Taiwan Prides Itself on Human Rights—But Permits Physical Abuse at Immigrant Detention Centers

Taiwan Prides Itself on Human Rights—But Permits Physical Abuse at Immigrant Detention Centers
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What you need to know

If Taiwan wishes to commit sincerely to observing human rights, its government must hold its employees accountable for violence that takes place in detention centers.

The first beating took place on June 15. N., a twenty-five-year-old Vietnamese worker, had already been detained for five weeks. Several times a day he would ask the guards why he had been arrested, what his rights were, and when he could go home to Vietnam. Nobody answered his questions. He had no access to a translator or a lawyer. Frustrated, N. took the metal lid from a water container and hit a television. 

Now the guards responded, and with force. They beat him and placed him in solitary confinement in a bedless cell, chaining his hands and ankles. For the next four weeks he slept on the floor, still chained. “I could only take out the chains one time, when I showered,” he told us. “Even when I was sleeping, I was chained twice.” The whole month he was prohibited from going outside, much less using the phone or talking to a lawyer.

The second beating occurred approximately a month later, on July 11. N. had not spoken to his loved ones in weeks. He was in anguish. He missed his brother, a factory worker in Taoyuan, and couldn’t stop thinking of his mother back home in Vietnam. He was also worried about his debt: when would he pay it back? Was it accruing interest as he lay there in his cell? He kept telling the guards they could deport him to Vietnam, but nobody paid attention. 

So while in the bathroom, he hit the door. Several guards rushed in and sprayed a chemical irritant in his eyes. One beat his head and body, knocking him to the ground. His eyes were burning, saliva running down his chin uncontrolled. He was brought to a clinic, where he got nine stitches on his head. 

After receiving treatment, he was sent back to his cell at the detention center. Despite the physical pain he was in, his wrist and ankles were chained again. Instead of feeding him, the staff enlisted another Vietnamese detainee to do it. 

A week later, he was finally released. 

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For most people familiar with the plight of migrant workers, the conditions of Taiwan’s four immigration detention centers are a known quantity: no access to lawyers, no counselors, few to no translators, no social programs, scarce access to the outdoors, few procedural safeguards, and, even before Covid-19, extremely limited access for visitors. But fewer people know of the degrading treatment to which detainees are subject, or the absence of accountability guards face when they commit physical abuse. 

After his release, N. became a resident at our shelter at the Vietnamese Office for Migrants and Immigrants in Taoyuan. When Father Nguyen met him on July 19, the bruises on his neck, wrists, and legs were fresh and blue, the nine stitches still visible. He was in so much pain he couldn’t eat and could barely move. 

N.’s migration story is a common one. Growing up in Vietnam, he couldn’t attend school because his family needed him to work. His father had passed away when he was young, and his mother couldn’t pay the interest on her bank loan, so he decided to pursue work in Taiwan in order to pay off this debt and send money back to her.

Taiwanese employment law gives all the power to the employers, who defer to brokers to handle disputes and discipline workers. Brokers, in turn, are backed by the police. If a worker fails to check in for three consecutive days, typically the broker reports him to the police; he then becomes undocumented or “illegal.” N. became undocumented because he left the factory where he worked.  

As we write this piece, N. is still at the shelter. He wants to go home to see his mother and younger siblings, but he can’t, for a reason so ludicrous it’s almost comical: he must await trial in Taiwan because the detention center is suing him for the destruction of civil property and interference with official business. Notably, the civil destruction of property charge corresponds to damages to the television from the first incident but not the door from the second. If they tried to charge him for the latter, they would have to submit the video that shows the guards violently beating him. 

The Legal Aid Foundation recently agreed to take N.’s case. And the National Immigration Agency has stated that its investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing on the detention center’s part. 

Abuse such as N. endured—in particular the physical abuse and the constant chaining of his hands and ankles—violates multiple international human rights laws, treaties, and instruments. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights prohibits “degrading treatment”; the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) requires any institution accused of ill treatment to provide a doctor’s report of injuries. We’ve yet to see one in N.’s case. 

If Taiwan wishes to commit sincerely to observing human rights, its government must hold its employees accountable for violence that takes place in detention centers. While the extent of the abuse is difficult to quantify, tens of thousands of foreign workers have been detained. If the state wishes to pursue a harsh system in which police power is used to arrest workers for breaking their contracts with employers, then it must also take measures to ensure the mental and physical health of those whose liberty it deprives. This means training staff in basic mental health; creating a procedure to assess and fire staff with violent tendencies; and making doctors, counselors, and translators available to inmates. 

N. is a peaceful young man with no criminal record. He is known in his family and at our shelter for his quiet, passive presence. One needn’t read too deeply into the case to conclude that the detention center created the conditions of his two outbursts—in which, we emphasize, no one was hurt, except N. himself when the guards beat him in response. It’s safe to say that most of us, in his position, would have done much worse than strike two inanimate objects.

By the same token, it’s easy to see that the detention center could have prevented this violence by providing even a bare minimum of support—access to lawyers, social workers, and translators; access to the outdoors and to visitors; safe rooms for frustrated detainees—rather than ignoring his repeated questions and chaining his wrists and ankles. 

“I didn’t understand why I couldn’t go home. I kept asking and nobody would tell me,” N. said. “I know I shouldn’t have hit the door and television.” But he was driven to that action by frustration, loneliness, and despair. 

“I don’t deserve to be hit,” he said. “Even when I was chained, the people kept beating me.” 

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During his time at our shelter N. has gone through a process of rehumanization. When he first arrived he didn’t interact with anybody; any observer could see he was in a state of shock. Disoriented, unsure, he rarely smiled. He had trouble responding and paying attention. Five months later, we can see life in his face. He answers people when they talk to him; he can even joke. He is learning Mandarin. He takes initiative, lending a hand in the kitchen or watering the plants. 

The simplest way to describe his change since returning from detention is this: He’s alive again. 

When we asked N. what the hardest thing was about detention, he said it had to do with the laws. “I don’t understand the laws, so I don’t understand why I couldn’t leave and why I couldn’t go back to my country,” he said. “When I was inside, I kept asking when I could go out, can I leave, can I go back to my country. I asked so many times, but they wouldn’t tell me. That’s why I was so frustrated. They wouldn’t explain.” 

When he went back to Vietnam and people asked him what Taiwan was like, we asked, what would he say?

He smiled politely, not wanting to say anything.


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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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