Protecting Immigrant Rights

—Father Peter Nguyen Van Hung

2019 / October

Lee Shan Wei /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Geof Aberhart

Creating a deeper understanding of the lives of migrants from Southeast Asia, and facilitating greater exchange with them, are core aspects of Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy. Answering his calling from God, Father Peter ­Nguyen Van Hung has dedicated his life to speaking up for his Vietnamese compatriots when they suffer hardship.

Since first coming to Taiwan 31 years ago, Father Hung has become a messenger for justice, fearlessly appealing to both local authorities and international human rights groups and earning recognition from the United States Department of State as a “hero acting to end modern-day slavery.” Through the Vietnamese Migrant and Immigrant Office of the Catholic ­Church’s Hsin­chu Diocese, Hung works to defend the rights of his fellow Vietnamese in Taiwan, helping them build lives here with respect and dignity.

Wall of dreams

Stepping into the Vietnamese Migrant and Immigrant Office, located in a small two-story building beside the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Tao­yuan’s Bade District, one is immediately struck by a sense that it is a warm and protective shelter in the eyes of those migrants. While the quarters may be cramped, they are well ordered. In front of the kitchen is a long, narrow space with one wall occupied by suitcases of various types. Each of these has been the carrier of its owner’s dreams of life in a new land, and of the tragic tales that led them here.

“Anyone who ends up here does so because they’ve encountered problems since arriving in Taiwan.” To those who have been injured at work or illegally dismissed or exploited by their employers and find themselves marginalized and helpless, Father Hung, while not physically tall, can seem like a tower of strength, his arms wide open and ready to offer shelter. As well as a safe place to live, Hung also provides them with classes to help understand Taiwan’s laws. He helps lead them back out of the shelter with the knowledge they need to protect themselves and fight for the rights they deserve.

A childhood vow

“My parents were from Nghe An, in north central Vietnam, and life was hard there.” As a young child growing up in Binh Tuy, South Vietnam, Hung was mature beyond his years. He prayed to God that he could have the power to save the world.

“My father died of illness when I was 17,” says Father Hung, who was the second child in his family, but born with a gift for leadership. Not wanting to live under Communist rule, as a young adult he began making careful plans to follow in the footsteps of his parents, who had fled the North in pursuit of freedom, and lead his family out of Vietnam. “In reality, our little boat wasn’t fit for such a voyage.” On a wooden boat just 8.5 meters long and 3.5 m wide, a grimly determined Hung put his fear behind him and resolutely headed out onto the high seas. “We were completely engulfed by waves several stories high as they battered down on us.” On several occasions, his little boat almost went down amid the terrifying waves.

“All I can say is that God has a plan for us all.” As they floated on the vast open sea, countless merchant ships sailed past, ignoring small refugee boats like this one, many of which were on the verge of disintegrating. Their situation appeared increasingly desparate, until a ship flying the Norwegian flag passed close by. Clinging to a last thread of hope, Hung gunned the boat’s motor and chased after it, but it seemed to be getting further and further away. “Then, just as all hope seemed lost, that ship turned around.” With that miraculous turn of events, the refugees were overjoyed, bursting into tears. After 38 hours spent in mortal danger, Hung and his comrades were finally safe.

Gritting his teeth and getting to work

Having escaped death, Hung was placed in a refugee camp in Fujisawa, Japan. “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.” Despite being left at the bottom of society’s barrel, Hung’s mind and soul stayed clear and he never fell into despair. After he came to Taiwan, this personal experience helped him have greater empathy for migrant workers and immigrants, and the difficulties they face.

“In Vietnam I was a friar for a short time,” Hung says, “but when the Communists banned religious practice, I had to leave the friary.” After his rescue, Hung followed his holy calling and returned to God’s embrace. Later, having been ordained as a priest and come to Taiwan as a missionary, he would head out into dirty, gross environments to serve the homeless. “I found the joy of giving through working in homeless shelters.” His heart, once overwhelmed with pity, was filled with an infectious joy as the sincerity of the people there opened it up. “Whenever they saw me coming, they would welcome me with joyful applause.” He learned that to give is also to receive, and that this can create free-flowing interactions between people. Just as God loves the people of the world, where there is love between people, there are blessings.

Becoming an upholder of justice

In 2005, news broke of a series of rapes by two labor brokers in Tainan, with over 100 young Vietnamese women the victims. Father Hung worked to expose the case and joined with others to support the women, and after 12 long years they finally won justice in the courts. “That was as painful to me as if it had been my own sisters being brutally abused.” Because of the burden of heavy brokerage fees and the fear that deportation would leave them unable to repay their loans, these women felt they had no choice but to grit their teeth and live with the assaults.

Under this humiliation, their visions of beautiful futures were destroyed and their bodies and minds were left beaten and bruised.

“The brokerage system is the crux of the problems around migrant labor and immigration.” To defend the rights of immigrants and migrant workers, Father Hung has resolutely confronted the massive power of the brokers, both in Taiwan and abroad. “Back then there still weren’t any clear laws to protect them.” That is, until the passage of the Human Trafficking Prevention Act, which Father Hung was a major advocate for. With this, Taiwan was returned to Tier 1 status in the US State Department’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, and for his work, Father Hung was recognized as a “hero acting to end modern-day slavery.”

“Things have improved a lot since then.” When the Legislative Yuan amended Article 52 of the Employment Service Act, the employment and management of foreign labor saw further improvement, at least on paper. However, as Father Hung says, to really solve the problem, there needs to be a greater focus on enforcement.

“Not even three months after he came to Taiwan, his hand was cut off by machinery and he couldn’t work,” says Father Hung, pointing out a Vietnamese worker who came to his office to seek aid. Sitting in the Vietnamese Migrant and Immigrant Office, the youthful-­looking man is laboriously filling out a form with his left hand as he embarrassedly covers his severed wrist with his right sleeve. “We’re helping him fight for his due rights.” Between language difficulties, inadequate pre-job training, and issues with machine design, one young body after another has fallen victim to workplace accidents in Taiwan. Father Hung takes every opportunity to speak up for migrant workers, devoting all his energy to fighting for fair treatment on their behalf.

Building a people-first community

After many years working to resolve the issues faced by migrant workers, Father Hung is profoundly aware that they need not only material help, but also spiritual support. To take his work further, in 2010 he began studying psycho­logy in Australia.

Currently, Taiwan is home to over 710,000 migrant workers from across Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand. Together they constitute a new demographic that Taiwan cannot ignore. “I may not have a lot of power, but I still need to do what I can.” Father Hung has established an assistance platform for immigrants and migrant workers, and over the past 14 years some 200,000 people have received shelter, while even more have been helped indirectly. “I don’t accept any thank-you gifts from them, I just want them to help others however they can.”

Having participated in the Office of the President’s National Conference on Judicial Reform, Father Hung hopes for a more culturally diverse approach to justice and works to promote a people-first attitude of deeper mutual understanding, tolerance, and equality. With sincere faith and a joyful heart, Father Hung strives to spread the grace of God and help others find the true meaning of life.  

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