Vietnamese migrant workers in a small province of Thailand
Nong Bua Lamphu Province in Northeast Thailand is one of the smallest and least developed provinces in the country, bordered by larger provinces of Udon Thani, Khon Kaen, and Leuy. In actuality, it has been upgraded from district to province not too long ago, having once been a section of Udon Thani province. It was no wonder that when I first came to Thailand for my mission assignment in 2007, many Thai people were surprised to hear that my future work would be in Nong Bua Lamphu, a place that many Thai themselves were uncertain where to find on their country’s map. So it came as a surprise to me as well when I arrived to Nong Bua Lamphu in 2008 to accept my post as the pastor of this little known province’s only Catholic Church, St. Michael Archangel Church, that a number of Vietnamese migrant workers came looking for me after having heard that there was a Vietnamese priest in the area.
The group of Vietnamese migrant workers in Nong Bua Lamphu was not big, among them about 6-7 were Catholic. The primary work that they did in this province was serving in small restaurants, janitorial work in shops and schools, and housework in people’s homes. The total number of Vietnamese migrant workers in the central district of Nong Bua Lamphu at any single time numbered about 25-30 people. However, as often seen in migrant labor, there were constant changes as new people arrived while others left to find jobs in other areas that would pay more than what they were getting here. After all, Nong Bua Lamphu is a small province, and the pay can’t compare to bigger provinces such as Khon Kaen, Pattaya, or the country’s capital of Bangkok. However, the ones who do stay anywhere from 2 to 5 years do so because they observe that despite the low pay, they can actually save more because there are less opportunities for wasting money here than in more prosperous cities.
The ones who stay the longest in Nong Bua Lamphu tend to be the Catholics who work at a couple of local private schools in the province. Both of the schools are owned by a Thai person of Vietnamese ancestry. She makes a business out of education being the owner of more than 10 private schools in Nong Bua Lamphu and Udon Thani provinces. As a person of material resources and undoubtedly social influence, the owner of the school is able to hire illegal migrant workers without worrying too much about legal consequences since rich people can benefit from a system of chronic corruption in this country. Occasionally, there are visits from the central immigration police in which the migrant workers are arrested and taken to the police station, after which they are released. However, visits from the local police are always known in advance, in which the migrant workers are told to leave the school grounds and take shelter in a local Buddhist temple until the police go away. The so-called raids are symbolic at best, served to make a point that there is a political will to tackle the issue of illegal immigrants in this country, but law enforcement officers have already been paid in order to turn a blind eye to this matter by Thai employers. The migrant workers in the schools also live on the premises. The owner of the school, in fact, provides them with relatively good and free accommodations, much better than the situation in other places, especially in large cities like Bangkok. The accommodations here are, of course, much better than what they could find if they were to find jobs in the Vietnamese cities of Ha Noi or Saigon.
The Vietnamese migrant workers in Nong Bua Lamphu, especially those who are Catholic, have another reason for deciding to stay in Nong Bua Lamphu, despite the lower wages. That’s the presence of the Catholic Church in which I am the pastor. Undoubtedly, due to my Vietnamese background, I have a natural empathy for the plight of Vietnamese migrant workers in Thailand. It is unclear at the present time, how many Vietnamese are illegally living and working in Thailand. However, there are no doubt that the number is tens of thousands. Though this is a much smaller number than Burmese, which is estimated to be about 1 million, it is still a significant number, and presents a problem to Thai law enforcement throughout the country.
