Remittances: lifeblood that extracts its pound of flesh

By Phung Nguyen   February 10, 2020 | 04:41 pm PT
People see remittances simply as money immigrants send to their families, but the hardships endured in sending it are manifold.
Phung Nguyen

Phung Nguyen

Outside a CD shop on the outskirts of London, Hoa asked me to pass on to her parents in Nghe An Province in central Vietnam, both old and unable to work anymore, some "remittance."

Remittance is a word that has many connotations.

At the national level, Vietnam is expected to receive $16.7 billion worth of foreign exchange via official channels and is among 10 remittance receivers in the world, according to the World Bank. Remittances to Vietnam have kept rising for the past two decades, from more than $1.3 billion in 2000 to $16 billion last year.

A recent report from UniTeller, an international payment company based in the U.S., says the value of monthly remittances sent to Vietnam is 10 times the average income of recipients.

Then there are remittances that are sent by people like Hoa, which are the lifeblood of many poor households in the country.

I met Hoa the first time more than three years ago, drawn to the CD shop by the sounds of music coming from it. It was her British husband that opened the shop for her.

Hoa used to be married earlier to a Vietnamese man and had two children with him. The whole family had settled in a coastal district in Nghe An and life was tough as they relied on just a 1,500 square meter rice field to survive.

At this time, a relative suggested to Hoa that she gets to the U.K. and work in the kitchen of a restaurant, promising that the job could help her earn in just one month what she would make in a year of working in the rice field.

Having broken up with her husband, Hoa agreed. She left her two children with her parents and registered with a trafficking ring that took people to the U.K. She borrowed VND300 million ($13,000) to pay the trafficking ring and the other costs, the total of which she did not reveal, she let them deduct from her salary at the restaurant.

The new life in the U.K. was not a dream. Hoa had to work so hard that she even fainted several times and repeatedly had her hands go numb after spending too much time cutting frozen meat and fish.

"Though I had to work like a slave, I had to make my family in Vietnam think that I'm having a good life in the U.K, and I still sent money home regularly."

Seeing what his sister could do to help their family, Hoa's younger brother decided to follow in her footsteps.

He arrived in a suburb of London after paying a significant sum, which he also borrowed from different sources in Vietnam, to a human trafficking ring.

But he did not get a job in some restaurant like Hoa. He gave up all of his legal identity to grow cannabis. In London, he had to hide himself completely around the clock in a shielded room that was lit only with some electric lamps, to look after his "crop."

He is not allowed to meet with anyone and all he desires now is look at the sky. "He is worse off than a mole, cause he cannot show his face outside," Hoa said.

Not long ago, his "farm" caught fire due to a short circuit. The accident left a burn on his face, and he will never look the same again.

But he has not given up. He still dreams that if he can harvest some good crops and earn a lot of money, he can save it and build a big beautiful house for his parents. And then, "even if my face is not in its former shape, our neighbors will respect me," he told his sister, crying.

Neither the brother nor the sister knows when they will be able to return to Vietnam.

I felt then the human weight of the cash she had given me.

Stark contrast

The main purpose of my trip then to the U.K. was to see how Vietnamese students were doing in the country.

So I visited Cambridge University, where many Vietnamese students are studying, and met Long, an excellent student.

As a junior, Long got an invitation to work as coordinator for a computer company. Every day, Long went to school and studied under the dome of ancient castles where several portraits of Nobel laureates, also lecturers at the school, were hung. During the weekend, Long traveled all the way to London, went shopping, watched a football game or some play.

An ocean of difference separated the lives of Vietnamese citizens in the U.K. like Long and that of people like Hoa and her brother.

Thanks to his part-time job, Long could also put aside some money to send home. And the remittance from Long reached Vietnam quickly and easily through a banking service, unlike those coming from Hoa and her brother, which had to travel illegally and secretly without any guarantees.

Returning to Vietnam, I went to Hoa's hometown to fulfill my promise to her.

They lived in a village in Nghe An's Yen Thanh District – known as a labor export hotspot, legal and illegal. It is a land of harsh weather conditions where residents are hit in turns by floods and drought, forcing many farmers to abandon their paddy fields and find sustenance elsewhere.

There are no industrial zones or factories in the area, and the only job aside from growing crops is catching crabs. Clearly, there are not enough crabs for everybody to catch forever.

In a relatively dilapidated house between multi-storied houses that neighbors have built thanks to remittances, Hoa's parents live with their grandchildren.

"They said they're going to build us a house just as big as our neighbors'," they said, voices quavering as they received 500 British pounds from me.

I could not say a word. But the thought that struck me at the moment was that at the end of the day, their daughter and son are still luckier than many, such as the 39 people with dreams that froze and suffocated to death in a refrigerated container truck in Essex last year.

A body of one of the Vietnamese victims in the U.K. truck disaster is carried to an ambulance car at Noi Bai Airport, Hanoi, to be transported to their hometown in central Vietnam, November 27, 2019. Photo by Vietnam News Agency.

A body of one of the Vietnamese victims in the U.K. truck disaster is carried to an ambulance car at Noi Bai Airport, Hanoi, to be transported to their hometown in central Vietnam, November 27, 2019. Photo by Vietnam News Agency.

UniTeller's September report, "Both Sides of the Coin: The Receiver’s Story," which was based on a survey of 1,911 interviews with remittance receivers in the Philippines, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, revealed that the average monthly remittance value sent back by low-income overseas Vietnamese migrants is $735, compared to their receiver's average monthly household income of $73.

Respondents said they use 25 percent of the amount to repay the loan their loved ones had borrowed in the first place to go abroad.

The longing

A sociologist once told me there were two major reasons for the phenomenon of Vietnamese farmers and others leaving their hometowns for a foreign land, taking huge risks – thrust and attention.

The thrust is the pressure at home: the need to make more and more money and demonstrate the ability to do so when neighbors around them have suddenly become rich, and to repudiate the feeling of being a failure. The attraction is a promising opportunity at the destination, where they could have a career and monthly income that "equals a year of working on the farm." So far, the sociologist said, most farmers have left their Vietnamese hometowns because of the thrust factor.

Vietnam is expected to continue to stand among the biggest remittance receivers in the world in coming years, and people in Hoa's village will continue to get more foreign cash to build more multi-story houses.

But her parents do not want such a big house. They only wish for their children to come home, so that their grandchildren would have their mother, and they would have their children back with them.

"Can you tell me when my two children would be back home? My two grandkids and I just keep waiting for their mother, day after day," Hoa's father told me.

I had no real answer for him.

I walked away from their house. After a while, I looked back. The old man was still standing there, his eyes following me down the road.

*Phung Nguyen is a journalist. The opinions expressed are personal.

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