Number of Hong Kong residents moving to Taiwan nearly doubles in 2020

Helen Davidson in Taipei
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: David Chang/EPA</span>
Photograph: David Chang/EPA

Taiwan issued nearly twice as many residence permits to Hongkongers in 2020 compared with the previous year, new government data have shown, further evidence of the continued exodus of people from the city that is under a worsening crackdown.

Pro-democracy supporters and basic freedoms in Hong Kong have been under pressure since the introduction of a national security law by Beijing in late June.

In 2020, the Taiwan government issued 10,813 residence permits and 1,576 settlement permits to people from Hong Kong, according to the immigration department. The figure is almost double that of 2019, when 5,858 residence permits and 1,474 settlement permits were issued. Figures dating back to 2016 hovered around 5,100 residence or settlement permits annually.

Related: Hong Kong: China jails 10 who fled by boat to Taiwan for up to three years

The Taiwan government’s mainland affairs council told the Guardian at least 1,300 permits of either kind were issued in the month of December alone.

Hong Kong census data released last week revealed a net loss in population for the city, with provisional estimates finding Hong Kong’s population to be 7,474,200 at the end of 2020, a decrease of 46,500, or 0.6% from the previous year.

Numerous new pathways for Hongkongers to leave the city have been created in response to authorities’ efforts to crush dissent and erase opposition movements. Australian data from January showed 2,500 Hong Kong nationals in the country had their visas extended and more than 500 had applied for visas to resettle. In the UK, hundreds of thousands are expected to move via a program to resettle people with British National (Overseas) passports.

Taiwan is a popular choice too. A poll in mid-2020, published in Foreign Policy, found half of all respondents considered leaving Hong Kong, and a third of that group identified Taiwan – which is geographically and culturally close – as a preferred destination.

Taiwan’s government – which itself faces Beijing threats to take Taiwan, potentially by force – has repeatedly expressed its support for people in Hong Kong, including protesters who the foreign minister, Joseph Wu, has called “freedom fighters”.

In mid-2020 it established the Taiwan-Hong Kong Services and Exchange Office, which proffered to help Hongkongers resettle in Taiwan, but only if they could make their own way there. Some have attempted drastic measures to get to Taiwan, like the group of activists caught and jailed in China after attempting to travel by boat.

Opposition parties and non-government groups have called for the government to go further in their assistance, or at least to increase transparency around the office, which is governed by regulations only stipulating “necessary aid”.

Lev Nachman, a visiting scholar at the National Taiwan University and co-author of the Foreign Policy poll, said the increase in residency permits for Hongkongers was encouraging, but lacked transparency.

“When there are lots of people getting permanent residency cards is that because they’re wealthy and have money to invest or are highly skilled?” he told the Guardian.

“Are the people coming here coming because they face the immediate danger that Taiwan was saying it wants to help, or is it just for any Hongkonger who can afford it and wants to get out?”

“It’s wonderful these options exist but … it might not be able to help the people who are in the most need.”

The mainland affairs council, which holds responsibility for the office, has repeatedly refused to disclose the number of people it has assisted, or specifics of how it has done so. The council told the Guardian it received 1,800 calls and emails in the first six months of the office’s operations, mostly inquiring about immigration and settlement.

Taiwan has amended laws to decriminalise the act of arriving unlawfully to seek political asylum but has no dedicated refugee program, case review process or streamlined support for asylum seekers in Taiwan, as individuals are dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

It has prompted repeated calls for refugee legislation, primarily pushed by Taiwan’s third-biggest party, the progressive New Power party, but also from the opposition Kuomintang party (KMT), which historically has favoured warmer ties with Beijing but supports Hong Kong people’s desire for freedom and democracy.

Ho Chih-yung, KMT party spokesman said the lack of formal asylum laws and the “unwillingness” of the ruling Democratic Progressive party to open borders to Hong Kong refugees meant it was “an exaggeration to say that Taiwan can substantially support the Hong Kong protesters”.