Taiwan mulling heavier punishment to stem illegal immigration

Tourists are seen waiting in line before going through Taiwan customs in this undated file photo. According to a statement released by the Cabinet, the Ministry of the Interior is planning revisions of laws to allow heavier fines and stiffer penalties on illegal migrant workers, their employers, and manpower brokers involved in human trafficking. (NOWnews)

TAIPEI (CNA) — Taiwan is planning to impose stricter penalties on acts related to illegal immigration to prevent incidents such as the sudden disappearance of 148 Vietnamese tourists earlier this month from happening again, according to the Cabinet.

The directive for harsher penalties was given by Minister without Portfolio Chang Ching-sen (張景森) at a cross-ministry meeting on Dec. 29 to review the management of the Kuan Hung program designed to attract visits from several Southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam.

Chang instructed the Ministry of the Interior to plan revisions of laws to allow heavier fines and stiffer penalties on illegal migrant workers, their employers, and manpower brokers involved in human trafficking, according to a statement released by the Cabinet.

The statement did not mention any specifics on how high fines could go or what the harsher penalties might involve.

Under existing laws, employers who hire illegal immigrants are subject to a fine ranging between NT$150,000 (US$4,900) and NT$750,000.

The renewed concern over illegal immigration comes after 152 of 153 Vietnamese who entered Taiwan as part of four tour groups on Dec. 21 and Dec. 23 left their tour groups and were unaccounted for as of Dec. 25.

An investigation then found that contact had been established with one member of the 152 who was previously reported missing and that three others had left the island. As of Saturday afternoon, 20 of the missing tourists had been found, leaving 128 remaining unaccounted for, according to National Immigration Agency (NIA) data.

The agency believes that criminal syndicates orchestrated the disappearance and were trying to illegally channel the Vietnamese into manual labor jobs or prostitution in Taiwan.

At Dec. 29’s meeting, Chang also asked the agencies to reinforce measures to monitor Vietnamese who come to Taiwan through the Kuan Hung program, which streamlines the visa application process for groups of five tourists or more from Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and India under certain circumstances.

Group tourists can apply for visas through the Kuan Hung program as long as the tours are organized by “quality travel agencies” recognized by Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau or company-sponsored groups.

The Ministry of Transportation and Communications should strengthen its review of tour group applications, and the Ministry of the Interior should reinforce checks on Kuan Hung travelers at borders, Chang said, according to the statement.

Meanwhile, police arrested a Taiwanese man, identified by his surname Cheng (鄭), in New Taipei on Saturday for allegedly harboring some of the missing Vietnamese travelers.

Cheng denied the accusation that he was a member of a human trafficking ring, but confessed to helping the missing tourists find shelter and receiving payment for the job, according to police.

In Vietnam, local media reported on Saturday that the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has punished one of two Hanoi-based travel company that made arrangements for the four tour groups, prohibiting it from providing international travel services for nine months.

The company was also fined 48.5 million Vietnamese Dong (US$2,091) for irregularities, including failing to manage tour groups based on contracts and hiring unqualified tour guides, the report said.

The other company is still being investigated, the report added.

By Ku Chuan, Chen Chao-fu and Elizabeth Hsu