Place of origin of Vietnamese migrant workers in Thailand
The majority of Vietnamese migrant workers in Thailand come from the northern provinces of central Vietnam, and the southern provinces of north Vietnam, including Ha Tinh, Nghe An, Thanh Hoa, Phu Tho, and Hoa Binh, etc. In Vietnam, this region is one of the less developed parts of the country, and suffers from many natural disasters such as storms and flooding each year. Land that can be irrigated for farming in this area is also scarce and jobs available for the people are few. As a result, the majority of young people leave their villages in order to find work in larger cities, or work in other countries both legally and illegally. Some of the countries in which the people from this area of Vietnam migrate to in order to work include Laos, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, and various countries in Western and Eastern Europe. Many families take out loans or mortgage their land so that they can have enough money to send one of the members to Korea or Taiwan with the hope that the high salary in these countries would offset the investment. However, it is not rare that they become victims of duplicitous companies who take their money but do not fulfill the promise of arranging for them to have jobs in these countries. Stories of Vietnamese being left high and dry upon arriving in the host country is rampant, especially in Taiwan and Malaysia. The situation with Thailand is less complicated because people are able to come here on their own or with family and friends, who will assist them in finding jobs. Most of the time, no broker is needed. The age of Vietnamese migrant workers in Thailand are usually from 16-25 years old, with the majority in their late teens and early twenties of both sexes. In almost all of the instances, the young people have not completed a high school education.
Challenges in ministry for migrant workers in Thailand
In Nong Bua Lamphu, the Catholic migrant workers have come to make the church a place of emotional and spiritual support for them as I have tried to include them into the normal life of the church, as well as organizing special activities that respond to their need for activities in Vietnamese language. The Vietnamese youth attend Sunday Mass with the rest of the Thai community, participate in the general youth group activities such as catechism, life skills class, and youth camps, etc. They also help with various aspects of church life, such as serving in Mass and helping in various church celebrations. In fact, I depend quite a bit on them for the more physical aspect of the preparations, such as setting up tables, chairs, decorating, etc.. On the other hand, due to a lack of language skills in many of the Vietnamese youth, it is important for me to organize activities especially for them as well. One such activity is the weekly gathering in which they come together to pray and have fellowship. After a period of time leading this Friday evening session, I now allow them to take turns to be in charge of the program in order to give them the opportunity to develop their skills. In addition to this activity, the group also comes together for more social activities such as playing games and practicing songs for a monthly Sunday Vietnamese Mass in Udon Thani and for special celebrations. The group is now quite well organized with a name (Hope Group), a leadership committee, and organized regular activities. The group membership has also increased significantly, reaching to almost 20 people, and has recently expanded into Udon Thani province. Indeed, the need for activities such as those mentioned above that respond to the special situation of Vietnamese migrant workers is affirmed in Pope John Paul II’s 2003 World Day of Migrants and Refugees Message:
“Migrants do not represent a category comparable to those that make up the parish population – children, youth, married people, laborers, employees, etc. – who are homogeneous in culture and language. They belong to another community, which should receive a pastoral care that bears similarities with that in the country of origin in terms of respect of the cultural heritage, the need for a priest of the same tongue and the need for permanent specific structures. It is necessary to have a stable, personalized and communitarian care of souls, capable of helping the Catholic faithful at a time of emergency, up to their incorporation into the local Church, when they will be in the position to take advantage of the ordinary ministry of priests in the territorial parish.”
Since I joined the Udon Thani diocese in 2008, I have collaborated with Fr. John Tabor in order to organize a Vietnamese language Mass on the last Sunday of every month attended by about 60-80 people, both Vietnamese migrants and Thai people of Vietnamese descent. Up until now, this is the longest running Vietnamese language Mass in Thailand. Recently, I have also begun celebrating a monthly Vietnamese language Mass in Khon Kaen Province, located about 100km from Nong Bua Lamphu. The mass is attended by about 50 Vietnamese migrant workers, although the number of Catholics in the province is well over 100.
In Bangkok, Vietnamese language Masses can only be organized a few times a year due to a much more complicated situation in Bangkok that presents many obstacles to organizing public activities. On many occasions, pastors of churches have had to reject the Vietnamese pastoral committee’s request to celebrate masses at their churches after arrests of illegal migrant workers on church premises or nearby vicinity took place. Other times, the churches did not allow for Vietnamese masses because of the unruly behavior of a number of young Vietnamese who come to the church, creating negative impressions on the Thai community. Some of the negative behaviors include littering on church grounds, smoking, and even fighting with one another.
