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Charity founder highlights plight of stateless children

2018/02/23 20:35:43

Taipei, Feb. 23 (CNA) For the past three decades, Nicole Yang (楊婕妤) has devoted her life to caring for people living with HIV/AIDS and providing shelter for disadvantaged foreign nationals and migrant workers in Taiwan.

Over the past seven years, the 62-year-old founder of the Harmony Home Association, Taiwan (台灣關愛之家協會) charity group has extended her services to another group of disadvantaged people in the country -- stateless children born to migrant workers.

A CNA reporter recently visited the association's center for women and children in Taipei's Wenshan District, which provides shelter for children with HIV/AIDS, as well as migrant workers and their stateless children.

Scores of boisterous children fill the hallway with their laughter. They call Yang by the endearing nickname "Mimi" and follow her everywhere.

Yang began caring for HIV/AIDS patients in 1986, after one of her close friends was diagnosed with the virus. She founded the Harmony Home Association in 2003 to raise awareness of the disease and offer better care for sufferers.

In 2006, she was honored with the Health, Welfare and Environment Foundation's Medical Dedication Award, becoming the first non-medical professional to receive the award.

She said it was by chance that she began looking after migrant workers and their children.

In 1997, two foreign priests approached her and asked if she could help take care of disadvantaged foreign nationals in Taiwan, and with her passion for helping people, she agreed, Yang said.

Although the foreign nationals she serves are not limited to migrant workers from Southeast Asia, she said their numbers have increased over the past decade as Taiwan has introduced more migrant workers.

Many pregnant migrant workers choose to run away from their jobs to give birth to their children, but are ultimately unable to take care of their children and seek help from her association, Yang said.

An average of 700 children are born to migrant workers in Taiwan each year, one in four of whom are unable to obtain legal resident status in the country, according to statistics compiled by the association.

It is estimated that around 1,300 such children reside in Taiwan at present, with no access to health insurance.

"As long as the migrant mothers are legally employed in Taiwan, their children can apply for a residence permit and a national health insurance card," but if they do not have legal status, their children cannot apply for such benefits, Yang noted.

"Regardless of what the mothers or the adults do, we should protect the children," she said, urging the government to give stateless children temporary residence permits so they can obtain health insurance.

Having health insurance is important because some infants are born prematurely or with defects, and their medical care costs can pile up, she said.

Her association spends about NT$2 million (US$68,301) to NT$3 million each year to help pay for the medical costs of these children, said Yang, whose association currently shelters 160 stateless children.

Yang said the stateless children her association shelters are mostly children of unaccounted-for migrant workers who have run away from their jobs or overstayed their visas. These children cannot acquire Taiwan nationality because neither of their parents are Taiwanese nationals.

Around 10 percent of those stateless children are abandoned by their birth parents, making them stateless orphans, Yang said, adding that she is worried these children could grow up to be marginalized in society.

Legal Aid Foundation Deputy CEO Lin Tsung-hsien (林聰賢) told CNA that stateless children not only have problems accessing medical care, but also have problems going to school and finding jobs when they grow older.

Currently, some of those problems are being solved on a case-by- case basis, but the problems show that the existing laws and regulations are insufficient, said Lin, who called for a universal standard to address the issue.

"One person's problem may not be much of a problem. But if it is a problem affecting hundreds or thousands of people, it is a big problem," he pointed out.

Taiwan, as a diverse society, should embrace these children instead of ignoring them because some of them could end up living in Taiwan for the rest of their lives, Lin said.

Despite spending so much time and effort caring for migrant workers and their children, Yang said she gains more than she gives.

Many of the migrant workers eventually volunteer to look after HIV/AIDS patients at her shelters -- something many Taiwanese are not necessarily willing to do, she said.

Whether it is caring for HIV/AIDS sufferers or stateless children, Yang said, she does not feel that she has sacrificed herself for others, but is just acting out of a sense of responsibility.

"This is a life I chose for myself," she said.

(By Wang Yang-yu and Christie Chen)