Vietnam News

Vietnam’s tight lid on the coronavirus leaves many citizens desperate to return, with illegal border crossings on the rise

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Since it sealed itself off from the world last March, Vietnam has recorded just over 1,500 Covid-19 infections – but many of its nationals are stranded abroad. They are eager to come home ahead of the Lunar New Year, or Tet, holiday next month, and face job and income losses as well as scanty information about repatriation.

Nguyen Huu Khanh hasn’t seen his family since he moved to Madrid in 2017 to study Spanish – and he also misses pho with tender beef and the many other foods of his home. As soon as Spain reported its first Covid-19 outbreak in February last year, he booked a flight home to Vietnam, only to end up having to delay his return.

‘I was worried about my visa, which was about to expire, and that I wouldn’t be able to return [to Spain] and would have to cut short my study and work, so I postponed my ticket,” said the 26-year-old freelance photographer and manager at a milk tea shop.

This year, however, Khanh has his heart set on reuniting with his family for the Lunar New Year holiday, or Tet, next month – just like many of the Vietnamese diaspora who have been deprived of contact with their loved ones due to travel restrictions throughout a pandemic-hit year.

Vietnam sealed itself off from the outside world in March last year in a bid to limit imported cases of Covid-19. Since then, only Vietnamese citizens and a limited number of foreigners – including businessmen and investors – have been granted entry, under strict conditions including mandatory quarantine and coronavirus tests. In September, the government resumed commercial flights to seven Asian destinations – China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand – but domestic carriers are still barred from operating inbound flights.

Its handling of the pandemic has been largely successful – the country has just over 1,500 cases and has recorded 35 deaths so far, while cases continue to tick up in many other countries, and regional neighbours such as Thailand, China and Japan have this year imposed new restrictions to handle fresh outbreaks.

Dr Kidong Park, the World Health Organization representative to Vietnam, said the country had moved forward to a “safe coexistence with Covid-19” as it achieved the dual objectives of disease control and economic development, making it one of the few nations to record GDP growth last year, at 2.9 per cent.

‘’Health is an investment, rather than a cost,’’ Park said, adding that the country should remain vigilant for any new outbreaks.

The strict measures, however, have left many citizens stranded abroad.

To bring them home, Hanoi has since late April been organising repatriation or “rescue” flights, with passengers paying their own fares. Over the past eight months, about 65,000 Vietnamese have been repatriated via 235 such flights, according to government data. But while the initiative is well intentioned, it might not be enough to respond to the demand from those desperate to return.

Khanh, the Vietnamese expat in Madrid, said a seat on a government repatriation flight cost 1,600 euros (US$1,970), more than he could afford. Meanwhile, he has been browsing Facebook – Vietnam’s most popular social media site, with more than 60 million users – to find other ways to return home.

In Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members, created by Vietnamese communities in China, Australia, Singapore, Europe and other regions, users are exchanging tips about different routes to get home, asking questions about quarantine procedures upon landing, and seeking updates on the schedule of repatriation flights.

In one Vietnamese-language public group called “Returning to Vietnam via Cambodia”, there are discussions about legal ways to enter Vietnam by flying to neighbouring Cambodia from countries such as Canada and the United States. “This group is not for showing you how to cross the border illegally … Everybody should not be incited to avoid quarantine, cross the border and make illegal entry,” an administrator wrote in a post on Tuesday.

The situation has also led to many unconventional attempts to get home, some of which have been successful. The Ministry of Public Security last week said there were 14,000 illegal entrants last year, though it did not provide a breakdown by nationality. Local media, quoting border guards, reported that 364 Vietnamese nationals illegally entered the country from China and Cambodia in the first two days of this year.While Vietnamese authorities have stepped up their efforts to prevent such incidents, monitoring cross-border traffic is difficult because the country’s borders with Cambodia, Laos and China span thousands of kilometres and are extremely porous, with complicated geography characterised by mountains and rivers.

There have been no domestic infections for over a month and Vietnam is determined to maintain the streak, especially considering the lessons it has learned from last year.

In late July, a third wave mysteriously emerged in the central coastal city of Da Nang, ending a months-long span with no local transmissions and resulting in Vietnam’s first Covid-19 fatalities. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc ordered an investigation of illegal border crossings from China on the same day the virus resurfaced; to this day, patient zero of that wave has not been identified.

Late last month, a group of nine Vietnamese migrant workers travelled from Myanmar to Thailand and crossed the border from Cambodia into their home country, skipping quarantine procedures. Their actions came to light when the mother of one of them reported her son to local authorities, according to the Ministry of Health. Four of the group tested positive for the virus after they were quarantined, including the woman’s son.

The woman, Tran Thi Hang, is currently spending the last days of a two-week quarantine at a medical facility in the Mekong Delta, as anyone who comes into contact with an infected person has to be isolated and tested per Vietnam’s Covid-19 prevention protocols.

Hang, 51, told This Week in Asia over the phone that she had not experienced any health issues. When asked about her son, who is currently receiving Covid-19 treatment at a hospital, what followed on her end sounded like sobbing. She later said she had nothing else to add, and hung up. A subsequent attempt to connect with her over text message was not answered.

On Sunday, the police said they would open a criminal probe into five people who helped her son and his travel companions. The same day, border guards said they had caught four Vietnamese women and two Cambodian men entering the country illegally from Cambodia via a sea route. The women said they lost their jobs because of Covid-19 developments, and paid US$350 each to a broker in Cambodia to return home with the help of the Cambodian men.

Many Vietnamese families are dependent on remittance. For three consecutive years starting from 2017, the country remained among the world’s top 10 beneficiaries of inbound remittances, according to World Bank statistics. That figure was about US$17 billion in 2019, but is projected to fall by 7.6 per cent for last year – the first dip in a 11-year streak of remittance growth, coming on the back of fewer workers leaving the country.

According to local media reports, some 54,300 workers left Vietnam to work abroad in the first 11 months of last year – a sharp fall from the 148,000 who went overseas in 2019, the sixth year in a row that more than 100,000 workers went overseas, according to the Department of Overseas Labour.

Dr Phung Duc Tung – director of the Mekong Development Research Institute, which studies Vietnamese labour and migration issues among other issues – said the biggest challenge facing returning migrants was job and income losses on top of the lack of official information about repatriation.

“[This] has led to psychological issues, depression, pessimism and there has been a suicide case upon returning to Vietnam,’’ Tung said, referring to a Vietnamese driver who took his own life in quarantine on Tuesday. He had helped a group of Chinese nationals enter the country without legal paperwork for US$260 per passenger, and had reportedly been facing financial issues, according to local media.

Tung said the government needed to have a clear repatriation plan, give migrant workers who had expired work contracts or lost their job priority positions on the rescue lists, and waive quarantine fees for those who were unable to afford them.

‘’On top of that, there should be policies to encourage domestic companies, especially [foreign direct investment] enterprises – those that receive investment from countries where migrant workers were working – to employ them,” he said.

By Sen Nguyen – The South China Morning Post – January 8, 2021

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