On Christmas Eve 2010, at Fatima Church in the Dindaeng District of Bangkok, over 100 Vietnamese migrant workers attended the general Christmas celebration. According to witnesses, during the after mass activities, a fight broke out among Vietnamese attendants, both Catholics and non-Catholics, who came for the fun. Fatima Church on a normal Sunday Thai Mass has dozens of Vietnamese young people attending peacefully. These young Vietnamese have recently appealed to the pastor to facilitate time and space for them to hold prayer gatherings after Sunday evening Mass. Despite the pastor’s hesitation due to incidents that happened with Vietnamese migrant workers at this church about five years ago, he consented. The young Vietnamese also asked to be able to contribute to the church’s Christmas celebration by making a large rotating Christmas star in front of the church along with an impressive Nativity scene that received compliments from many parishioners. However, the group’s pride and joy in their accomplishment did not last long, as prospect for acceptance and inclusion in the church became rudely interrupted by the incident of violence that took place on Christmas Eve and threatened the group’s future at the church. Fortunately, despite trepidations from the community, the pastor of Fatima Church is still trying to support this ever increasing group of Vietnamese youth at his church.
The obstacles facing the Vietnamese migrant ministry in Bangkok is manifold. The most significant and obvious obstacle is the illegal nature of the Vietnamese people living in working in Thailand. As members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Vietnamese and Thai nationals are able to travel to each other’s countries without having to have a visa, a policy that has made travel between ASEAN countries very convenient for the people in these states and is a great plus for the tourism industry. Every day, Vietnamese and Thai are taking hour-long flights from Bangkok to Saigon and vice-versa for tourism. At the same time, many Vietnamese are also entering Thailand by bus. For example, in North Vietnam, there are daily tour buses that take passengers from Hanoi, Nghe An, Ha Tinh to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. From there, Vietnamese take another bus that gets them to Thailand and are able to go to any city without much trouble. Vietnamese entering into Thailand as tourists are able to stay in the country for 30 days with a visa exemption. If one wants to stay longer, they need to exit the country and re-enter once again. The usual way is by going to Laos or Cambodia.
Though there is nothing illegal about Vietnamese entering into Thailand, their illegal status begins when they begin to acquire work in the country, which includes working in private homes, restaurants, garment shops, or factories. Their situation becomes even more dire when the 30 days run out but they do not leave the country as the law decrees. The reason for allowing for the expiration ranges anywhere from not wanting to spend the money and time to go for the visa run, or not being allowed by their employers to go. After this expiration, Vietnamese become aliens living and working illegally in Thailand, and become targets for law enforcement raids in the work place as well as inquisitions on the street. The Thai police have been trained to spot suspicious looking people whom they would approach to ask for identification documents. Sometimes the police activity is legitimate, in accordance with the responsibility bestowed upon them, in which they go through the proper process of investigation, detention, and exportation or letting go if no evidence of illegality is found. However, in many instances, Vietnamese migrant workers who do not have the necessary papers become victims of police extortion in which they must give the police whatever money they have in their pocket, including mobile phones and watches. The police know too well that they would rather pay up instead of being taken to the detention center and subsequently be deported.
It is this situation that make ministry for the Vietnamese Catholic migrant population difficult. Any activity that requires a gathering of migrant workers always present a danger as anytime that a person without the proper paperwork walks down the street, they become a target for arrest and extortion. Even taxicab drivers can extort money if they threaten to call the police to have their customer who is an illegal alien arrested.
In addition, when gathered in a public place, such as a church, there is always a risk of attracting attention from those who live or work in the vicinity. If those who witness the gathering do not sympathize with the plight of Vietnamese migrant workers, troubles can take place. For example, in one instance, the pastor at a church in Min Buri District on the outskirts of Bangkok had welcomed Vietnamese with open arms. He understood the need for the Vietnamese to have an opportunity to gather for Mass on various important occasions during the year. The church was located deep on one of the side streets in a rather exclusive neighborhood. This seemed like a perfect place to hold the gatherings. The first few times was smooth. Nothing went seriously wrong and everyone was happy. By the third time a Mass was organized at this church, something seriously went wrong. After the Mass ended and the people began to disperse, words came that at the beginning of the intersection where people had to go in order to leave, a group of police was waiting to arrest the Vietnamese. It was reported that so far, 20 had been arrested. As the group of about 400 heard this news, everyone rushed back onto church grounds in a panic waiting for the police to leave so that they could go home.
There were groups who came in rented vans from a distance of 2-3 hours away and needed to return in time to work the evening shift. Others lived nearer, but also needed to get back to work. All were anxious that they would be late for work and would get into trouble with their boss. The drivers of the rented vehicles were also worried because they were fearful of the heavy fines inflicted on those who transport illegal aliens. Much commotion and anxiety took place among the migrant workers as well as the priests and nuns who were ministering to them.
In the end, the police did leave, and later the 20 people who were arrested were “bailed out” at a price of 1000 baht each. However, this was the last time that we were able to celebrate Mass at this church. Despite the church’s generosity and willingness to support the Vietnamese migrant ministry, it became something impossible because the police was in fact alerted by one of the residents living on the street that led to the church. The person who alerted the police was someone who was having issues with the Redemptorist community about land and took his dissatisfaction on the migrant workers.
The dilemma that this church faced when agreeing to help Vietnamese migrant workers is also the same dilemma that several other churches faced when they opened their doors to help this group. Sometimes, it started out well, but always ended up with some unfortunate incident that made the church community unable to provide assistance further. One cannot blame the pastor or the parish council of these churches for making such decisions. After all, if the Vietnamese migrant workers were legal, the situation would be different.
Despite such difficulties, the spirit of the Universal Church does not allow for complacency towards strangers in our midst. “By her nature, the Church is in solidarity with the world of migrants who, with their variety of languages, races, cultures and customs, remind her of her own condition as a people on pilgrimage from every part of the earth to their final homeland. This vision helps Christians to reject all nationalistic thinking and to avoid narrow ideological categories. It reminds them that the Gospel should be incarnated in life in order to become its leaven and soul, also through a constant effort to free it from the cultural incrustations that inhibit its inner dynamism” (Pope John Paull II’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees Message, 1999).
Factors contributing to inadequate pastoral care for Vietnamese migrant workers
The fears and reservations of a number of churches towards Vietnamese migrant workers in Bangkok also reflect in some ways the feelings and attitudes of the hierarchical Church in the past. Though it is not accurate to say that the Church in Thailand was not willing to help Vietnamese migrant workers, I believe it is accurate to say that it was not certain on how to help in such delicate situations. And it is not just in the issue of Vietnamese migrants alone, but in a myriad of issues that the Thai Church finds itself having to tread carefully. In many ways, the Catholic Church in Thailand is still unable to fully implement its function as a Church because of the limitations that it faces. Catholics make up only about 0.5% of the entire population of a country that has fundamentally adopted Buddhism as the national religion. Even though there is freedom of religion in this country, the Church still has a very limited voice in the political and social arenas and is not always willing to take the same kind of risks that the Catholic church in other countries, where the Church has a more significant presence, could afford to make.
Another factor that contributes to inadequate ministry for Vietnamese migrant workers is perhaps compared to other populations, the presence of large number of Vietnamese migrant workers occurred later. In Thailand, the biggest migrant worker population is from Myamar, with a lesser amount coming from Laos, Cambodia. It is estimated that of the 1.4 million migrant workers coming from these three countries, Burmese nationals account for 90 per cent. The Catholic Church in this country does actively work on behalf of the Burmese. In a pastoral letter on the occasion of World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2011, Bishop Joseph Pibun Wisitnondachai, the chair of the Social Development Committee of the Thai Bishops Conference, made specific reference to this group as he called for a change in action and attitude about how Thai people should view migrants coming to make a living in Thailand. Though the Vietnamese migrant worker population is large, it is still much smaller than the Burmese counterpart.
Another factor that affects the Vietnamese migrant ministry is a lack of people interested specifically in this area of work. For many years, a Thai priest of Vietnamese ancestry, Fr. Chalerm Kitmongkhol, who is from Chanthaburi Diocese has been helping Vietnamese migrant workers. Later on, he was joined by a number of Vietnamese priests and religious who came to Thailand as missionaries or for further studies. But again, these individuals engaged in ministry for Vietnamese migrant workers only out of seeing a need to respond to a gap in the pastoral care work in the church, rather than something that they were invited to do by the local church.
