Invisibles

December 1, 2014 • Features, Print, Theme, Vietnam • Views: 917

By Anna Russo

About a hundred meters from the canal under the Long Bien Bridge in the Phuc Xa district of Hanoi, patches of pink, white, and blue fluttered amid the dense, reeds, so tall their green tips brushed against my sweating neck. As I moved closer, the hidden colors presented themselves: the t-shirts of a young child hung to dry under the Vietnam sun. Below these shirts, strung outside between the corners of a carefully constructed hut and a small vegetable garden, a middle-aged couple sat enjoying their afternoon meal under the shade of an extended roof. The shirtless man stared at us as he ate his sautéed spinach; the woman squatted next to him, eating occasionally while busying herself with organizing their possessions. Both invited me in with welcoming eyes as we stood at their doorstep, lacking any reservations toward an intruder from the other side of the world.

Flood-prone land used by migrants for urban farming in Phuc Xa (Hannah Schwarz/TYG).

Flood-prone land used by migrants for urban farming in Phuc Xa (Hannah Schwarz/TYG).

“We moved here from our village five years ago,” Nguyen* said through a translator, explaining that the prospect of a brighter future for their daughter in the city was a motivating factor when the family of three moved to Hanoi. They make their living as urban farmers, growing corn and rice in the cleared gardens outside their house to sell in the city markets.

“The prices here are much higher,” Nguyen said. “We don’t want to go back to the country.” Here in the city, they earn at least triple what they would in the country and can send their daughter to a kindergarten of far higher quality. Vietnam is urbanizing at a rate of 3.4% per year, according to the World Bank—markedly higher than neighboring rates of 2.5%, 2.1%, and 1.6% in Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand respectively. This family is but one among the many responding to the allure of Vietnam’s lucrative city jobs.

However, in Vietnam, moving to a city has its costs. Under the Vietnamese system of resident registration known as ho khau, citizens are not free to move between the country’s rigidly defined districts at will. Those who wish to relocate must apply through the People’s Committees of their new district of residence to request a change. It might seem straightforward, but the process is far from simple.

This urban farming couple has been saving money ever since they moved to Hanoi five years ago, but have yet to obtain the necessary KT2 residency permit that will allow them to vote, send their daughter to public school, obtain health insurance, and buy a house. To obtain a KT2 permit, one is required to live in the city for a sufficiently lengthy period of time, secure a source of income, and pay 13 million Vietnamese dong ($614 USD)—three million to apply, and ten million to process the residency change. “With a household registration book, your life [starts],” explained Dr. Le Bach Duong, co-director of the Institute for Social Development Studies (ISDS), a Hanoi-based non-profit think tank.

13 million dong is not an insignificant figure, especially considering that those who are paying to change residency are often impoverished subsistence farmers from the countryside who must send a part of their earnings home as remittances. In total, the couple has saved only fifty million dong in the past five years; thirteen million is quite a large fraction of their savings.

Saving the money to pay for a residency change is made even harder when living as an illegal resident. Without access to public schools, the family pays 1.3 million dong each month to send their daughter to a private kindergarten. They bear the burden of additional fees for private medical insurance and non- subsidized electricity, and the cost of constantly dismantling and rebuilding their home, farm, and life based on the tides of both the flooding river and the equally volatile government whim. Lacking a Hanoi KT2, they have no legal right to buy a house in Hanoi, so the family squats amidst the reeds and overgrown cornfields of the uninhabited riverside. At least once a year, the police come and demand they move off the government-owned land—the family carefully dismantles their home, appeases the government, and rebuilds once the danger of the police returning has passed.

Several other families I approached in this migrant community in Phuc Xa, who lived in homes built isolated amidst the tall grass or in floating houses constructed directly on the canal, refused to speak to me. I was foreign; I might tell the government that they lived there. These migrants prefer to remain invisible, hidden under the Long Bien Bridge, behind the screen of their farms’ tall corn stalks.

Before the Doi Moi reforms of 1986, household registration and the ho khau system determined every aspect of life in Vietnam’s centrally planned economy: employment, food rations, medical care, education, housing. The Vietnamese government used the system to control and allocate human resources. If the government determined it needed labor in a specific region, ho khau gave it the leverage to do so—if you could only receive food rations in your registered region, what choice did you have but to comply and live there?

Following the Doi Moi reforms, Vietnam transformed into a socialist-oriented market economy. Food rations and government- determined employment disappeared, and the ho khau system subsequently lost both its life-or-death leverage and its power to move entire populations. But the government never abolished ho khau itself. It lingered on in Vietnamese law for decades, just like China’s hu kou system, North Korea’s hoju scheme, and Thailand’s tabien baan, an archaic process of tying people to their land.

