Economy & Business
Frustration and uncertainty
Foreigners wait for Taiwan to reopen its doors
By Douglas Habecker
When Mark Dreyer said goodbye to his wife and young son and daughter in Taiwan and returned to his job in China on 3 December 2020, he had no idea that nine months later he would still be in the middle of an extended, frustrating fight to see them again.
Dreyer and his family had returned from China to spend 10-11 months in Taiwan, but he needed to head back to his Beijing job as AmCham China’s Marketing and Communications Director. He originally counted on returning to Taiwan this summer to take his son back to China (his daughter lacks a China visa). Although he does not hold a Taiwan Alien Residence Certificate (ARC), he planned on applying for a family reunion special visa at the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Hong Kong. However, on 19 May 2021, Taiwan stopped issuing such visas as its most serious Covid-19 outbreak to date led to stricter Level 3 restrictions. When restrictions were relaxed to Level 2 on 26 July, Dreyer was hopeful that he could gain entry, which had been granted under earlier Level 2 conditions before 19 May. However, a 28 July visa appointment he scheduled at Hong Kong’s TECO was cancelled by that office, which has stopped processing all such applications.
As Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) head Chen Shih-chung had previously noted that entry for non-ARC-holding foreigners would be considered on a case-by-case basis, Dreyer petitioned the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for entry. Noting that this was a border entry issue, the CDC referred him to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), which told him that the border was closed and that he should talk to the CDC. Since then, he’s been in a "holding pattern” but says he’s willing to do whatever is necessary to be reunited with his son, who just turned nine, six-year-old daughter and wife. He and his wife have even considered the option of having his son fly unaccompanied to Xiamen, where Dreyer would meet him and join him in a three-week quarantine. However, this carries risks due to China’s unpredictable and sudden bans on internal travel and other pandemic restrictions.
"Emotionally, it’s tough. The kids have been saying, ‘What’s going on, Daddy? Why are you so late?’” he said, adding that his difficulty has brought him into contact with an online group of about 500 foreign spouses who are in the same situation. Compounding their frustration is the lack of any clear communication or concrete standards from Taiwanese officials about how or when the current ban will be lifted. Dreyer acknowledged that Taiwanese officials "got their fingers burnt” with the May imported outbreak of the virus but asked what the benchmark was for allowing people like himself back in, with daily new domestic cases hovering close to zero and more relaxed Level 2 restrictions on everything except international entries.
"We love Taiwan, massively respect what they’ve done and in no ways want to put that at risk. But I’m not coming from a place that has thousands of cases per day and is low risk. I’m not looking to take advantage of anything,” said Dreyer, noting that he recently missed his son’s birthday and he and his wife’s 15th wedding anniversary. "As these things keep passing by, things get harder and harder.”
Armand Louw’s Taiwanese wife moved from Hong Kong back to Taiwan to begin a new job in May, when he initiated the process to apply for an ARC and join her. Although he has since concluded his Hong Kong job as a network consultant for an international NGO, wrapped up his finances, packed up their apartment and moved everything over, he himself is stranded in the territory with no way to join his wife after the TECO stopped processing all visa applications.
"In essence, I’m stuck here because no matter what we tried—emailing the Taiwan office here, the CECC in Taiwan and various departments in charge—we get the same answer. Either it’s not their responsibility, or I get directed to someone else, or they say that there’s nothing they can do because of Covid-19,” said Louw, point out that this entry ban on those with family members in Taiwan stands in contrast to the government’s recent announcement it would be allowing foreign university students, university professors and some information technology professionals to enter. "At the moment, there’s nothing more we can do individually.”
He has since also joined LINE and Facebook groups representing hundreds of foreigners in similar situations and noted that the majority are fully vaccinated and willing to meet any entry requirements that Taiwan has, including quarantining two or even three weeks.
Meanwhile, hundreds of other foreigners have found themselves similarly stuck outside of Taiwan and left in limbo by the same ban. These include employees of international companies who have jobs awaiting them in Taiwan, including key positions in the nation’s wind power, chip-making, aerospace and other industries, teachers at Taiwan’s biggest international schools, and university professors. Another particularly large group is foreign students registered with local universities and Chinese-language programmes.
Ironically, all of these individuals (some accompanied by families) have been granted work and study permits to enter Taiwan but—in a classic "catch 22” situation—are not allowed in because they don’t hold ARCs, which are only granted once they arrive.
People First Relocation Managing Director Jim Hill, whose firm provides a wide range of services to global companies moving employees to Taiwan and South Korea, said that he alone currently had about 200 people from 20-25 corporate clients facing this dilemma. These range from workers installing offshore wind turbines to CEOs.
