Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Vietnam’s Left-Behind Urban Migrants

Tough restrictions on internal migration are trapping Vietnam’s rural-to-urban migrants in a vicious cycle of poverty.

Vietnam’s Left-Behind Urban Migrants

A woman, who came from the rural area, walks in the rain as she carries food and vegetables to sell in downtown Hanoi (August 10, 2011).

Credit: REUTERS/Kham

When Ms. Thuan moved from her hometown of Nam Giang in the Red River Delta to Hanoi, she initially planned to stay for a year. “I wanted to work and raise some money to purchase more rice paddies in my hometown,” she says. But more than 20 years later, Thuan has made little progress toward achieving her goal. Like many other rural-to-urban migrants who have sought better livelihoods in Vietnam’s rapidly developing cities, she is trapped in a cycle of poverty.

Despite living and working in Hanoi for decades, she is unable to seek formal residency status. Vietnam’s restrictive residential registration system (ho khau) dictates that Vietnamese citizens must register their permanent residence in only one district in the country.

To gain permanent residence status in a new district, one must either purchase land, marry into a family already holding permanent residence, or live in rental housing with an official lease and a minimum amount of liveable space. These stringent rules exclude the large population of migrants to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City who are merely trying to find decent work and supplement their family income which no longer can be supported by farming or other rural livelihoods.

In the long run, this has resulted in migrants like Ms. Thuan being significantly disadvantaged. They have little to no legal protection and thus are highly vulnerable to exploitation.

Migrants occupy many occupations that others would simply not consider. They are the ones selling snacks to hungry passersby, they are the ones building the shaky and thin towering residential buildings along the newly built dusty roads of suburban Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and they are the fruit and market vendors that bargain hard and loud on seemingly every street.

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Migrants are omnipresent, but also invisible to the legal system, which doesn’t recognize their role in the urban economy and doesn’t allow them the same rights as other residents. With the magnitude of rural to urban migration in Vietnam, this has created a two-tiered citizenship system.

Migration is not a new phenomenon in Vietnam, but has been increasing over the last decade. Accurate statistics are hard to come by because the data collection for the Population and Housing Census and the Household Living Standards Survey is based on where someone is officially registered as a permanent resident. Recent research puts the number of internal migrants at over 6 million, but if unregistered migrants are included the number is likely significantly higher.

Thuan has lived and worked in Hanoi for over 20 years, plying Hanoi’s streets in search of materials that can be sold back into the system. Her work, and the work of her neighbors, who have also migrated to the city, is vital for keeping recyclable waste from ending up in municipal dump sites.

Hanoi is filled with people like Thuan, who have migrated from the countryside and engage in vital economic activities, but most must forgo basic citizenship-based rights such as access to education and healthcare because they cannot register as new residents.

Vietnam’s residential registration system is a remnant of the time when knowing the whereabouts of every Vietnamese citizen was important to the state for economic planning. It was also important to citizens for claiming their rations of food and supplies. In its contemporary manifestation, though, the system’s largest role is to regulate access to essential services.

Registration, or ho khau as it’s called in Vietnamese, is ubiquitous in every Vietnamese citizen’s daily life. The little red booklet that denotes registration status is needed to register children for school or register oneself at a hospital to access public health insurance. Even registering a motorbike requires it be done in one’s district of permanent residence.

More importantly, many benefits for low-income families, such as reduced electricity rates or even loans destined for low-income entrepreneurs, can only be accessed and used where one is registered as a permanent resident.

Thuan, who has lived in Hanoi for over two decades, is still only able to register as a temporary resident of Hanoi. This means her permanent residence is still officially in a small coastal town in the Red River Delta, which she only visits from time to time for events such as Tet (the Vietnamese new year) and to attend other major events in her hometown.

The inability of most migrants to change their permanent residence exacerbates the poverty of those most in need: a whole class of recent migrants to Hanoi who don’t have the resources to buy property or who don’t have the connections to secure permanent residence and access essential services. Having to forego proper healthcare, schooling for their children, or needing to pay out of pocket for these services — including paying higher rates for utilities such as electricity and water — amounts to a poverty penalty. Low-income migrants in Vietnam are paying more for services than wealthier residents (and wealthier skilled migrants) simply because they are low-income and lack the resources for permanent residence.

The lack of local registration begs the question: who is responsible for the wellbeing and protection of those who have migrated? Without registration, many migrants are at the whim of their landlord. Landlords become the central point through which most essential services are provided: housing, electricity, water. However, landlords are seeking ever more profit, and cannot be trusted to care for those they rent to. Many landlords resell electricity to tenants at rates that are sometimes three times the actual cost.

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Recent research by Oxfam shows that most migrants are paying more than non-migrants for essential services, mainly because landlords are not held accountable. Mrs. Lanh, another waste worker I spoke with, told me she would never complain to the local authorities about a water cut because she isn’t registered. “Sometimes we go for five days without water in our room,” she says, and as a result she draws on other migrants in her area, who often share buckets of water in these cases.

More recently, both Hanoi and Danang have recently enacted laws that heighten the restrictions on ho khau changes, showing that the tendency is to make it more difficult for migrants. Another Oxfam report released this year paints a story of growing inequality in the country, showing that the income gap between the rich and poor in Vietnam has been widening since 2004. Their report highlights that there are 210 super rich individuals (people with over $30 million) in Vietnam with a combined wealth of 12 percent of Vietnam’s gross domestic product. The report also highlights the ways in which migrants have inequitable access to public services for themselves and their families, and mentions other factors such as gender and ethnicity that affect income and access to services.

Many barriers exist in addressing inequality in Vietnam, but in order to move the conversation in a more constructive direction that can lead to structural changes (such as those concerning women and ethnic minorities), policymakers must first deal with the two-tiered citizenship system by abolishing the ho khau.

* All names have been changed to honor anonymity

Jonathan De Luca is an urban livelihoods researcher who is currently working at the International Development Research Center (IDRC) in the Inclusive Economies program. He has worked for several non-governmental organizations in Southeast East Asia, including Oxfam and WWF. His current research is looking at the aspirations of youth working in the informal economy in Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam.