously contributed to the obsession with racial purity and “Aryan” descent in the first half of the last century. Despite this orientation, Germany today is one of the leading European nations responding with compassion and humanity to the refugee crisis, and is the nation which the vast majority of refugees seek to reach.
Broadly speaking, a good indicator of whether a nation operates on a principle of jus solis or jus sanguinus is its citizenship laws. The legislative codification of who is and is not allowed to be considered a member of the group is directly influenced by the prevailing conception in that society of membership and how it is achieved. According to a study by the US Office of Personnel Management that compiled information on the citizenship laws of most of the world’s countries, the ROC confers citizenship according to the principle of jus sanguinus. The defining piece of legislation is the Nationality Law of the Republic of China, enacted in 1929, which stipulates that citizenship is based on descent from the father, except in cases where the father is unknown or stateless, but where the mother is an ROC citizen. In other words, being born in Taiwan does not necessarily, in and of itself, automatically confer citizenship rights: only if the father is an ROC citizen. This applies regardless of the nationality of the mother, or in certain situations, whether or not the child is born out of wedlock. The law was amended in 2000 to allow transmission of citizenship through either parent, but a strong patrilineal tendency in Taiwanese society continues to dominate.
Clearly, Taiwan is very much a jus sanguinus society, and yet there are indications that it is better positioned to accept and accommodate an influx of refugees better than its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region. Japan and Korea are both remarkably ethnically homogeneous, whereas Taiwan is home to a number of different ethnicities, including Hoklos, Hakkas, and members of the island’s many indigenous Austronesian ethnic groups. Indeed, in the exodus of 1949, refugees from virtually all the diverse corners of China were forced to retreat to Taiwan, there to live together in close quarters. While many of Taiwan’s ethnicities fall under the umbrella of Han Chinese, they are as culturally distinct from one another as British are from Americans. Moreover, unlike Indonesia and Malaysia, there remain few class divisions in society conferring privilege on some and hardship on others (though to be fair, much work remains to be done to empower Taiwan’s indigenous peoples).
Indeed, with each passing year, the ethnic isolation of Taiwan is being erased. The increasingly globalized economy has Taiwan’s workers and businesspeople plugged into virtually every region of the world; increased levels of tourism and travel have led to an increasingly cosmopolitan and worldly Taiwanese population; and a high rate of dual citizenship (while there are no hard numbers available, it has been reported that hundreds of thousands of ROC citizens have obtained citizenship in the United States alone) shows that the population of Taiwan now enjoy strong, substantial ties to the outside world, and they are far from the isolated islanders they were just two generations ago.
The increasingly cosmopolitan nature of the Taiwan identity is emerging at just the right time, as the nation no longer can afford to remain isolated from the outside world and, following the aforementioned jus sanguinus principle, avoid taking in immigrants and refugees. The main reason for this has to do with demographics, which are not in Taiwan’s favor. According to the information website Index Mundi, the birth rate is 8.7 births/1,000 population, with a total fertility rate of 1.1. This is a very low fertility scenario, with grave implications for Taiwan’s population growth, especially given the culture’s traditional aversion to immigration intake (with a net migration rate of 0.03 migrant(s)/1,000 population). With a median age of 38.1 and a population growth rate of just 0.29%, this paints the picture of a greying population, with all the associated problems that that entails.
These problems can be pushed down the road for subsequent administrations to deal with, but they cannot be ignored forever. As countries in America and Europe have discovered, the only way to deal with the problems associated with low population growth is by adopting an immigration policy that is proactive, realistic, and, most importantly, not race-based. At the current time, while it is not codified in legislation, the main trickle of incoming immigrants to Taiwan do so by marrying Taiwanese. The vast majority of these are women marrying Taiwanese men, and many of these are coming from China. This appears to have the tacit approval of policymakers, as the linguistic similarity minimizes the sort of socialization problems that the government would eventually have to address. Short of opening the door to the 1.5 billion people of China, the current paradigm is ill-equipped to solve the demographic problems that Taiwan is just now beginning to face, and which will inevitable grow.
