No money, no papers: stateless Vietnamese return home from Cambodia

By Duy Tran   August 9, 2016 | 10:34 am GMT+7

After decades of living in Cambodia, more than a thousand Vietnamese have returned home paperless.

At the end of a muddy road are hundreds of shaky stilt houses by Dau Tieng Lake in the southern province of Tay Ninh, home to Vietnamese people who have moved from the Great Lake of Cambodia. Some have been here for around seven years; some are newcomers, but they all have one thing in common: living without money or papers.

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The houses are made from wood and canvas, two meters above the ground to prevent flooding. 

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Many people have even used the boats they traveled in for thousands of kilometers from Cambodia to Vietnam as shelters.

Huynh Cong Dai, 70, told VnExpress that he and his parents used to live in Cambodia's Great Lake region and went fishing to make ends meet. Later, he got married and had children and grandchildren, and the ten-member family all fished for a living.

In the last few years, the Cambodian government has tightened fishing rules, so life for Vietnamese people like Dai’s family has became harder and harder.

“Many Vietnamese broke the rules and were sent to jail.”

“I realized this kind of life is not stable and you can't make that much money from fishing, so I told my children to return to Vietnam,” Dai said.

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With no papers, they cannot venture far in search of work so the lake is all they have to rely on. Every day, men fish in Dau Tieng Lake while women and children sell lottery tickets or stay at home, raising chickens and ducks. The average household makes VND70-80 thousand ($3.14 - $3.59) each day.

"Only rice is plentiful because it's provided by the government so we just keep on eating it to feel full. On days we get a good catch, we'll allow ourselves some meat, and stir fried bean sprouts. We've got used to it. It was like this in Cambodia too," Nguyen Van Doai, who moved back to Vietnam four months ago, told VnExpress, while rushing to finish his meal to leave space for his father and four of his children.

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All the kids here have dark, sunburnt skin and hair. Each family has three to eight children, all of whom are forced to stay at home instead of going to school.

“We really want the children to attend school. However, if they do, we can’t find anybody to help at home,” a local said. Most children here don't have a birth certificate.

Pictured below is Coi, 10, who already knows how to fish and raise ducks like his parents. He may be illiterate, but he's resourceful like a grown up man.

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During his free time, Coi goes swimming with friends in the lake. Though they've been through a lot of hardships, in moments like this, they are just kids, innocent and carefree, who love ice cream (though it's a luxury) and listening to music on the rusty CD player, the only one in this community.

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There are more than 1,000 Vietnamese living along Dau Tieng Lake. They do not possess any documents to prove they were born in Vietnam, except the language they speak. After living in Cambodia for so long, these people aren't even familiar with written Vietnamese.

Duong Thi Vat, a local state official from Tan Thanh Commune, said that at first, only three or four families moved from Cambodia, but soon after there were hundreds of families gathered around the lake. She estimates that about 352 families are living here.

“Life in Cambodia is tough so more and more people have sailed back to Vietnam. Local authorities have distributed rice and sent our children to school, but in the end they drop out.”

Tran Quang Ghi, chairman of Tan Thanh’s People’s Committee, said that they planning to construct 100 new houses for locals and provide them access to clean water and electricity. However, the chairman admitted that he worries the plan will draw more Vietnamese people from Cambodia, putting greater pressure on authorities.

“We can handle hundreds of families but if the figure skyrockets to thousands, it’s impossible. At present, the social situation is very complex.”

Meanwhile, the paperless Vietnamese are setting their hopes on the next generation, their sons and daugthers lucky to be born in Vietnam with a birth certificate. 

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Photos by VnExpress/Duy Tran

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