Since protests erupted in June, hundreds of Hong Kongers have sought refuge in Taiwan, a self-governed democracy over which China asserts sovereignty. Most have entered legally, but a minority have used smugglers to reach Taiwan by boat. And although Taiwan has temporarily barred entry to most Hong Kongers amid the coronavirus outbreak, many in Hong Kong view the island as a place to resettle should their political strife worsen.
"We don't ask them their names, we don't ask how they came here," said Charles Kong, secretary for Che-lam head pastor Huang Chun-sheng. "We just provide support once they get here."
The church is doing what officials say Tsai's government cannot be seen doing, at least not too openly: helping Hong Kong refugees navigate a path to remain in Taiwan.
Kong says the church has never had contact with couriers shuttling Hong Kong protesters to Taiwan, some without passports or other documentation. But Che-lam has sent an estimated $530,000 in donated face masks and goggles to protesters in Hong Kong and has helped newly arrived Hong Kongers extend their stay in Taiwan, often providing medical care, housing subsidies and access to pro bono legal assistance.
He estimates that 200 Hong Kong activists have passed through the church, with at least 30 electing to stay in Taiwan. But others never reach its doors because of the proliferation of scammers and illicit agents who seek to exploit undocumented arrivals for financial gain.
Taiwan, which is not a member of the United Nations, has not signed the U.N. Refugee Convention and has no formal asylum laws. Its government processes people from Hong Kong on a case-by-case basis but provides no public assurance of their long-term legal status, leading to concerns that the uncertainty creates gaps for protesters to be exploited.
Rights groups and Hong Kong activists have reported cases of scammers promising formal documentation for large sums of money, and some worry that China-backed actors are seeking to contact and influence Hong Kongers in Taiwan under the guise of offering humanitarian assistance.
The lack of formal channels for incoming Hong Kongers leaves them uncertain about where to turn for help, said Wayne Chan Ka-kui, convener of the Hong Kong Independence Union. "They don't trust NGOs. They don't trust political parties," he said.
In November, Chan was in contact with three Hong Kong protesters who entered Taiwan and were lured by an individual who promised them help, but who ultimately solicited donations while preventing the dissidents from contacting NGOs, he said, citing people close to the trio. He could not provide their names for security reasons.
"It's like kidnapping," Chan said.
Hong Kong was guaranteed a high degree of autonomy under its 1997 handover from Britain to China, but the Communist Party's tightening grip has many fearing for their future. A now-withdrawn proposal that would have allowed criminal suspects to be tried in mainland China's politicized courts sparked Hong Kong's worst unrest in decades.
Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, the government agency responsible for relations with China, Hong Kong and Macao, said in an email that it was aware of a self-proclaimed Hong Kong activist residing in Taiwan who "lured other Hong Kongers to Taiwan" and was forced to leave the island after overstaying his visa.
"Persons who lure other Hong Kongers to Taiwan in the name of support for the Hong Kong anti-extradition movement, and who instigate and threaten others into illegal actions will be faced with Taiwan's relevant criminal charges," the agency said.
There are other cases. In September, local media reported about an online advertisement promising Hong Kongers legal status in Taiwan for about $640. Chiu E-ling, then the secretary general of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, notified authorities, who released a statement urging Hong Kongers to be wary of fraudsters.
Chiu said such instances showed the need for laws allowing Hong Kongers to seek asylum in Taiwan. "We don't want to have more victims of human trafficking," she said.
Since Hong Kong's protests escalated, only one Hong Kong national has publicly stated his intention to stay in Taiwan. Lam Wing-kee, a bookseller who arrived last year amid fears he could be extradited from Hong Kong to face criminal charges in China, plans to open a bookstore in Taipei.
Some Hong Kongers view Lam as a test case should they, too, seek to stay in Taiwan permanently. But he is on a tourist visa and insists that Hong Kongers should understand the limitations of Taiwan's government.
"Most of them are very impatient and anxious. I've been trying to talk to them and calm them down," Lam said in an interview. "I'm using myself as an example and sharing my experience."
Last July, he identified one case of a student protester who, upon arriving in Taiwan, was approached by a man purporting to be a national security agent. Lam, and the student's companions, feared the man was trying to "buy off the protesters."
Ho Ming-sho, a sociology professor at National Taiwan University, said Hong Kong protesters wary of spies and police infiltrating their ranks carry those fears to Taiwan, potentially leaving them "prone to rumors and scams."
Domestic rights groups have called for Taiwan to utilize Article 18 of its Act Governing Relations With Hong Kong and Macao, which allows the government to assist those "whose safety and liberty are immediately threatened for political reasons."
Taiwan has not publicly used the article, instead deferring to existing immigration laws. "They're trying to be cautious," Ho said.
But Taiwan has quietly created avenues for Hong Kongers to stay, ranging from a pilot program for students to less-publicized measures such as unofficially loosening restrictions on tourist visa extensions.
"We have elastic ways to deal with that," said Wang Ting-yu, a legislator in Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party. "This kind of rescue system, this help system, we have that. It's happening now."
Joseph Wu, Taiwan's foreign minister, said in December that Taiwan would consider adjusting its assistance if China's military invaded Hong Kong. For now, Wang said, a formal process to accept Hong Kong refugees would "offer Beijing an excuse to accuse Taiwan of being behind this movement."
While the government says it cannot publicly open its doors to Hong Kong protesters, Wang said it is ensuring that those doors are not closed completely. "We have an obligation to help them," he said. "But we have our own way to help them."