November/December 2014
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Tricked and trafficked
A Maryknoll priest in Taiwan helps migrant workers and foreign brides snared in human trafficking
By Lynn F. Monahan; photos by Sean Sprague

A Maryknoll priest in Taiwan helps migrant workers and foreign brides snared in human trafficking

Dang Thi Hue dreamed of getting out of the sweltering Vietnamese countryside, where she felt little awaited her but a life of toil in rice paddies under the oppressive sun and humidity.

Unable to finish high school because of her family’s poverty, she yearned for a way out of the fate of want and stooped labor that had already befallen her sisters. At age 20, she heard of a marriage broker offering the chance to meet prosperous Taiwanese men looking for wives. She inquired. Soon she accepted a proposal from an older man, who appeared both kind and successful.

What she got was a variation on modern-day slavery.

“I hoped I would have a happy family,” says Dang, whose last name is written first, in Asian style. “The man I had married still had a wife here in Taiwan. My husband’s goal was to have someone to serve him as a slave.”

Unfortunately, Dang’s story is not unusual—not in Taiwan and not in the international business of human trafficking, in which an estimated 800,000 people a year are lured by coercion or trickery into leaving their homes for another country, where they are used in forced labor, sexual exploitation or both.

What makes Dang’s case exceptional is her refusal to quietly accept her fate and the help she received from the Vietnamese Migrant Workers and Brides Office in Bade City, Taiwan. There two Vietnamese priests, one a Maryknoller, work to assist compatriots from their erstwhile homeland whoMaryknoll Father Cuong Nguyen (right) are in Taiwan as migrant laborers or are married to Taiwanese.

Maryknoll Father Cuong Nguyen, who fled Vietnam in a small boat in 1982 so he could pursue his vocation to the priesthood, says an estimated 100,000 young Vietnamese women have migrated to Taiwan as brides over the past decade. Frequently the marriages involve much older Taiwanese men who travel to Vietnam seeking more traditional, younger women.

“It’s like they’re buying in a market,” Nguyen, 51, says of the bride trade in Vietnam. The potential brides are typically taken to a hotel for presentation to potential husbands. “The men can choose which one. Some of them make them take their clothes off. That’s sad.”

Foreign brides in Taiwan also come from Thailand, Cambodia, China and the Philippines, Nguyen says, but the majority of women are from Vietnam, which has a culture similar to that in China, which ruled the country for 1,000 years.

Not all such marriages involve trafficking, says Nguyen, but the cases of deceit and abuse—physical, sexual and emotional—are common. Some of the women find themselves in situations where they are repeatedly raped and beaten.

The U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report for 2010 labels Taiwan as primarily a destination for trafficked people for forced labor and forced prostitution. Although the report upgraded Taiwan to a Tier 1 country this year, meaning it met minimum standards for eliminating trafficking, the country description in the report reads like a summary of the situation described by Nguyen: “Some women and girls from China and Southeast Asian countries are lured to Taiwan through fraudulent marriages and deceptive employment offers for purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor.”

Dang Thi Hue found out after coming to Taiwan that her “husband” had twice before “married” foreign women with his Taiwanese’s wife’s complicity to work in their business, selling a palm nut called betel nut that is chewed for its stimulant effect and is particularly popular with truck drivers on the island.

Typically women selling betel nut are dressed in skimpy, sexually suggestive clothing to attract men to the stands, says Father Hung Nguyen, a Columban Father who is executive director of the Vietnamese Migrant Workers and Brides Office.

Dang was taken to the betel nut stand, where a woman she had been told was her husband’s sister—but was really his wife—taught her how to prepare betel nut, Dang explained with Father Hung Nguyen translating from Vietnamese to English.

“Then he asked me, demanded me, to wear very sexy, very tempting clothing,” she says. She worked 15 to 16 hours a day and was then taken to an apartment and left alone. She suspected something was wrong when her husband didn’t stay with her, telling her that he had to look after the stand.

Later, she says, her husband and his real wife tried to get her to work dressed only in her underwear. “I asked my husband, ‘Why would you ask your wife to wear such clothing for customers to see?’ ” she says, her eyes welling with tears. She refused to comply and began to realize the marriage was fraudulent. After a month in Taiwan, she learned the truth.

"Then he told me that of the three wives he had married, nobody was stubborn like me,” she says, explaining how she learned of the other foreign brides, one of whom was Thai and the other Chinese. She doesn’t know what happened to those women, but says her husband and his real wife then tried to have her deported.

In other cases, says Maryknoller Cuong Nguyen, foreign brides are simply used like breeding stock to produce children. “Sometimes they come here and have a child and the husband and family say, ‘I don’t want you anymore ... just go home,’ ” he says.

Under Taiwanese law, he says, the husband of a foreign bride must sign her visa request annually for her to stay in the country. If he refuses, she may be deported. As a result, many foreign brides tolerate domestic abuse to remain with their children.  Although foreign wives may eventually apply for Taiwanese citizenship, they need their husband’s approval, which is often denied because the men fear their wives will divorce them.

After learning she’d been duped, Dang repeatedly went to the police for help. At first the police she met knew her husband and did nothing to help her. Finally, at a different police station, officers listened to her complaints and took her to the Migrant Workers and Brides Office.

With legal help from the office, Dang was able to obtain a divorce from her fraudulent marriage, but her husband escaped prosecution. Father Hung Nguyen says, “All the evidence was somehow lost.” Eventually, Dang returned to Vietnam, he says, but only after almost three years at the center, where she learned to work as a secretary and office manager, to read and write Chinese and to translate for other migrants.

Today she lives with her widowed mother and works as a secretary and translator while also campaigning to warn other young Vietnamese women of the risks of entering brokered marriages with foreign men.

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