Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Friday pledged that the democratic island would offer assistance to any residents of Hong Kong who fear arrest or unfair prosecution over their involvement in a recent string of mass protests against extradition to mainland China.
Tsai was speaking in response to reports from RFA and Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper that dozens of Hong Kong protesters have already fled to Taiwan in a bid to avoid arrest on public order or "rioting" charges linked to the largely peaceful protests that have rocked the city since June 9.
Taiwan has never formed part of the People's Republic of China nor come under the control of the Chinese Communist Party.
"We will offer appropriate assistance to these friends who come from Hong Kong on a humanitarian basis," Tsai was quoted as saying on Friday by Taiwan's official Central News Agency.
RFA confirmed on Thursday that more than 10 anti-extradition protesters who broke into Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) following a mass peaceful demonstration on July 1 have since fled to Taiwan, while Hong Kong's Apple Daily said more than 30 have arrived there in recent days.
The protesters, many of whom are students, could face jail terms of at least five years if they are convicted of "rioting" in a Hong Kong court, based on the jailing of several leaders of the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement, their lawyers said.
But they also face difficulties in applying for formal political asylum, as they are unable to prove that they were part of the storming of LegCo, because they were wearing masks to avoid detection at the time.
Some have been offered temporary accommodation by Taiwanese NGOs, but there is no indication that they will able to stay in the longer term.
Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), which oversees Taiwan's relationship with China, declined to confirm whether any Hong Kong protesters had formally requested political asylum.
But it said such cases would be handled "under the principle of respecting human rights protections and humanitarian concerns."
"[We] can provide necessary assistance to Hong Kong residents whose safety and freedom are in urgent danger due to political reasons," it said in a statement on Friday.
No legal process
Taiwan, a sovereign country under the 1911 Republic of China government that fled to the island after losing the civil war to Mao Zedong's communists in 1949, has no legal asylum process or refugee law, despite growing calls for a clearer framework from rights groups involved in helping fleeing dissidents.
Tseng Chien-yuan, who chairs the New School for Democracy board of directors, said it is far easier for Hong Kong people to obtain long-term residency in Taiwan through study or investment than by seeking asylum.
"The current practice is not to repatriate them, but to find another way to accommodate them," Tseng said. "They try to find them a sponsor, so that they can continue to live freely in Taiwan, but they won't enjoy the rights and protections that come with having an ID card or a residency permit."
Lam Wing-kei, who fled to Taiwan after being detained in mainland China for selling "banned" political books to mail-order customers from the Causeway Bay bookstore in Hong Kong, said it was unrealistic to expect that refugees like him would only stay a short while in Taiwan before being resettled in a third country.
"Not every country will take them," Lam said. "It depends on how high a profile the person has."
"I don't think the human rights organizations here necessarily have the means to help people leave Taiwan for resettlement in a third country as political refugees," he said.
Hong Kong political affairs commentator Sang Pu said protesters would likely face lengthy jail terms if they are caught, compared with the relatively light sentences handed down for similar actions in democratic countries.
"For example, young people will likely be sentenced for rioting or assaulting a police officer, which in Hong Kong means a sentence of between five and 10 years," Sang said.
"Some people say they are cowards, but their storming [of LegCo] was a form of protest on behalf of all of us in Hong Kong," he said. "If we won't take responsibility for their front-line struggle, then we have no business blaming them."
Support for Hong Kong
The administration of President Tsai, who is seeking reelection in January 2020, has been vocal in its support of Hong Kong's anti-extradition protests, condemning police violence against unarmed demonstrators and calling on the city's government to pursue greater democracy.
"In the pursuit of democracy and freedom, Taiwan will always walk side-by-side with the people of Hong Kong," the MAC said in a statement earlier this week.
It said the Hong Kong government's planned amendment to the city's Fugitive Offenders Ordinance "infringes human rights [and] has been collectively rejected by Hong Kong, the international community, and Chinese people both at home and abroad."
"Taiwan once again urges the Hong Kong government to not repeatedly and arrogantly try to exonerate itself from its own mistakes," it said, calling for the immediate withdrawal of the amendments.
While chief executive Carrie Lam has said the amendments are "dead," campaigners say her assertion offers no legal guarantees while the amendments remain tabled in LegCo.
If Hong Kong allows renditions to China on a case-by-case basis, the change would affect anyone who traveling to the city who is regarded as a dissident or political opponent by Beijing, including investors who may run afoul of powerful local officials in a business dispute, and find themselves accused of fraud or running an illegal business.
Back in Hong Kong, six busloads of unidentified people converged on an underpass in the suburb of Tai Po in the early hours of Friday morning, ripping down anti-extradition messages from members of the public and replacing them with funeral wreaths for President Tsai and pro-democracy members of Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo), as well as outspoken Cantopop star Denise Ho.
They also stuck up posters about a pro-government, pro-police rally to be held on Saturday. Their offerings were later torn down again and replaced by anti-extradition messages.
Reported by Chung Kuang-cheng and Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.