About two years ago, a number of religious, lay people, and I came together for a meeting and decided to form the Association of Vietnamese Catholics in Thailand. This was meant to be a grassroots association in which Vietnamese migrant workers along with sympathetic lay Thai Catholic of Vietnamese ancestry, under the guidance of a group of priests and religious would establish in order to better minister to Vietnamese migrant workers in Bangkok as well as in other areas of the country. The task of the association includes organizing Vietnamese language Mass for migrant workers primarily in the Bangkok and Pattaya areas on special occasions such as Easter, the Feast of the Assumption, and Christmas. Teaching catechism and providing important Holy Sacraments for those in need of such sacraments are also part of the work that we try to do. One of the most important sacraments is the sacrament of reconciliation, in which many migrant workers want to receive but could not do so because of language problems and other difficulties. As one of the ways to provide emotional and spiritual support for Vietnamese migrant workers, as well as to promote a sense of community, the association undertook the task of publishing a quarterly 12-page newsletter that contains community and church news and articles relevant to issues faced by migrant workers. Thus, as far as the ministry for migrant workers is concerned, the majority of the work is done on an informal basis by sympathetic priests, religious, lay people, and migrant workers themselves without any formal endorsements from the church.
Signs of hope
Ministry for Vietnamese migrant workers in Udon Thani Diocese in the Northeast of Thailand also had an informal character for many years. A few sympathetic priests in the diocese paid attention to the presence and need of a number of Vietnamese Catholic migrant workers that they came in contact with. One of these priests was Fr. John Tabor, an American who joined this diocese over 30 years ago. Fr. John used to live in Vietnam during the Vietnam War and even joined the seminary there. As a result, he can speak Vietnamese fluently and has a deep understanding and love for the Vietnamese people. So it was natural that Fr. John would care for the Vietnamese migrant workers with whom he came in contact.
After I joined the Diocese in 2008, I also began to work with Vietnamese migrant workers in collaboration with Fr. John, and at my own church. Collaborating with us in the migrant ministry presently also includes Fr. Truc Phan, SVD and Sr. Nam Nguyen, D.C. Good news for us came at the beginning of 2011, as the Udon Thani Diocese was adopting a new five-year pastoral plan (along with all the other dioceses in Thailand), and was open to a number of changes in how the diocese carried out its pastoral programs. As a result, ministry for migrant workers, specifically Vietnamese migrant workers, became formally adopted as a work that fell under the diocesan pastoral plan. I myself was asked to take charge of this work, which would fall under the auspices of the Commission for Social Work of the diocese. When I was approached to head this ministry, I readily and happily agreed.
Having been formally adopted into the diocesan pastoral plan, the committee on Vietnamese migrant work has begun to discuss about how to develop and expand the present ministry to respond to the present needs. The multi-pronged program which has been agreed upon will respond to three important areas: (1) spiritual care; (2) cultural and legal education; and (3) health care support. While exactly how these three areas would be realized is to be worked out more fully in the future, steps have already begun in order to create programs and activities in the above mentioned areas.
The formal acceptance of ministry for Vietnamese migrant workers by the Udon Thani diocese is an extremely hopeful sign for the pastoral outreach of the local church. Even with simple recognition, those who are presently engaged in this ministry will feel much more encouraged in the work that is taking place, and will feel more bold in taking future steps to make this ministry more far-reaching and effective. One of the results of this new atmosphere has been the beginning of a monthly Vietnamese language Mass in Khon Kaen province and active Vietnamese youth groups in the diocese.