There is, quite naturally, resistance in Taiwan to the idea of revamping the immigration laws to accept more outsiders. But in this way, Taiwan is far from unique. There is resistance to change in any society, as can be seen in the debates raging in Eastern Europe over how to deal with the current crisis. In this regard, Taiwan is not special. Yet most of this resistance is based primarily on little more than fear, xenophobia, and a desire to avoid taking action. In Asia, the refugee crisis is widely seen as a European problem: in Europe, many see it as a Middle-Eastern problem (with many asking why the Gulf states aren’t doing more to absorb the refugee population). In fact, it is a global problem, and what we are witnessing now will have social, cultural, and demographic repercussions that will be felt for a generation.
No more excuses
There are several arguments that could be made against the notion of Taiwan accepting refugees. For one thing, there is the distance: Taiwan is too far away from the region of conflict. However, this argument does not hold up—Taiwan is no farther away than America or Canada, both of which are contributing to the effort and accepting refugees, and today’s ease of transport makes this argument moot. For another, Taiwan is too small to be able to accommodate such a population influx. Yet this argument too is weak, especially after the people of Iceland, with a national population of less than 350,000, have offered to take more than 10,000 Syrian refugees into their homes. Moreover, Taiwan is no stranger to taking in refugees (of a sort), with the 1949 exodus from China adding, by some accounts, some two million people to the island’s existing population of six million. Obviously the acceptance of a few Syrian refugees would pale in comparison to the difficulty of accommodating the 1949 influx.
Another argument against such a plan is that the migrants are too culturally and linguistically different from the Taiwanese. While this is true, that difference is no more pronounced than the difference between the Syrian refugees and the cultures of Germany, Iceland, Canada, or many of the other nations that are doing the most to deal with this unprecedented global event. And of course, there is the fear, spread by many far-right parties in Europe and America, that the influx of refugees into Europe contains a poison pill in the form of Islamic State fighters, disguised as refugees and seeking to infiltrate Western society for the purpose of later terrorist acts. While this may be true in a small number of cases, it does not absolve states of the moral imperative to act on behalf of that vastly larger number of those who are true refugees. Moreover, by allowing this argument to factor into its response to the crisis, the government of Taiwan would be aligning itself with those far-right governments and parties in Europe espousing this view.
The final, and perhaps most cynical reason for action is optics: By offering to take in refugees and making a good-faith effort to help them integrate into society, Taiwan would be taking the moral high-ground, and setting an example for the rest of the nations in Asia that the region is more than the just the world’s factory. It would be doing its part help to alleviate what is truly a global crisis. Taipei would be sending the signal that Taiwan is part of the global community: This is especially important since Taiwan is, at present, not a part of the world—due to the diplomatic blockade perpetrated by Beijing, and a tendency on the part of the ROC government to keep a low international profile and not call too much attention to itself.
Taiwan has long been a leader in cross-border and international humanitarian efforts: it fields some of the best-trained and best-equipped search-and-rescue operators and disaster relief teams in Asia, and regularly assists nations in needs after being struck by natural disasters. For example, the people of Taiwan contributed more than any other country in terms of money and relief goods to the people of Japan after that country was struck by the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. But true humanitarianism is not about giving and then disappearing: it is about making the long-term commitment to help alleviate the problems that confront the international community in times of need. Now is such a time.
And at the end of the day, after all the economic, philosophical, and statistical arguments for or against, immigration and refugee policy in any country must be values-based, coming down to the individuals who are being helped, and who in turn will help the society that takes them in, in ways that are far less quantifiable. This author has no way of following Tarek’s odyssey, but it is hoped that he and his family have made it to Germany, or Iceland, and that they are well on their way to rebuilding their lives: perhaps starting an new import/export company, only now contributing to the economy and society of some country in Europe. Why not Taiwan?