Impoverished by Covid-19, stranded overseas Vietnamese yearn for home

By Long Nguyen   August 7, 2020 | 06:09 am PT
Vietnamese workers abroad are unable to fly home due to pandemic travel restrictions, trapping them in limbo.

Last November, Nguyen Thanh Tu of northern Tuyen Quang Province was excited to leave for Tabuk in Saudi Arabia to work as a chef at a luxury coffee shop.

Severely hit by the pandemic, his employer was forced to cut spending and sack staff.

In May, Tu lost his job along with over 30 other colleagues, mostly newcomers, shattering their collective Arabian dream. Out of pocket, the former chef wanted nothing more than to return home.

However, Covid-19 travel restrictions proved a frustrating obstacle.

"I’ll die of hunger if I don't go home," Tu lamented.

Mass layoffs have affected many Vietnamese since the novel coronavirus struck, with many trapped abroad amid little recourse to vocational or financial support.

Foreign migrant workers wearing face mask walk to do the Covid-19 screening test in Malaysia in May 12, 2020. Photo by Shutterstock/Abdul Razak Latif.

Masked foreign migrants attend Covid-19 screening in Malaysia on May 12, 2020. Photo by Shutterstock/Abdul Razak Latif.

"I feer safer in Vietnam. In Germany, most locals merely laughed at me when I told them to wear masks," said Phan Truong Giang, employed at a restaurant in Berlin.

On August 6, new Covid-19 infections increased by 1,045 within one day to 213,067, while the number of coronavirus-related deaths increased by seven to 9,175 in the European country.

In Saudi Arabia, thrifty Tu moved to a cheaper apartment with seven other Vietnamese in June, despite the fact that the cramped space and shared bunk beds could be a hotbed for novel coronavirus infection.

Tu said he is "too poor to care about the pandemic."

"We have to spend less until this ordeal ends and we can go home," he stressed.

In the Philippines, Trinh Ngoc Quynh has been confined to his home since the country placed over 27 million locals back into lockdown to stop a record surge in Covid-19 infections starting August 4.

"They put us in lockdown for months and now they do it again. I stay home and earn nothing, it is boring and cruel," Quynh explained, adding all her booked trips back to Ho Chi Minh City were cancelled after Vietnam halted international flights in March.

At present, repatriation flights are the only hope of many.

The country has organized over 60 flights from over 50 countries and territories to repatriate more than 16,000 citizens. However, many remain stranded overseas as authorities prioritize children, students, the elderly and sick, pregnant women, guest workers whose labor contracts had expired and tourists with expired visas.

Around 650,000 Vietnamese workers, mainly in labor-intensive and low-skilled employ, operate in over 40 countries and territories worldwide, according to the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs.

Tran Thi Hoa, 41, a domestic helper in Saudi Arabia, borrowed money to purchase tickets home thrice, all of which got cancelled.

Six of her Vietnamese friends had also borrowed money to register for seats on a repatriation flight on August 8, with only three successful in their pursuit.

"I have packed everything and am ready to leave at a moment's notice, but it has been months," Hoa exclaimed.

A 13,000-member Facebook group for Vietnamese living in the country now helps spread encouragement and tips for staying healthy until repatriation becomes feasible.

Similar groups in Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea have sprung up, with members sharing whatever news becomes available regarding flights home.

"What choice do we have but to wait?" Hoa asked.

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