"Many of these people quit jobs abroad to come here and now they’re in purgatory. These are very high-skilled individuals and a lot of these [Taiwan] projects are on hold until they can get in,” said Hill, adding that several client companies had stopped initiating expatriate Taiwan assignments altogether for these reasons.
He said that he was initially supportive when the government closed its borders around three months ago but then grew steadily more alarmed and frustrated as TECO offices stopped processing work permits and visas in the late-May early-June period and the National Immigration Agency (NIA) stopped providing updates and handed this responsibility to the CECC in early July. Although authorities had informed him that a return to Level 2 would possibly see the reopening of borders, this did not happen, with no clues given about when anything might change.
"The government message became, ‘If we didn’t tell you anything, nothing has changed,’” he said, adding that the uncertainty had been very challenging for corporate clients, particularly when the government announced in August that it was working to offer entry to 13,000 foreign university students due to begin classes in Taiwan and daily new domestic cases dropped into single digits. "You can feel [companies’] frustration with emails daily asking, ‘What’s going on, Jim?’ and I don’t know. There has been no government information, just 2 pm daily news conferences and not much there. One hundred percent of agencies—MOFA, NIA, TECO—have washed their hands of this and are waiting for the CECC to decide.”
Hill pointed out that Taiwan currently didn’t offer any entry benefits to fully vaccinated individuals and contrasted this situation with South Korea, which had restrictions similar to Taiwan’s up until May but has now gone to the other extreme. About 1-2 weeks ago, it began offering visa-free entry to American citizens and other nationalities who either have had two vaccinations or are willing to do a two-week quarantine. Those proving they are fully vaccinated and are tested can enter without quarantine but must provide a detailed itinerary of every movement for the first two weeks in country. He said that this "uber pragmatic” approach is increasingly shared by other Asian nations like Singapore, which has decided to open up and live with the virus.
"Before May, I was proud of what Taiwan was doing for the pandemic but now it’s no longer science-based. How can you allow 13,000 students in and no one else?” he said. "If this continues to next year, I don’t know what I’ll do. International companies have other options and other projects going on around the world. They can shut down Taiwan operations and move them elsewhere. That hurts everyone. There’s no upside.”
The managing director of a leading global player in the electric bicycle industry that last year relocated its operations from China to Taiwan agrees that the current inability to bring in key foreign personnel will have a long-term impact on his operations. His lengthy struggle to bring in a Chinese head of engineering has been firmly rejected by Taiwanese immigration authorities without explanation and three other German citizens who have been given job contracts are still stuck outside Taiwan.
The crisis is impacting a significant number of international businesspeople who have Taiwanese family members here but don’t hold ARCs because constant travel takes them all over Asia on a regular basis. They have suddenly found themselves with two options—leaving Taiwan for their jobs and finding themselves indefinitely separated from their families, or remaining here indefinitely, trying to handle jobs remotely.
Joel Warton, director of footwear sourcing for Target, unintentionally found himself in the first category after he left his triplets in Taiwan at the end of April to return to his Hong Kong office, expecting to return on a special family visa as he had previously. As his children’s primary provider, he normally returns once or twice a month to spend time with them. However, when the Hong Kong TECO branch stopped accepted appointments, he tried applying online, only to encounter a TECO website notice that it stopped processing all applications with its appointment calendar grayed out to the end of the year. Since then, he’s tried everything he can think of but hasn’t found any options beyond joining a petition by a group of 300 others in similar situations with family in Taiwan.
"It’s been bad. I regret leaving in April without some way to get back,” he said. "The company obviously wants me to be in Hong Kong. I am going to try and find a way to stay longer in Taiwan and work. If not, I might have to leave my job. My kids and I want to be together, but I don’t know who to talk to.”
Mike Liebenstein, director of manufacturing for Pride Sports, is in a similar situation but ended up in the second category, spending the last 18-19 months in Taiwan and forgoing his regular business trips to China and Vietnam. His wife and son are both Taiwanese citizens running businesses here but when he tried to apply for an ARC last year, he was told he had to first leave the country to do this, which would have seen him also stranded abroad.
"It’s just frustrating because I go to the immigration agency and they say, ‘Go to the Ministry of Economic Affairs,’ which then tells me to go back to Immigration,” he said. "I’m caught in a buzzsaw and don’t what to do. I’m pretty much out of options right now. If I went out and couldn’t get back in, I might lose my job.”
Although they are involved in a very different kind of business, Taiwan’s largest international schools are also seeing operations significantly disrupted as school years have begun without an estimated combined total of at least 100 new faculty members who were due to arrive. Children of expatriates still unable to enter have also been impacted and in some cases have started the semester with long-distance online classes, sometimes taught by teachers who themselves are in another country.
