Stuck in limbo: How residency red tape binds millions of migrants in Vietnam

A vicious tool at worst and a nationwide burden at best, the residency book finds itself at dawn of an inevitable reform. 

When the Vietnamese government announced it would stop controlling its citizens with the archaic residency books, Sister Dang Thi Thu Hanh, who manages a charity center in District 8, Ho Chi Minh City, was among the first to rejoice.

Running the center for over a decade, Sister Hanh understands too well the ordeal these disadvantaged children and their parents, who are migrant workers from the Mekong Delta, have been languishing in.

“Back home, they don't have a house to live in or a job to survive,” Sister Hanh told VnExpress International. “Before they could harvest rice or work for other farmers, but now machines have replaced them. They’d rather be poor in the city than hungry back home.”

But life in the city isn’t easy. As migrants, to get a birth certificate for their children, they can either return to the area where they’re permanently registered, or pay the price of permanent residency in Saigon, which means owning land and building a house.

Neither option seems feasible for these casual workers.

“It usually takes them about two weeks to go back to their hometowns and get a birth certificate for their children,” Hanh explained. “By the time they return, they may no longer have a job in Saigon.”

But even when they risk their jobs and spend hundreds of their hard-earned dollars traveling back and forth, their efforts can be futile.

"If you’ve been gone for over six months it’s like you’re dead to some local authorities,” Hanh explained about the times she's tried to help the parents with the process.

Sister Hanh with a class at a charity center in District 8, Ho Chi Minh City. Many of the children don’t have birth certificates as their parents do not have permanent residency books. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen

Ho khau, Vietnam’s household registration system, is similar to China’s hukou, a post-war means to ration food and allocate jobs during the subsidy period and a way to limit urban migration after economic reforms in the 80s. They have become an indispensable part of almost every basic document procedure, including birth certificates.

But following economic reforms since the late 1980s, Vietnam has adopted a socialist oriented market economy and ho khau has been kept to limit migration to booming cities, to no avail. The book has come to signify Vietnam's excessive red tape. It is required in most administrative procedures including filing a birth certificate, going to school, getting married, and it decides how easy it is for one to find a job, buy a house or a vehicle.

In early November, in what was considered a landmark move, the government said it would jettison the residence books in favor of an online database whereby each citizen will be registered with a personal identification code.

Under a government resolution, Vietnam will stop managing its citizen registration through the residency book, which attaches a person to a permanent address.

But the Ministry of Public Security has warned residents not to get too excited just yet. The online system will not be ready until 2020, according to the ministry.

To replace the books, Vietnam is expected to introduce a personal identification code which will be linked to data accessible to all government agencies. Current residency data is limited to the police and that’s why people need to present their residence books for most administrative procedures.

 Officers also said that the government does not plan on loosening citizen registration controls, and will be simply digitalizing the procedure.

“This is to streamline administrative procedures, not to lift residential control,” Minister of Public Security told local media.

Pham Thi Kim Yen and Bui Van Bao, both 14, at a fifth grade class at Binh An charity center, District 8, Ho Chi Minh City. Yen, the oldest of five children in the family, all undocumented, bikes seven kilometers to school at 6 a.m. every morning, then bikes back to help her mother harvest morning glory in the afternoon. “We want to move up to sixth grade but we don't think we can because we don’t have birth certificates,” they said. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

Anticipation has already been building for the day when the change materializes.

 “Some families are so poor they have to mortgage their ID cards for money,” Sister Hanh said. “There’s no way we can help them get birth certificates for their kids.”

For those whose parents do not have the ho khau and ID like fifth grader Pham Thi Kim Yen, the dream of becoming a registered citizen seems distant.

“Only my mother has a ho khau and neither of my parents have ID,” the small, timid 14-year-old said.

“I want to go to sixth grade but I don't think I can.”

The charity center only offers classes up to fifth grade. After graduation, the students' school days come to an end. Sister Hanh, who has seen many students come and go, is worried about their future. 

“Many even struggle to make it to fifth grade. I can only hope they study hard so that maybe they can work as vendors in the future."

Fast forward two weeks in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where most citizens are registered permanently, and life goes on as if nothing has happened.

Eight out of ten decades-old Hanoi residents we spoke to said they were not aware of the news and that the ho khau did not affect their lives enough for them to care.

