Crusade against slavery

Enraged by the blatant exploitation of many migrant women, a Columban Missionary has helped fulfil 'the will of God'.

Columban Fr Peter Nguyen Van Hung speaking to the media during a protest in Taiwan. Photo: St Columbans Mission Society

Columban Fr Peter Nguyen Van Hung speaking to the media during a protest in Taiwan. Photo: St Columbans Mission Society

Fr Peter Nguyen Van Hung experienced poverty, war and life as a refugee before he rescued scores of enslaved and trafficking victims in Taiwan. For over three decades the 63-year-old Vietnamese Catholic priest of the Missionary Society of St Columban has waged a relentless, successful battle against the scourge of slavery and trafficking in this East Asian economic powerhouse.

Fr Peter Nguyen was born to a Catholic family from Binh Tuay province in southern Vietnam in 1958. His father was a farmer and fisherman who died after a long battle with various illnesses when Peter, his parents' second child, was 17. The death left his mother, a housewife, with sole responsibility for five sons and two daughters in a country plagued by war and endemic poverty.

Despite their poor circumstances, the children were greatly influenced by their mother's strong faith, which sustained her as she worked to keep the family together.

As the communist regime consolidated power with repressive policies and actions, Peter, like many Vietnamese, saw no future in the country. In 1979, he fled by boat with a group of like-minded people. The overcrowded boat was adrift on stormy seas for days. Eventually, a Norwegian ship rescued them and they found refuge in Japan.

As a refugee in a camp at Fujisawa for three years, Peter was involved in a host of jobs for survival such as highway construction worker, steel factory worker and even as a gravedigger. “There, I became deeply aware of how refugees are discriminated against and excluded from society, and how they can be left alone without anywhere to have their voices heard,” Fr Peter said.

His life took a turn for the better when he joined the Missionary Society of St Columban in Australia.

He was ordained in 1991 and appointed to Taiwan in 1992. He said it was an eye-opener as he was exposed to the awful exploitation of migrants from various Southeast Asian countries including Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines.

He was particularly aware of the plight of tens of thousands of Vietnamese migrant women facing exploitation and slave-like conditions in Taiwan. Due to thriving economic and trade relations between Vietnam and Taiwan, there had been increasing cross-cultural marriages. By 2017, more than 98,000 Vietnamese migrant brides were married to Taiwanese men, making them one of the largest non-Chinese immigrant groups in the country, according to Government data. Putting aside genuine love, the hopes for economic prosperity and a better life are cited as causes for the increasing number of Vietnamese brides in Taiwan.

However, not all migrant women were lucky enough to secure a better life through marriage. Many became victims of slavery and trafficking, having been lured to Taiwan by the false promises of labour brokers where they eventually ended up working in bars and brothels. Corruption and poor law enforcement blighted the futures of many Vietnamese women and left them physically and psychologically bruised.

Angered by this blatant exploitation, Fr Peter decided to wage a war against the appalling situation.

In 2004, Fr Peter set up the Vietnamese Migrant Workers & Brides Office (later changed to the Vietnamese Workers and Immigrant Office) in Taoyuan County, a satellite town near the capital, Taipei. His efforts were integrated with the social services of the Diocese of Hsinchu, one of seven Catholic Dioceses in Taiwan. The organisation has supported more than 200,000 migrant workers and sex-trafficking victims with access to shelter and support, directly and indirectly. It also helps Vietnamese women tackle challenges such as language barriers, cultural differences and lack of understanding of marriage and immigration laws in Taiwan.

One major success was a legal battle for some 100 Vietnamese women who were victims of rape and abuse due to false promises from two labour agencies. Beginning in 2005, the case dragged on for 12 years before they eventually won.

Fr Peter recalled that he could not stand the extreme pain of the victims, though they kept silent fearing deportation over their failure to repay loans they took to pay brokerage fees. He found the unregulated labour brokerage system was the crux of the problem and strongly advocated for a law to prevent slavery and trafficking. He took part in protest rallies, seminars and visited US officials in Washington to alert them to the slavery and trafficking in Taiwan. He also forged partnerships with Non-Government Organisations and made relentless efforts to prosecute traffickers and negotiate compensation.

Consequently, Taiwan was categorised as a Tier 2 Watch List country in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2006 along with China and Cambodia. For his anti-trafficking efforts, the US Government recognised Fr Peter as a “hero acting to end modern-day slavery” and he was accorded a Hero of Anti Human Trafficking Award in 2006. Amid such pressure, Taiwan passed the stringent and comprehensive Human Trafficking Prevention Act in 2009.

In 2010, Fr Peter returned to Australia to study for a Master’s Degree in Mental Health to better understand the psycho-social aspects of the problems migrant workers and women face in Taiwan. He graduated in 2013. Fr Peter also advocated for better legal protection of migrant workers as many died or were injured in industrial accidents, yet victims were denied compensation and justice. According to official data, Taiwan has more than 710,000 migrants from Southeast Asian countries including Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines. In 2016, Taiwan's Government amended Article 52 of the Employment Service Act that strengthened labour rights significantly.

Fr Peter said his services fulfil “the will of God” and his efforts are driven by a people-first approach based on “mutual understanding, tolerance and equality." Concluding the interview, Fr Peter said, "God has a plan for us all and we need to listen and follow it.”

Rock Ronald Rozario, UCA News,, March 30, 2021.

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