The pandemic effect on undocumented migration

By Duc Hung   May 7, 2020 | 01:00 pm GMT+7

Covid-19 has exposed the vulnerability of irregular Vietnamese migrants, driven by survival to risk life and limb.

Duc Hung

Duc Hung

"I want to return to Vietnam but can’t. Can you help me?" a Vietnamese migrant in the U.K. asked me as the number of new coronavirus infections continues to rise locally.

"It is scary. In my area, five people have been infected. It’s even worse in nearby localities," he stressed.

Tuan, 32, a husband and father of two, does not want his full name on paper.

A native from north central Ha Tinh’s Hong Linh Town, Tuan borrowed $25,000 to pay off a trafficking ring to help him reach the U.K. hidden inside a refrigerated container transported from Calais, France back in 2016.

Poverty stricken, many Vietnamese opt to illegally enter Europe where they find manual employment, often farming cannabis. Those that managed to make enough money either return home or manage to stay on thanks to a myriad of loopholes.

Smugglers usually strip their human cargo of identity, many facing the peril of a nameless death like the 39 that suffocated to death in a refrigerated container truck in Essex outside London last year.

For the past four years, Tuan has worked in nail salons, restaurants and construction, earning £500-700 a week to pay off his ‘trafficking debt’, setting money aside for his wife to open a savings account back home.

Having endured many risks, Tuan now faces the Covid-19 threat, which has left him unemployed and without medical support in case of infection.

Anyone wearing a mask in the U.K. is considered infected and faces discrimination, Tuan said, adding he has refrained from venturing outside his 30-square-meter apartment except for food to ensure social distancing.

The U.K. is now the fourth largest infection hotspot in the world and the third biggest in Europe with more than 190,500 cases. Most recently, it has surpassed Italy to be the European nation with most deaths, at more than 30,000.

"If I get infected, I will treat myself, even though I’m not sure how," Tuan maintained, saying he swallows some ginger each time he has an itchy throat.

The U.K. medical system is currently overloaded, with too little staff to treat even British citizens, let alone migrants. Should he get infected, Tuan would be put on a waiting list, which does not ensure a medical check, unless his condition is fatal.

Tuan mostly relies on Vietnamese traditional remedies to kill a cold. Though over-the-counter medication is relatively cheap, prescriptions are hard to come by.

However, in rare cases, migrants access medicine via their employers, a troubled Tuan stated.

I was a little surprised when he asked me to help him get back to Vietnam.

"You must be kidding. You have traded your life to get to the U.K. If you return now, wouldn’t your entire plan be wasted?" I asked him.

Staff put up some signs at the NHS Nightingale Hospital as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, London, Britain, April 3, 2020. Photo by Reuters/John Sibley

Staff put up some signs at the NHS Nightingale Hospital as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, London, Britain, April 3, 2020. Photo by Reuters/John Sibley

Tuan explained that faced with unemployment and the possible risk of contracting Covid-19, it may well be better to return home and earn at least a little. But despite his feverish wish to reunite with his family, flights between the U.K. and Vietnam remain suspended.

I guess Tuan and many other migrants like him must have a lot on their mind, left vulnerable and without guidance amid a pandemic that has affected 212 countries and territories and claimed more than 250,000 lives so far.

Recent analysis held that of the 19,000 deaths in the U.K., authorities had only counted those who had died at hospital, and that the actual figure could be much higher.

"I’m not the only one, others are also desperate to go home, but there is no way out," Tuan said.

Covid-19 has given many of us time to reflect on our decisions. On what we choose to retain or let go. Perhaps risking your life for supposed easy gains far from home is, ultimately, not worth it. But then again, is the choice really yours to make.  

I wonder, if Covid-19 never broke out, would any of these migrants ever have considered returning to their families at all.

*Duc Hung is a journalist. The opinions expressed here are his own.

 
 
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