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To leave or to stay: do migrants have a choice?

Update: April, 15/2015 - 10:37

by Mai Khuyen

Every time I talk to a street vendor, a shoe-shine boy or girl or others who spend most of their time working outdoors in major cities, I would think that if I were to replicate the Humans of New York project there, I would focus solely on migrants from rural areas.

Every migrant brings with him or her unique stories of a life they have left behind and their dreams for the future. As interesting as the concept of collecting and depicting so many stories is, I am also aware that many of these will involve broken dreams and a mundane but intense struggle for survival against some serious odds.

But when I chanced across a prediction by the International Organisation for Migration that the number of people living in cities will almost double during the coming decades to some 6.4 billion in 2050, I thought this goes beyond mere collection of anecdotes to a phenomenon that changes the nation's social fabric in ways that we need to pay close attention to.

Viet Nam's modern urban migration story began in the late eighties, shortly after the "doi moi" (renewal) policy was adopted. Almost immediately, it seemed as though an urban rush had begun. In Ha Noi's Giang Vo Street, scores of workers gathered everyday, hoping to get work on construction sites. As soon as a motorbike slowed down and approached the pavement, there was a rush of people, and two or even three would ride pillion on their way to wherever the work was.

I heard then that the workers earned about a dollar a day, and saved every penny they could to help their families in the countryside. Almost three decades later, the cities are barely recognisable. Skyscrapers dot the skyline now, the bicycles and cyclos are almost gone, replaced by fancy cars that seem to get fancier every day.

However, as the nation moves forward, what about the migrants who made this "modernisation" possible with their hard work for a pittance? Are they receiving a better deal now, a greater share of the spoils, so to speak?

Many reports in newspapers and social scientists suggest that despite their valuable contributions to urban growth, rural migrants, especially those with low education levels, rarely receive their due. They are unlikely to have residential papers, unlikely to receive healthcare, unlikely to send their children to schools in the cities they live.

In this situation, the Government's New Rural Area Development Programme makes a lot of sense. It is logical that if rural areas are well developed with proper infrastructure and other facilities, migration to urban areas can reduce, which means reduced pressure on the cities as well.

However, it also appears that the main vocation in rural areas, agriculture, is being transformed in ways that offer little scope for people to stick to farming because they typically do not have large-enough land holdings.

Predictions about climate change impacts in rural areas, exposing households to greater risks and vulnerabilities, are another indicator that reversing the ongoing migration flow is going to be very difficult.

I wonder if there is a middle path possible. Can we work seriously to give migrants better living conditions in the cities even as the new rural area development programme is implemented nationwide?

Hoang Trong Nghia, 43, a native of the central province of Thanh Hoa, has lived in Ha Noi for more than 10 years, working as a xe om (motorbike taxi driver). Every year, Nghia is able to save about VND21 million (nearly US$1,000) to send home for his wife and two small children.

His family used to subsist on farming, but natural disasters and other problems made it difficult to make ends meet, and he left for the city.

Nghia said he was satisfied staying in the city despite the fact that he hasn't received formal recognition or benefit as a normal resident.

"My main goal is just to make some money and send it home to my wife. Sometimes I wish I could bring my family here and get long-term residency, but it seems impossible. Instead, I have to accept that I do not need it."

Nghia has accepted his fate. But is the rest of the country failing him and other migrants from rural areas? — VNS


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