Father Peter Nguyen Van Hung, 63, a Vietnamese priest from the Missionary Society of St. Columban, is a champion of immigrants and labor rights in Taiwan. (Photo: Lin Min-hsuan/Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Taiwan)
Father Peter Nguyen Van Hung struggled against poverty, war and life as a refugee before he became the savior of scores of slavery and trafficking victims in Taiwan.
For over three decades, the 63-year-old Vietnamese Catholic priest from 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.
Peter Nguyen was born to a Catholic family from Binh Tuay province in southern Vietnam in 1958. His father was a taxi driver 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 three sons and five 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.
From an early age, he cherished a great love and esteem for St. Francis of Assisi and for a short period he became a friar. However, he was forced to leave the friary after the communists' victory in the Vietnam War. All religious practices were banned and those who defied orders were persecuted.
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 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,” Father Peter said in an interview posted on the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry website.
An ardent admirer of St. Francis of Assisi, his life took a turn for the better when he came across Columban missionaries and decided to join the order.
He visited Taiwan in 1988 as a missionary on an assignment before becoming a priest and moving to Sydney, Australia, for seminary studies. He was ordained a priest in 1991 and arrived in Taiwan the following year.
His return to Taiwan 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 the 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 have been 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 as they were lured to Taiwan by the false promises of labor brokers and 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 and devastated.
Enraged by this blatant exploitation, Father Peter decided to wage a war against the appalling situation.
In 2004, Father Peter set up the Vietnamese Migrant Workers & Brides 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 organization 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 to tackle challenges such as language barriers, cultural differences, 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 labor agencies. Starting in 2005, the case dragged on for 12 years before they eventually won.
Father Peter recalled that he could not withstand the extreme pain of the victims, though they kept silent fearing deportation over their failure to repay loans they took to pay brokerage fees.
“That was as painful to me as if it had been my own sisters being brutally abused,” the priest recalled.
He found the unregulated labor 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 NGOs and made relentless efforts to prosecute traffickers and negotiate compensation.
Consequently, Taiwan was categorized as a Tier 2 Watch List country in the Trafficking in Persons Report 2006 along with China and Cambodia.
For his anti-trafficking efforts, the US government recognized Father Peter as a “hero acting to end modern-day slavery” and was accorded a Trafficking in Persons Report Hero Award in 2006.
Amid such pressure, Taiwan passed the stringent and comprehensive Human Trafficking Prevention Act in 2009.
The missionary went to Australia in 2010 to study psychology in order to better understand the psycho-social aspects of the problems migrant workers and women face in Taiwan.
The priest also advocated for better legal protection of migrant workers as many died or were maimed 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 labor rights significantly.
Father Peter says his services fulfill “the will of God” and his efforts are driven by a people-first approach based on “mutual understanding, tolerance and equality.”
“God has a plan for us all. We need to listen and follow it,” the priest said.