Let them go home: migrants have suffered enough of Covid-19

October 5, 2021 | 12:53 am PT
Truong Chi Hung Writer
In a difficult situation for everyone, there are no easy solutions. But letting workers go back home will help them heal from the wounds inflicted by the pandemic.

Instead of seeing the reverse exodus as a problem, it can also be seen as a new opportunity for returnees to revitalize their hometowns.

Here, in Long Xuyen Town of the Mekong Delta's An Giang Province, police cars sirens have been ringing loud for the past two days as they lead droves of migrants back to their hometowns. Weariness is writ large on the face of both parents and children as they make their way back.

They remind me of a boy I once met here. I took a photo of him playing by a channel and sent it for a local photo contest. I still remember his plump face and muddy cheeks, his shiny forehead and threads of hair weighed down by beads of sweat. But what haunted me were his eyes: bright as marbles, yet tinged with sadness. I called him the "Child of the Plains."

As I was taking the photo, a middle-aged woman came up. She was his grandmother, who said the boy's parents had left for Binh Duong Province to work.

Wiping away the mud on his cheeks, she told the boy's story. His parents had been gone for about four years. The boy had only stayed with his parents for around six months before they were gone. Since then, every year, he only got to meet his parents for a few days during Tet.

At four, he could only speak a few words like "mom" and "dad".

The woman invited me in for some tea. Their house was seemingly patched together using mangrove palm leaves, with an old TV set on top of a wardrobe being the sole valuable possession. She said she had three children, all of whom got married and migrated to Ho Chi Minh City and Binh Duong for work. All their children grew up under their grandma's care.

"All my children said they would try to save up for some dozens of millions of Vietnamese dong and would come back. But years have passed, and no one has returned.

"It's okay if life's tough for adults. I pity the children," she added as she watched the boy falling asleep on a hammock as he waited for a call from his parents in Binh Duong.

Last Tet, the couple gave the boy a phone so they could communicate every day. But they only got a few hours off at noon, and there was not much to say anyway: the boy could barely speak. The parents and child mainly watched each other through the phone screen.

Sometimes, the mother could be heard softly weeping on the other side.

In the Mekong Delta, there are so many families in the same predicament. Young parents in my hometown followed each other's footsteps to the big cities, leaving their children behind for the grandparents to take care of. In many cases, parents are almost always nowhere to be seen throughout their children's childhood.

Some families leave everything behind for a new life in the city. Their ancestral houses are locked up, surrounded by barbed wires and robbed of human warmth. What's supposed to be a home is now a mere bus stop, as people spend most of their time in the city and only return to their hometowns for a few days, mainly to clean things up and light incense on the family altars and ancestors’ graves.

The Mekong Delta is Vietnam's only region where the number of migrants exceeds those who decide to stay. A report by the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) says 1.3 million residents of the Mekong Delta have migrated east over the last decade. They not only include manual laborers and other informal workers looking for jobs in workshops and industrial parks, but also intellectuals.

The Mekong Delta has been experiencing a brain drain and a skills drain.

When Ho Chi Minh City, the "promised land" for workers, was reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic, its migrant workers wanted to, understandably, return home. But, after the situation has improved, why don't the workers decide to stay?

They've had enough. Enough of the spectre of unemployment constantly haunting their sleep. Enough of anxiety about being able to ensure a good life for their families. Enough of the possibility of spending Tet far away from home, cooped up inside four walls during a lockdown. After going through this hell, the urge to get back is a search and quest for healing. Whatever comes next can wait.

A family wait at a checkpont in HCMC to return to their hometown in the Mekong Deltas Soc Trang Province, Septemer 30, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

A family wait at a checkpont in HCMC to return to their hometown in the Mekong Delta's Soc Trang Province, Septemer 30, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

The dilemma

This isn't the first time workers have tried to go back en-masse amid the pandemic, but Mekong Delta localities are apparently not ready to handle the influx of returnees. Many have requested the central government to not let people spontaneously return even after restrictions are lifted. Bac Lieu has outright refused any spontaneous returnees, while Kien Giang has asked its districts to erect checkpoints and persuade people to go back. An Giang has said that to return at the moment "would place a huge burden" on the province. Many localities have required returnees to pay their testing and quarantining fees.

Both the migrants and localities are locked on the horns of a dilemma.

Ho Chi Minh City and its neighboring localities may need all the workers they can muster to recover and localities may be insufficiently equipped to handle returnees at present. But I believe that one thing is clear. Everyone must be allowed to go back home. They've suffered enough.

It's not impossible. Quang Nam, Phu Yen and Binh Dinh in central Vietnam have all managed to receive millions over the past few months thanks to careful management, and no outbreaks have been detected due to people returning. Whether Mekong Delta localities can do the same would depend on the local leadership’s capabilities. To prevent one's own people from going back home isn't the wisest policy. People will find their way back, one way or the other.

Besides cooperating with HCMC authorities to take back workers in waves, Mekong Delta leaders should work to find new jobs for those who return. They should see the return of migrants as an opportunity, not just a challenge. For instance, local industrial parks can be expanded with policies to promote investment and use of local labor.

There's no shortage of workers in the Mekong Delta, only a lack of places to train and employ them. If environmentally-friendly companies can be fostered with appropriate policies to adapt to a "new normal," people would surely return and start their own businesses.

The other side of the migration to bigger cities in search of livelihoods has not been looked at seriously enough. The images of vehicles flocking out of major cities these days are merely a symptom of a long-standing sickness. As parents continue to seek employment in big cities, their children are left behind to suffer. Families drift apart and as the family structure breaks down, so will a region's culture and traditions.

For a long time now, we, the children of the Mekong Delta, have get tired of hearing this over-repeated refrain: that our land is an agricultural powerhouse etc. etc. We can grow in all areas as long as we get support from the government to work and run our business here. Then, we can stay here for as long as it takes and, most importantly, our families will get to stay together.

*Truong Chi Hung is a writer. The opinions expressed are his own.

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