Where there's darkness …

Reverend Peter Nguyen Van Hung escaped an authoritarian regime in Vietnam and has waged war against the persecution of Vietnamese workers and brides in Taiwan

By Ron Brownlow  /  STAFF REPORTER

Sun, Oct 01, 2006 - Page 18

Visit the Vietnamese Migrant Workers & Brides Office in Bade City, Taoyuan County, on any day and you will see a score of sad faces, each with a heartbreaking story to tell.

 Their hope is Reverend Peter Nguyen Van Hung, a 48-year-old Catholic priest who established the office two years ago under the auspices of the Hsinchu Catholic Diocese. Since then, staff and volunteers have aided thousands of labor and sex trafficking victims, winning millions of NT dollars in compensation for injuries or forced labor.

 Earlier this year Hung was recognized by the US State Department in its annual report on human trafficking as one of the world's "heroes acting to end modern-day slavery." Hung had previously visited Washington, DC, met US diplomats and was instrumental in having Taiwan dumped to "Tier 2 Watch List" status on the State Department's report, shaming the country alongside notorious human-rights abusers like China and Cambodia.

 "This year our office deliberately tied [the plight of migrant workers and foreign brides in Taiwan] to human trafficking because the two are so similar," Hung said Monday in an interview at the Vietnamese Migrant Workers & Brides Office. "The Taiwan government seems to take [abuses of migrants] very lightly," though "we and others have tried for many years to raise the issue."

 Some 26 Vietnamese migrants are currently under his care. They came as brides, maids and factory workers, only to have their wages fleeced by ruthless bosses and labor brokers, or fall victim to labor exploitation and or sexual abuse. They can't work while the legal system processes their cases, so they live in one of three undisclosed shelters and spend their days at the Vietnamese Migrant Workers & Brides Office.

 Here the migrants take self-improvement classes, study Mandarin and receive counseling. Each day at noon they gather on the office's sunlit second floor for a multi-course Vietnamese lunch. Hung sits among them, laughing at their jokes and praising their cooking.

 Hung "is doing work the Vietnamese government is supposed to do," said Gi Estrada, a researcher for the Hong Kong-based Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants. Estrada noted that since 2001 — when clergy led demonstrations and subsequently received visits from police officers from Taipei to Kaohsiung — Hung has been one of the few priests to continue speaking out on behalf of the more than 700,000 migrant workers and foreign brides in Taiwan.

 Hung — a scholarly-looking man capable of flashing a broad, toothy grin — is angry. Growing up he idolized St. Francis of Assisi and his famous prayer for peace. Now he grips both fists when talking about cases routinely seen by his office.

 Cases like "Dao Mai" (her name has been changed), who signed up with a marriage broker and was picked by a 66-year-old Taiwanese man who paid the broker thousands of US dollars. Mai's family got US$133. Mai hoped to work in Taiwan and send money home, but her husband kept her locked in a room naked, starving and beating her until she gave in to his advances. Police claimed they did not have enough evidence to prosecute the husband and her case languished in court for months.

 Corruption and poor law enforcement make it easy to turn migrant workers and foreign brides into slaves, Hung said, adding that Vietnamese brides tend to be the worst off.

 Vietnamese "are always suspicious and are easily controlled … It is part of the psychic problem of Vietnamese society," Hung explained. "They live in fear, fear of being repatriated, losing face … being arrested for nothing. When I come to talk and to empower them about their rights … I discover a huge hidden fear and they can't do anything."

 Vietnam was different when Hung was growing up with five brothers and two sisters 170km north of what is now called Ho Chi Minh City. His father drove a taxi and his family was "lower middle-class." Hung's mother often invited beggars to the dinner table and was a committed Catholic, inspiring a similar devotion in her son, especially after she took over as breadwinner when his father contracted what was to be a long and ultimately terminal illness. Hung would take rice and dried fish from home and feed it to the poor behind his mother's back. Only years later did he realize that she knew.

 His mother had escaped from the North in 1964, but Hung didn't believe her tales of atrocities there. He saw corruption in South Vietnam and held radical political views, even though he always wanted to be a priest.

 Things changed when communists unified the country in 1975. Hung said he would hear dogs barking at night, when "a strong, very powerful sense of fear covered the whole village."

 In 1979, at the age of 21, he crammed on a boat with 56 other refugees. A Norwegian vessel picked them up after 36 hours at sea and took them to Japan, where he joined the missionary society of St. Columban. Hung later studied at a seminary in Sydney and was ordained in 1991. "I was able to get to know myself through my education," he said. "I came to know the fear in myself."

 Hung was assigned to Taiwan for two years before his ordination. Afterwards he returned to help homeless people in Jhonghe and later handicapped children in the south.

 At the Vietnamese Migrant Workers & Brides Office since 2004, Hung rises each day at 6am and doesn't sleep until midnight or later. Days are spent in discussions with social workers, meeting with government officials and non-profit organizations and counseling abused migrants. On his day off — friends say he has to be forced to take it — he wakes up at 7:30am. He keeps a guitar in his office and paints Chinese paintings in his free time, which he sends to his mother in Sydney.

 Lately the fear has returned in a new guise. "It's obvious that what I'm doing here has stopped people from making money illegally," Hung said. Anonymous callers tell him to "be careful." Thugs throw trash and chewed betel nuts at the Vietnamese Migrant Workers & Brides Office from passing cars. Others peer in through the front gate at night. This year, friends have reported hearing Hung's name discussed by businessmen at bars.

 Hung appears undaunted, though he no longer goes out at night. "I try to be careful," he said. "However, if it happens I'm ready. I always live for the moment. I try to live my life to the full."


For more information on the Vietnamese Migrant Workers & Brides Office, visit www.taiwan-act.net