Stopping an 'Epidemic' -- Vietnamese Priest Reaches Out to Sex Trafficking Victims

Pacific News Service, First-person commentary, By the Rev. Nguyen Van Hung,

as told to Andrew Lam, Aug 02, 2005

Editor's Note: When Vietnamese victims of trafficking or forced labor escape from their captors and need assistance, they turn to the Rev. Peter Nguyen Van Hung. The reverend worked for a number of years helping migrant workers in Taiwan before working exclusively with Vietnamese by establishing the Vietnamese Migrant Workers Office, under the auspices of the Hsinchu Catholic Diocese of Taiwan. He told his story to PNS editor Andrew Lam, whose book "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" is forthcoming this fall from Heyday Books.

LOS ANGELES--My name is Nguyen Van Hung, and I am a Roman Catholic priest. I was born in Vietnam and came to Australia many years ago. The last 17 years I've been doing charity work in Taiwan. The last few years, however, my focus has been to help victims of trafficking and forced laborers in Taiwan, most of them from Vietnam.

Vietnam signed a labor treaty with Taiwan in 1999, and that opened up a new route for desperate Vietnamese looking for work. But it also exacerbated the exploitation problem. Currently we are providing shelter for overseas female workers from Vietnam who have been victims of rape and sexual assaults by their employers, or who were tricked into prostitution and managed to escape from the brothels.

There are now approximately 200,000 Vietnamese living in Taiwan. More than 100,000 are brides, and around 65,000 are working as laborers. The rest are children of Vietnamese living in Taiwan. The needs of this population are so great. Many suffer under the hands of their employers and husbands. They have very few rights in Taiwan, and practically no representation whatsoever.

So much so that we formed the Vietnamese Migrant Workers Office to fight for their rights.

Vietnam does not have diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and anyway, the government is not helpful. If anything they are helping the employers, and not the Vietnamese citizens.

I went to the U.S. recently to fund-raise on behalf of Vietnamese trafficked victims and I went Washington, D.C., to testify. The U.S. State Department released the "Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000: Trafficking in Persons Report." Vietnam was classified as a "tier two" country. But in fact, Vietnam belongs to the tier three, the worst, because it does nothing for those people, and in some circumstances, is complicit with trafficking trade. The only reason, so representatives in D.C. told me, it got tier two status was that Vietnam promised to clean up its act. But you cannot give a country like Vietnam, with its dismal human rights record, the benefit of the doubt.

Why Vietnamese women? They are beautiful and many are not educated, and having no representation in Taiwan, they are most vulnerable. Many come from poor backgrounds and rural areas. They don't know their own rights. They don't speak the language.

The Taiwanese government has to do something about real-life situations facing foreign migrant workers, or else the runaway rate among Vietnamese workers will continue to rise. I work with government agencies, I work with the media. I lobby on their behalf because they have no other venues.

But some who ran away are very brave. Instead of being intimidated, they would testify against their attackers in court. I myself have been threatened by gangsters, and now I can no longer go out by myself late at night.

Here's a case in point (refers to the web site of the Taiwan Alliance to Combat Trafficking, of which he is a part): "Dao Mai is 21 years old, the youngest girl in her family. Her mom's business in Vietnam failed, and the family was suddenly plunged into debt. So Mai did what she felt a dutiful daughter should do: She went into the city and signed up with a marriage broker...she could not stand idly by and watch her family's situation deteriorate.

"Mai was eventually 'picked' by a 66-year-old Taiwanese man who came to Vietnam, like thousands others before him, to find a bride. Of the thousands of dollars that exchanged hands between the man and the Vietnamese broker, Mai's family only got US$133...Mai hoped to be able to work once in Taiwan and send money home to help her parents and siblings.

"Mai arrived in Taiwan in June 2004. Immediately after her arrival, she was locked up in the bedroom. Her husband then kept her naked, forbidding her from wearing any clothes during her entire incarceration. As he takes his regular dose of Viagra, he would force himself upon her, starving her until she gives in to his demands. Sometimes he would beat her when she resists his advances. On the 9th and 10th days of captivity, Mai's husband beat her so constantly and so severely that she escaped.

"The policeman who found Mai took her to a domestic violence shelter, where she is currently residing. Hospital records showed that she had numerous bruises and that she had contracted a sexually transmitted disease. However, the police claimed they do not have enough evidence to prosecute her husband... Her case is still on hold."

There are many cases like this. I only see the problems growing unless all governments involved clean up their acts and seriously address this problem. It has now reached epidemic proportions.


Courtesy Andrew Lam, Pacific News Service (PNS)