Separation pangs torment children left behind by migrant parents in rural Vietnam

By Long Nguyen   March 11, 2021 | 07:52 pm PT
Children are among the worst sufferers of the urban migration in Vietnam, with many left behind by parents leaving for cities to work.

Six-year-old Nguyen Thanh Tien in the central Ha Tinh Province had a fever after returning from school last week, but it was not until the next day that his grandmother found out the problem and quickly took him to hospital.

Living alone and independently coping with his difficulties, even when sick, are what Tien has been doing for the last few years after his parents left home to earn a living.

They work in Bac Ninh Province, 370 kilometers away, and came home for the week-long Lunar New Year holidays, and left one early morning when the boy was still sleeping.

Normally Tien goes to school on his own and comes home for lunch as his grandparents are busy with farm work. Sometimes they return home only when he is asleep after having leftover food for dinner.

In Tien's class, 13 children are similarly separated from their parents.

"These students tend to be shy and do poorly," Le Quynh Anh, a teacher in their school, says.

Millions of children suffer from this forced separation from parents, and only meet them once or twice a year, mostly during the Lunar New Year holidays.

In rural areas they are dubbed the "left-behind children."

The plight of such children has not been researched in any depth in Vietnam, but the impacts of long-term separation from their parents are "significant and widespread," according to a UNICEF report.

Children in the northern mountainous province of Dien Bien prepare to have a school lunch with rice and fried eggs. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Duong.

Children in the northern mountain province of Dien Bien prepare to have lunch provided by their school of rice and fried eggs. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Duong.

Even if parental migration delivers economic benefits for the family and the children left behind, it negatively impacts their mental health and well-being.

One of the impacts can be seen in the children's academic performance.

In the northern province of Ha Nam, nine-year-old Nguyen Thu Trang and her five-year-old brother have not met their parents, migrant workers in the southern province of Binh Duong, for more than two years.

Trang's daily activities include helping her grandmother cook, grow vegetables and bathe her brother. They take turns to wash dishes.

Their parents, living 2,000 kilometers away, usually visit them once a year, but have not been home for two years because they want to save money to rebuild their house but had their incomes reduced because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

On a Sunday evening in March, while Trang and her brother argued about sharing the TV during their dinner time, the hunch-backed grandmother, 62, tried to comfort both of them.

"Don't get angry and shout, let's eat," she said as the children cried and screamed. When their granny threatened to call the parents if the children did not behave, Trang burst into tears.

"I don't want to see them anymore. They always say they will come home, but never do. Liars."

Trang refuses to speak to them on the phone these days. In class, she is always reticent and gets angry when her friends ask her about her parents.

"When I have problems at school, I cannot tell my parents because they are too far away and busy, they have no time for my story."

HCMC psychiatrist Nguyen Thi Tam says these are signs of mental instability children can have when their parents work away from home.

"Left-behind children" often face more psychological and behavioral problems than other children of similar age, according to many experts.

The lack of parental care also leads to health and nutritional problems, as extended family members in rural areas are not often well equipped to care for migrants’ children, particularly elderly grandparents.

Another boy in Ha Tinh, Le Thanh Nghi, has lived with his grandparents for seven years since his parents work in a factory in Hanoi, 350 kilometers away.

At the age of 12, the skinny boy weighs 26 kilograms and never enjoys eating. Whenever his grandparents force him to eat, he grumbles and sometimes throws his bowl of rice away.

"I know he is underweight, but I have tried my best. It used to be easier to feed children," said the boy’s grandmother Nguyen Thi Tu.

According to the National Institute of Nutrition, 10.7 percent of children in rural areas are malnourished, compared to 3.9 percent in urban areas.

When the parent-child bond is poor, the children’s school performance suffers.

"While the migration brings some financial benefits for the children left behind, their education suffers without direct attention and encouragement from the parents," teacher Anh says.

Trang, having to do housework lacking parental attention, had to remain in grade one for two years.

She says: "I hate school. I will be a farmer like my grandparents so that I can go to the farm and go home whenever I want."

Hobson's choice

Many migrant workers miss and worry about their children. They would love to take the children along, but the cost of living is very high and the complicated household registration is another deterrent.

"I sent my son to my hometown in Lao Cai when he was just 18 months old because I do not have a house here, and everything is expensive in Hanoi," said Hanoi-based textile worker Le Thi Tram, who normally sees her son, now three years old, for just 10 days a year during the Lunar New Year holiday.

In her neighborhood in Hanoi's Long Bien District, many migrants workers have similar stories to share.

They cannot afford childcare in the city, "so sending the kids away is the only choice." Tram earns around VND10 million ($433.05) per month, and sends VND5 million to her parents in Lao Cai.

"I must be very stingy to live on just VND4 million per month, the rest is for saving."

Workers at a company in Ho Chi Minh City leave their factory after a working day in April, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

Workers at a company in Ho Chi Minh City leave their factory after a working day in April, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

The household registration system is a major factor in separating the children from their parents, as migrants workers are wary of the procedures involved in obtaining the KT3 paper (for long-term temporary residents) which is essential for their children to get admitted to local schools.

"My landlord only helped me register for short-term temporary residence. If I want the KT3 for my daughter to go to school, I must apply and do it myself, and this would require a lot of documents and processes," said Hanoi-based worker Hoang Van Hanh, whose daughter lives with her grandparents in the central province of Nghe An.

A UNICEF study on Vietnamese children found that the household registration system and working conditions in most industries are compelling forces in the separation of working parents from their children.

"The household registration system, although it has been relaxed in recent years, limits access to public schools for migrants’ children," the report said.

While several enterprises have opened kindergartens for their employees’ children, such efforts are few and far between.

Millions of children are consigned to a life without their parents because, as Hanh said: "It is easier for my parents to look after them. In the countryside, the costs are much lower. Without worrying about my babies, my wife and I can focus on making money for them."

Hanh said he calls his offspring almost every day, "except when I am exhausted at work."

Tien has no idea when he will see his parents again and constantly asks his grandmother about it.

Sometimes the old woman gets angry and shouts at him to stop, and he starts to cry: "They leave me because they do not love me, and now you hate me too."

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