"The closed borders have been disruptive to learning on our campuses. We have several new staff who had visas and work permits but could not enter the country because they did not have ARCs,” said Julie Heinsman, superintendent of Morrison Academy, which operates campuses for students from kindergarten through high school in Taipei, Taichung and Kaohsiung. "In one case, a mother has been separated from her children for many months due to this. Taiwan has implemented very excellent procedures to enter the country. These staff members would not be a danger to the health of Taiwan citizens.”
In the midst of this on-going, growing frustration and uncertainty faced by so many different foreign individuals, companies and institutions impacted by the entry ban, the European Chamber of Commerce Taiwan (ECCT) has taken the lead as one of the international organizations to actively pursue this issue directly with Taiwanese government authorities over the past couple months. According to ECCT CEO Freddie Höglund, action was necessary because of widespread concerns expressed by member companies and other sources, and given the fact that Europe is by far the largest source of foreign direct investment in Taiwan, totalling over US$61 billion. The ECCT investigated the situation to gain a better understanding, including surveying relocation companies, which Höglund referred to as bellwethers for who is moving in and out of Taiwan. Among ECCT members, it was found that around 200-300 people were being directly impacted by the entry ban.
Höglund said that the ECCT had categorized the groups it was advocating entry for, with top priority being given to family members of those who are already working in Taiwan, including spouses and children who should already be starting school here. He noted: "Any separation of more than six months becomes unsustainable for the breadwinner and their family, and it’s already been 3-4 months. How can people stand being away from their loved ones for so long? It’s an unsustainable situation.”
The ECCT’s second priority group has been engineers, senior managers and others who were scheduled to enter Taiwan for job rotations and staff replenishment, which tend to normally take place during the summer. A third focus groups included international schoolteachers. Related concerns raised by the ECCT with the government have included the possibility of more lenient quarantine restrictions for fully vaccinated arrivals, such as quarantining at home (as many companies are not reimbursing employees for quarantine hotels). One early success was convincing the government to change its original regulation that children over 12 needed their own quarantine room, a policy labelled as "ridiculous” by Höglund who remarked, "I wouldn’t leave a 12-year-old for 14 hours by themselves, let alone 14 days.”
The ECCT CEO said his chamber’s concerns were initially expressed in very clear terms via written communications and face-to-face meetings with the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA), Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) and National Development Council (NDC). This included pointing out the inconsistency of working to allow 13,000 international students into the nation but banning the above groups. He said that the response was that the current entry ban needed to be maintained because of concerns about the virus’s Delta variant and failed to provide further clarity about when it might be lifted, although the MOEA’s Bureau of Energy was recently authorized by the CECC to consider wind energy industry personnel on a case-by-case basis.
"It’s all been such a shame because Taiwan has been working so hard to attract foreign talent and that has all come to a grinding halt,” said Höglund. "Longer term what’s the exit strategy? How are you going to get out of this? Taiwan has only been reporting on individual cases each day and hyping it up. The European mindset is now living with [the virus] and lifting all restrictions. Business hates uncertainty and Taiwan is not even on the map right now because of uncertainty.”
However, there is a new ray of hope that the Taiwanese government is finally listening and responding, following a meeting between ECCT representatives, Premier Su Tseng-chang and top cabinet officials. Just before this meeting took place, the CECC announced that Taiwan’s overseas offices would begin approving entry applications for spouses and minor children of Taiwanese citizens. Höglund said that during the meeting the premier agreed that family members of Taiwanese and foreign citizens already in Taiwan should be allowed in as a humane consideration. Furthermore, the premier agreed in principle to allow foreign employees, even in larger groups, to apply for entry for company rotations and replacements on a case-by-case basis. Finally, the officials told the ECCT that they might be open to considering future relaxed entry requirements for fully vaccinated individuals, but not at this time. "The ECCT has really pushed this issue,” said Höglund, "But we aren’t the only ones. The European Economic and Trade Office has pushed too and so have European trade offices. Now things are beginning to move forward.”
Responding to this latest development, Hill at People First Relocation noted that although the government had previously also promised to examine entries on a case-by-case basis, he was hopeful that this new assurance by Taiwan’s highest-level officials would have a positive impact. Next week, he plans to submit an entry application for a group of 20 working for a well-known global technology company. "We’re taking the government’s assurances at face value and are going to try again. I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said.
That optimism is not shared by Joel Warton. A day after it was announced that those with Taiwanese family members could apply to enter, he re-contacted the Hong Kong TECO office to apply for a special exemption entry. He was informed that he does not qualify because of his divorced status, despite holding household registration and other legal documents that show he is the father of his three Taiwanese children. "I told them I really need to see my children, that I’m their primary provider,” he said. "But they said, ‘We can’t help you now. Maybe things will change in the future."
Douglas Habecker is a writer, Compass Magazine co-publisher and current AmCham Taichung chairman