CORONAVIRUS/Taiwan's foreign residents hope for end to family entry ban

10/24/2021 07:45 PM
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Arriving passengers at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. CNA file photo
Arriving passengers at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. CNA file photo

Taipei, Oct. 24 (CNA) Taiwan's COVID-19-related curbs on the entry of non-citizen children and spouses were lifted for Taiwanese nationals in September. But these restrictions remain in place for its foreign residents, many of whom are already enduring a prolonged family separation.

Taiwan began imposing pandemic-related border controls in January 2020, and the rules have been adjusted since depending on the progression of the disease. After Taiwan saw an unprecedented surge in domestic COVID-19 cases in May, the country banned all arrivals, with the exceptions of citizens and legal residents, from May 19.

Foreign nationals without residency can only enter Taiwan in emergencies or for humanitarian reasons. But in such circumstances, those involved are required to apply in advance for permission from the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC).

The tightened rules, which are still in place even though daily case numbers have dropped to mostly single digits, could not have come at a worse time for Yunus Aydin, a Turkish national who has lived in Taiwan for more than seven years.

Aydin initially came to Taiwan to learn Mandarin, he told CNA in a recent interview, but he ended up obtaining an engineering degree at a Taiwanese university and found a job in Taipei after graduation, as he really liked living in Taiwan.

After his high-school sweetheart, who is a doctor in Turkey, received a job offer for a postdoctoral research position at a Taoyuan hospital in May, the couple decided to get married in Turkey and then fly to Taiwan to begin the next phase of their lives together.

Despite having a job lined up, Aydin's wife is still unable to come to Taiwan under the current tightened border restrictions. Aydin ended up returning to Taiwan alone.

The situation was hard for both of them, Aydin said, as they had been planning on reuniting in Taiwan for several years, only to be scuppered at the last minute.

On Sept. 13, the CECC announced that foreign spouses and children of Taiwanese nationals were now allowed to enter Taiwan, describing the decision as one that "safeguards citizens' rights of family reunification." When Aydin came across a news article on the topic, he was overjoyed, before realizing that it didn't apply to him as a foreign resident.

The CECC only addressed the situation facing foreign residents one month later, on Oct. 17. In response to a reporter's question, Health and Welfare Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), who heads up the CECC, said that they "had approved in theory" entry for the spouses and children of foreign residents, but that the details were still being ironed out by "relevant authorities."

Chen's comment was a "big relief" to Aydin, he said, as it meant that the CECC was aware of his situation and was working on a solution.

He said that he "really appreciated" the disease prevention measures the CECC has taken, as they are the reason the people in Taiwan are safe. He just hopes that the government can soon allow entry for non-citizen spouses of foreigners.

"We're very excited" for that day to arrive, he said.

Clement Potier, a French national working at a tech startup in Taiwan, is in the same boat. Within a month of getting married to his long-term girlfriend Izabele, Potier moved to Taiwan just before the borders closed in May to start a new job at a semiconductor firm.

The couple's plan was for Izabele to move to Taiwan after a few months, but Taiwan's border restrictions have kept her out.

"Being unable to be with the one you love is really, really hard," Potier said. Small things remind him of his wife, and even happy moments are overwhelmed by the eventual sadness that comes when he remembers he cannot share these experiences with her in person.

Clement Potier and his wife, Izabele. Photo courtesy of Clement Potier
Clement Potier and his wife, Izabele. Photo courtesy of Clement Potier

What makes the situation even harder is the uncertainty, as the CECC has not provided a timeline or any milestones the country has to reach before the spouses and children of foreign residents can enter, Potier said.

He has also found it difficult because the CECC has not explained why it is treating Taiwanese nationals and residents differently in this regard.

Reading the CECC's announcement in September that they were allowing the spouses and children of Taiwanese nationals to enter was an "emotional rollercoaster," Potier said. It hit him even harder because "you see that it could be possible, but not for you."

He hopes that the CECC can address the reasons why the spouses and children of foreign residents are being kept out, because then he could better understand their logic, he said.

Of course, people don't want to risk their country's health just for tourists, but people who hold residency in Taiwan are not waiting for "some friends who come for one week and go," Potier said. "We are asking for our families."

"I really love it here, I've found great people, I like my job," Potier said. "The easy solution would be to quit my job here and go back to Europe, but that is not what I want. I want to experience life in Taiwan ... and help my company in the way I can."

Despite his love for Taiwan, Potier said that he is considering quitting in a few months if the border situation remains unchanged.

Moving to Taiwan "was a decision we both wanted," Potier said, so there is "no point" for him to experience it by himself.

A CECC press briefing with Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (second right), Centers for Disease Control Director-General Chou Jih-haw (second left) and Chou
A CECC press briefing with Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (second right), Centers for Disease Control Director-General Chou Jih-haw (second left) and Chou's two deputies Lo Yi-chun (left) and Chuang Jen-hsiang. Photo courtesy of the CECC

Another resident affected by the policy is a Malaysian national surnamed Yeong (楊), who came to Taiwan to pursue a doctoral degree in 2020. A mother of two young children, she has been forced to put her research on hold and return to Malaysia, as Taiwan's current border restrictions prevent her from bringing her children to Taiwan.

"All I want is to go back to continue my studies and take care of my children," Yeong told CNA, "because there is really no one who can take care of them in Malaysia."

Yeong said she had planned on bringing her children to Taiwan after she became more familiar with the environment, but by the time her first year as a PhD student ended in June, Taiwan had already banned entry of all foreign nationals without residency permits.

As her family members are no longer able to take care of her two children, aged four and five, Yeong had no choice but to return to Malaysia, and she has continued to stay there even after a new school year began in late September.

She is still able to take one of her classes online, she said, but she has had to drop a required course and pause her thesis research because they require her to physically be in Taiwan.

She has tried contacting the CECC, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Taiwan's representative office in Malaysia, but to no avail. For now, she is stuck until Taiwan allows her to go back with her children.

"I was so happy for the Taiwanese citizens when they received approval," Yeong said about the decision to allow foreign spouses and children to enter Taiwan. "I look forward to the day when it will be our turn to do so."

Whether or not that day will come soon is still up in the air.

In a phone call with CNA on Friday, CECC spokesperson Chuang Jen-hsiang (莊人祥) said that the issue of allowing the spouses and children of foreign nationals to enter Taiwan was under discussion, but gave no definitive timeline.

The CECC's concern is that there might be too many people traveling to Taiwan before the Lunar New Year holiday in late January next year, he said.

When asked whether the CECC would consider opening up the border for foreign spouses and children in the next two months so that they won't have to rush in in January, Chuang said that it was "part of the discussion."

"We will make an announcement as soon as we make a decision. We hope that we can reach a conclusion soon, so that we can share the news with everyone," Chuang said.

(By Chiang Yi-ching)

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