Taiwan authorities arrested 46 people last week when the coast guard sized a fishing boat off the country’s coast in what the coast guard said is its largest single bust of Vietnamese 'boat people' attempting to reach the island.
A Vietnamese woman working in Taiwan told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that she recognized her sister in videos of the arrest of the 40 Vietnamese passengers and six crew members.
“I watched the video and recognized my sister and her boyfriend,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I don’t know what to do. I’m scared. I don’t know where my sister is.”
According to the woman and Taiwan authorities, the Vietnamese were charged a total of $6,000 to make the trip.
“A friend of my sister told me that each person paid U.S. $1,500 to go from Vietnam to China, and then they paid another U.S. $4,500 to get to Taiwan,” she said. “I told my sister not to go because I was worried that this was a scam, but she told me a lot of her friends at home have gone to Taiwan.”
Taiwan Coast Guard Administration officials told local media that 25 Vietnamese men and 15 Vietnamese women were packed into a space in the fishing boat that was only 1.2 meters high, according to a Focus Taiwan report.
The captain and the five-person crew of the Wun Shun Man No. 66, a fishing vessel registered in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, were also arrested during the Jan. 7 operation, according to the news outlet.
Human trafficking jumps
The arrest comes as the Vietnamese government reported a nearly 13 percent increase in the number of human trafficking victims in 2016.
While the Ministry of Public Security told state media that cases of human trafficking in 2016 decreased 6 percent from the previous year, it said the number of victims jumped 12.8 percent to 1,128.
Most of the victims were uneducated women and children from poor areas, and many come from ethnic minority groups in Vietnam’s northern highlands, according to a report in VNExpress.
The trafficking victims were sold to men seeking wives in China, Malaysia and South Korea, or were put to work as prostitutes in these countries.
Human trafficking is viewed as a modern-day form of slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.
The Vietnamese picked up off Taiwan last week appear to have voluntarily left the country, but their decision to flee Vietnam and place themselves in a vulnerable situation is a graphic example of the desperate economic straights that undergird both human smuggling and human trafficking.
“It is difficult to make a living at home as toiling in the fields does not yield much money,” said the woman whose sister was detained. “We could not make enough for food.”
‘Life here is not easy’
There are around 164,000 Vietnamese working under official contracts in Taiwan, nearly 30 percent of the country’s overseas workforce, VNExpress reported.
“The men work in construction and we females help around the construction sites,” the woman told RFA. “Each month they pay about U.S. $1,000. If everything goes smoothly, we can send some money home.”
But, she cautioned, not everything goes smoothly.
“Actually life here is not easy either. We have to work hard,” she said. “Living here illegally, if you are sick you can’t seek health services. Many people have died here. It is scary.”
Catholic priest Nguyen Van Hung, director of the Vietnamese Migrant Workers and Brides Office in Taiwan, expressed surprise at the large number of people on the boat.
“This is a continuation of what has been going on in smuggling Vietnamese people into Taiwan by boat,” he said. “It happens sometimes, but never before have 40 people been arrested at once like this.”
Usually Vietnamese boat people buy a vessel in China, then sail it across the narrow Taiwan Strait to Taiwan’s coastal waters, where they abandon it and swim ashore.
Nguyen told RFA that life won’t get any easier for the 40 Vietnamese as they were headed for prison instead of the farms in the mountainous areas where they were likely headed.
“During the investigation, nobody is allowed to meet them except lawyers,” he explained. “After the trial, they will be transferred to prisons for illegal immigrants. They will have to buy their own airfare to go home.”
Vietnamese Catholic priest Nguyen Ba Thong, who has helped some victims who were trafficked to other countries, told RFA that human trafficking comes in three versions: labor slaves, sex slaves and organ harvesting.
“They have no choice and are forced to do this to make money to pay for their debts,” he said. “For organs, we have heard of them for quite some time. It mostly happens in the north, on the border between Vietnam and China, in the province of Lao Cai.”
Reported by Thanh Truc and Lan Huong for RFA's Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.