With the influx of 410,000 new foreign spouses, Taiwan has a new minority population. Traditionally, the island had four main ethnic groups - the aborigines (2%) and three groups of Han immigrants - Hoklo (70%), Hakka (14.3%) and post-1949 mainlanders (12%). Now the newest group is comprised of newly arrived immigrants (1.7%) mainly from other parts of Asia. Along with this new population come complex issues centering on divorce, children’s education, employment and alienation.
According to the Ministry of Interior, as of September 2008, there were about 140,000 foreign spouses from Southeast Asia, along with about 260,000 from mainland China and 10,000 from Hong Kong and Macau. Over 90 percent of these marriages resulted from Taiwanese men marrying women from overseas.
Foreign spouses have been entering Taiwan since the 1970s, but it was not until the 1990s - when Taiwanese businesses expanded into Southeast Asia and the Chinese mainland - that the numbers jumped significantly.
Generally speaking, the men who marry foreign spouses are at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in Taiwan. Such men often experience difficulties in finding a wife in Taiwan, but can have access to a larger pool of candidates by going to Southeast Asia with the help of marriage brokers. These arranged trips allow Taiwanese men to locate a partner in just a couple of days, usually women coming from low-income families seeking a better life.
Although some of these marriages do work out, the Taipei-based China Times reported that a total of 11,421 divorce cases were recorded for foreign spouses in 2008, a divorce rate of 2.8 percent among newly arrived spouses. This is 2.53 times higher than the rate of divorce for Taiwanese couples.
The higher divorce rate not only represents a high number of troubled marriages, but also an unstable environment for child rearing. According to statistics from the Ministry of Education, there were about 113,000 children born to foreign spouses in elementary schools last year. This accounted for 6.75 percent of all Taiwanese students in elementary schools.
The China Times cited an example of Dalin Day Care Center, which cares for children 3 to 6 years old. Among the school’s 297 children, 93 have a foreign spouse mother. This represents a ratio of 31 percent, with the largest segment from Vietnam (53%), followed by China (27%), and Indonesia (18%). Dalin is an agricultural town in Chiayi County, where most farmers grow oranges and pineapples. They have a high ratio of foreign spouses and a high divorce rate too.
The growing trend from the Ministry of Interior shows that last year, one in seven newly born babies were to foreign spouses in southern Taiwan, while that ratio was one in ten in Taipei City. As children from these marriages attend school, they experience the disadvantages of having a parent unable to read or write in Chinese, coupled with minimal knowledge of math and science.
Already, organizations have set up safety nets to help children of foreign spouses who inevitably fall behind their peers at school. One such organization is the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, which has been devoted to helping foreign spouses for many years. A social worker with the foundation said it is really hard for children of foreign spouses to stay up-to-date with their studies without parental help at home. So the teacher has to work with parents to come up with a plan and a schedule to help.
The World Peace Association has also been known for helping children of foreign spouses with after school lessons, but due to the economic recession, it has reduced its budget by NT$2 million (US$61,000) this year and cut its operation sites from seven to three. Cathay Cultural and Charity Foundation is another organization offering support to foreign spouses, but it has seen its budget halved this year.
The employment Service Centers at local government level also offer vocational training and job matching programs to help foreign spouses find employment. If their qualifications are inadequate, they are entitled to free job training offered by the central government. To encourage foreign spouses to attend these classes, the Ministry of Interior also provides baby-sitting services for immigrant mothers.
In the past four years, the Chiayi county commissioner has helped 1,351 foreign spouses to obtain motorcycle licenses, three to acquire professional nursing licenses and eight to get licenses to work as chefs in Chinese restaurants.
As of last month, mainland spouses can now apply for permanent residence after six years - four years of legal residence and another two years of dependence residence – a reduction from eight years. However, there is a difference in the duration requirement for citizenship between mainland spouses and Southeast Asian spouses. For Southeast Asian spouses, they need to stay in Taiwan for three consecutive years with at least 183 days on the island each year.
As foreign spouses struggle to assimilate in their new homes, Taiwan’s citizens are also learning to co-exist with this fast growing segment. With a population now accounting for 3 to 5 percent of Taiwan society, they are also becoming a significant voting block, earning more clout from the government as they participate in Taiwan’s mainstream society and democratic process.
- The Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco represents the Government Information Office (GIO), Executive Yuan, Republic of China (Taiwan). GIO maintains nine Press Divisions in the United States, including the San Francisco office. The Press Divisions are in charge of promoting Taiwan's public relations and cultural exchanges. This blog is updated by the Press Division, TECO in San Francisco.
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