In this new wind, the Archdiocese of Bangkok headed by Archbishop Francis Xavier Kriangsak Kovitvanit has also recently made strides to put ministry for Vietnamese migrant workers in its pastoral plan. On 30 March 2011, Bishop Francis Xavier hosted a meeting with members of the Association of Vietnamese Catholics in Thailand in order to discuss ways for the diocese to minister to the Vietnamese more effectively through the Association. On 7 April 2011, I was also invited to give a presentation on Vietnamese culture and traditions that would be helpful to Thai priests wanting to do pastoral care for Vietnamese migrant workers. This presentation was given alongside other presentations about various groups, as part of a week-long seminar on pastoral issues in the Bangkok Archdiocese. Another key development in addressing the issue by the diocese is the appointment of Fr. Withaya Ladloi as the official diocesan representative on Vietnamese migrant ministry. Fr. Withaya will assist and advise the Association in its work, which include organizing Vietnamese language Mass on a regular basis, providing access to the sacrament of reconciliation and other pastoral care programs, as well as attending to the emotional and social needs of the migrant workers both in large and small group settings. Thus, through the effort of the Association and the good will of Archbishop Francis Xavier, the ministry for Vietnamese migrants in Bangkok will face greater ease in the future.
A need for more extensive ministry for Vietnamese migrant workers in Thailand
In the Apostolic Constitution Exsul Familia Nazarethana in 1952, referring to migrants, it affirms that it is necessary to see to it that they receive the same pastoral care and assistance enjoyed by the local Christians, by adapting the structure provided by ordinary pastoral care for the preservation and growth of the faith of the baptized faithful, to the Catholic migrant’s situation. Vietnamese migrant workers in Thailand share a number of characteristics that are observed in other places. They are often young, lack high education, and come from backgrounds of poverty. When they come to Thailand to work, they face many issues including lack of self-worth, disorientation, fear and oftentimes, physical and mental stress due to long work hours.
As people mostly in their late teens and early twenties, they present many potential problems to themselves and to the receiving society. Living in a situation that lacks traditional family, church, and community support and regulations, many male and female migrant workers choose to live together out of convenience, and oftentimes because they want to, something that would be culturally unacceptable in Vietnam. This situation leads to pre-marital sex, unwanted pregnancies, and even abortions. Rented apartments where groups of young men living together can also be a setting for drinking, gambling, and fights that break out as a result. A lack of knowledge on how to conduct themselves in cross-cultural environments create negative impressions on the local people and put themselves in danger of being reported by those who find them a nuisance. Crimes such as stealing, drug trafficking, and assaults are also committed by Vietnamese migrant workers, and are periodically reported by the Thai media. Certainly, these actions contribute negatively to the stability of Thai society and do little to help the Vietnamese migrant workers themselves who came to Thailand looking to make better lives for themselves.
Therefore, ministry for Vietnamese migrant workers is necessary, not only for the sake of the Vietnamese themselves, but also for the host country. Certainly, if the migrant workers are supported emotionally and spiritually, the problems mentioned above may be stemmed in some degrees. The challenge for the Church in Thailand is to find creative ways in order to respond to the real and present need for ministry for Vietnamese migrant workers, as well as migrant workers that come from Myamar, Laos, and Cambodia. Although the status of the migrant workers from each respective country is different, in the end, the needs are the same. Thus, as a church, it is important that we strive to respond to those needs, urging society to adopt an attitude of openness and acceptance called by Pople John Paul II in his 2003 Day of Migrants and Refugees message:
“Often, solidarity does not come easily. It requires training and a turning away from attitudes of closure, which in many societies today have become more subtle and penetrating. Being ever more deeply rooted in Christ, Christians must struggle to overcome any tendency to turn in on themselves, and learn to discern in people of other cultures the handiwork of God. Only genuine evangelical love will be strong enough to help communities pass from mere tolerance of others to real respect for their differences. Only Christ’s redeeming grace can make us victorious in the daily challenge of turning from egoism to altruism, from fear to openness, from rejection to solidarity.”
In January 2011, a delegation of 105 bishops and priests from Northeast Thailand went to visit Vinh and Hanoi Dioceses. In both of these places, the hosting bishops and priests continuously reminded their visitors that many of their parishioners were now trying to make a living in Thailand, and some undoubtedly, in the dioceses in NE Thailand. They pleaded with the Thai bishops and priests to help them in caring for their flock. The two dioceses of Vinh and Hanoi were extremely gracious hosts to their Thai counterparts. Recent developments can be seen as a sign that the hopes of the Vietnamese bishops and priests are being responded to positively.