TAIPEI - Taiwan's bid to plug a hole in its Covid-19 fight is making progress, with more than 2,700 illegal migrant workers surrendering themselves under a special amnesty programme or detained by law enforcers.
But there is still some distance to go as there are about 53,000 such workers, who have been flagged by civic groups working with them as a blind spot in Taiwan's virus-fighting efforts because they are afraid to come forward and be saddled with penalties and fines.
The concerns surfaced in February after Taiwan's 32nd confirmed Covid-19 case was reported to be an illegal migrant caregiver who worked with various elderly patients. There are 440 confirmed cases in Taiwan, with six deaths, as of Friday.
As of Tuesday (May 5), about half of the 2,757 undocumented migrant workers or those who overstayed their tourist visas to work here had turned themselves in under the amnesty programme, with the rest being detained by law enforcers, the Interior Ministry's international affairs director William Chang told The Straits Times on Thursday.
Most of the workers are from South-east Asian countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines and are in sectors such as fishing and caregiving.
The Expanded Overstayers' Voluntary Departure Programme, which runs from April 1 through June 30, is the second amnesty programme on the island. The first, a year-long programme announced by the National Immigration Agency (NIA) in January last year, was aimed at encouraging undocumented workers to return home and resulted in some 9,000 illegal foreigners turning themselves in.
Mr Chang said: "The NIA launched this expanded programme to help fight the Covid-19 outbreak. Undocumented migrant workers are especially vulnerable to the virus because there is no way for them to get access to the public service system." He was referring to Taiwan's universal healthcare system - available to citizens as well as foreigners with valid visas or resident certificates.
Those who turn themselves in under the amnesty will not be subjected to mandatory detention, face no re-entry ban, and will be fined NT$2,000 (S$95) instead of the usual NT$10,000.
Mr Chang said the NIA is doing all it can to reach migrant workers who are undocumented and likely trying to lie low. This includes setting up 25 local service centres across the island and a hotline for overstayers to physically turn themselves in or call, as well as a specialised operations brigade and service vehicles that tour the island's counties and cities, putting up posters and passing out flyers.
The NIA also asked Taiwan's liaison officers based in the South-east Asian countries where the workers are from to publicise news of the programme there, "because many migrant workers in Taiwan get the news from their relatives back home", said Mr Chang.
He said Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam's representative offices in Taiwan had helped to get the word across.
The Indonesian Economic and Trade Office to Taipei even arranged two shelter houses for Indonesians who voluntarily came forward. "They can stay there while waiting for their return passage to be arranged," said Mr Chang.
The illegal migrant workers are being checked and those with Covid-19 symptoms such as a fever will be taken to the nearest hospital to be screened for the disease.
Those without symptoms can begin the process of arranging their return passage. The NIA said it will help with their passport applications as many have expired passports and were thus unable to go home.