Recently, the Vietnamese government has repurposed ho khau to occupy a new niche: to help curb urbanization and address—or rather, willfully ignore—the problems of overcrowding, insufficient state resources, and expensive support for growing numbers of vulnerable urban populations.

Representatives from all six families living in a concrete four-room house in Phuc Xa—far enough removed from the canal for permanent structures to exist—joined me in a circle on the floor of the central room, and we sat cross-legged, knees touching. Hailing from villages as far as five hundred kilometers away, none of these migrants hold permanent residency status in Hanoi. Most come to Hanoi for ten months of the year, the men working as day laborers and the women in the Long Bien markets, while they leave their children behind with grandparents and other relatives. They send remittances home while they are away and return to their villages for only the short two- month harvest season.

They scoffed at the idea of obtaining a KT2 residency status. “It’s too expensive,” the woman sitting across from me said. “We don’t need any help from the government.” She laughed as she explained the unnecessary expense, and the others around her nodded in agreement. They prefer to simply cope with the consequences of living as illegal residents—higher costs of electricity, the risk of illness without health care, and, for those who bring their children with them to the city, extra fees for school—and sending the money that would have otherwise been spent on the KT2 application process home to their villages. “Life in the city is hard, but life in the country is harder,” another man explained.

This logic is a common theme among illegal migrants escaping from the hardships of village life. They and their and their government benefit from the current contours of internal migratory practices. The residents of Phuc Xa, even while paying for all basic social services, are better off. And the government, who doesn’t have to bear the expense of supporting these poor migrants, while also generating revenue off the penal fees, benefits as well.

The Vietnamese government officially counts Hanoi’s population at six million. Third party researchers like ISDS estimate a population closer to eight million people. For many of those two million unlisted residents, invisibility is convenient.

In 2006 the UN appealed to Vietnam to end its archaic ho khau system, on the grounds that in its current incarnation, the system amounted to a grave violation of human rights, further marginalizing already vulnerable citizens and denying them basic social services. Vietnamese scholars and civil society activists all support abolition of the system, claiming Vietnam is ignoring the citizens it most needs to help. But the Vietnamese government has adamantly maintained its position that ho khau is necessary for social stability.

Although the Globalist was unable to obtain a comment from the notoriously opaque Vietnamese government, Dr. Duong of ISDS explained that the government support for the ho khau stems from three specific ministries: the Ministry of Security, the Ministry of Planning, and the Ministry of Finance. The Ministry of Security claims they must know where everyone lives in order to protect the population, the Ministry of Planning maintains that the ho khau draws the line between an orderly society and one of complete chaos, and the Ministry of Finance depends upon ho khau data to determine budget allocation.

But considering the ever-increasing numbers of domestic migrants, these arguments are fatally flawed—the inaccurate ho khau data jeopardizes the very functionality of these ministries. Many Vietnamese intellectuals instead believe that ho khau is merely a tool for maintaining the government’s delicate image of control, an image it is not prepared to lose despite the inherent problems within the system.

For the Vietnamese government, ignorance is bliss for many reasons. Urbanization encompasses much more than simply the creation of a more dense population. With urbanization comes social liberalism: the anonymity of the big city attracts sex workers, HIV patients, drug users, and the LGBT population who migrate to escape the oppressive social stigma of traditional rural society. For these at risk populations, the city is often the only place to live an open life.

Almost all of these populations lack registration. Most migrate without the means to change their residency status; for others, whose mothers did not give birth in hospitals—due to poverty, drugs, HIV, or other circumstances— they were never even registered to begin with.

The municipal government, known, ironically, as the Hanoi People’s Committee, and the rest of Vietnamese society, can simply pretend these people do not exist. The Vietnamese government has devised a way to completely rid its cities of people who pose a social or infrastructural risk—be they poor outsiders from a rural village, drug users, sex workers, or homosexuals—no ho khau, no problem.

A government policy that hinges on the philosophy that ignorance is bliss is, by its very nature, unsustainable. But for Nguyen, his wife and daughter, and the other families of Phuc Xa, a yearly police visit, restricted political rights, and elevated prices are a small price to pay for urban opportunities beyond the wildest dreams of their families in the countryside. For now, Nguyen’s invisibility may be convenient. But Vietnam’s future hinges on its ability to harness the potential of its urban centers for education, innovation, and growth. If it ignores its urban residents and allows poverty to fester, hidden among the reeds under the Long Bien Bridge, how will Vietnam as a nation move forward? In a country where management seems synonymous with willful neglect, how long can this control last?

*Name has been changed to protect his identity.

Anna Russo ’17 is in Berkeley College. Contact her at anna.russo@yale.edu.

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