Yet, they were fully aware of the problems 1.3 million migrants in Hanoi and 2.9 million in Ho Chi Minh City have to face every day.

“Living costs are approximately 40 percent more for migrant workers than they are for permanent residents,” said Nguyen Quang Dong, a public policy expert who researches migrant and unofficial workers.

“They also earn less than the city’s permanent residents,” he added.


Local media regularly reports about the ho khau and the massive toll it takes on people who do not have one. A 17-year-old migrant was forced to give up high school because his family did not have the book in 2014. An academic in Hanoi was granted a ho khau but decided not to take it due to excessive red tape, then spent ten years traveling back and forth between Hanoi and his hometown to complete legal paperwork.

The ho khau limits migrants’ access to basic services such as public education, health care, insurance and excludes them from socio-economic statistics, local organizations and financial assistance, an extensive report by the World Bank in 2014 concluded.

“The problem lies in the public services that feed on the original role of the ho khau,” Dong said.

“From hospitals, schools and insurance companies, to electricity and internet providers, if we can’t remove the ties between a person's address and these public services, there’ll be no significant impact.”

More than one reform

Ngo Mong Huyen got married in her twenties, much to the protest of her parents. She and her husband rented a house in Saigon and looked forward to a new life together.

When their first child was born, Huyen was told to submit her permanent residency book to obtain a birth certificate for the baby, but she only had her ID card.

It's been over a decade since the family fell out, but the 33-year-old vending assistant has not been able to persuade her parents to lend her the book. “The head of the households, they hold the power,” she said. “I have no rights to that book.”

Despite being a Saigon citizen, Huyen has also learned that without a residency book her children are at a serious disadvantage.

Without a birth certificate and a ho khau, Huyen’s children do not have access to health care, insurance or public schools. When they reach the age of 15, they won’t be able to get their adult IDs that allow them to get a proper job, open a bank account, buy a motorbike, get married or even be issued a death certificate.

Huyen doesn't have the money to pay for private school, so she sends her three children, aged 8, 10 and 11, to a charity learning center run by the Friends for Street Children NGO in District 8, seven kilometers from her rented home in Binh Chanh District.

There, they study with 41 other undocumented children, all of whom have been denied access to basic needs.

Since 2005, Vietnamese law, in theory, has allowed citizens to obtain birth certificates for their children anywhere in the country, regardless of where they are permanently registered, but the process remains challenging in practice.

VnExpress International reached out to Huynh Tan Dat, vice president of Ho Chi Minh City’s legal aid center, but was refused an interview.

“Just look at what I wrote,” Dat said, referring to his opinion piece in Phap Luat (Law) newspaper in 2015, in which he called for a more lenient approach to poor, undocumented families.

Huyen said she was extremely hopeful when her decade-long appeal was finally heard by Ho Chi Minh City’s Department of Justice a few days ago.

She was also excited about the news the government will scrap the books and switch to an online system.

“With an online system, even if there's been conflict within the family, I will still be able to get birth certificates for my children,” she said.

The latest government resolution has been welcomed by experts as the first step towards reform, but many are concerned about what it will actually change.

“We see this as a positive step, but the impact will depend on how the system is implemented,” said Gabriel Denombynes, a former World Bank senior economist for poverty issues in Vietnam.

“The new system could help reduce the burden on both the government and citizens if it is done in tandem with other reforms to reduce obstacles to obtaining permanent registration and to remove barriers to service access for those without permanent registration.”

Public policy expert Nguyen Quang Dong pictures another outcome.

“Even if the ho khau is removed, public services such as internet companies will still ask for ID and proof of address in Hanoi, so what will change?” he said.

“The ho khau is not an effective way of managing public security,” wrote Vu Hoang Linh, vice-principal of Hanoi University of Sciences via email. “There are many people registered permanently at one address that have lived elsewhere for many years. Controlling citizens through the ho khau is becoming more of a formality and a tool for misconduct.”

With migration an indicator of how well the economy is doing and how developed society is, “now the working borders between nations are becoming more flexible. Controlling citizens’ migration would violate freedom of movement," Dong, the public policy expert, said.

“There’s still some subsidy logic in the minds of both governors and the people,” he continued. “The government wants to control its citizens, while the people still want to be dependent on the government.”

“It can only be changed if the government is determined to make it work."

Story by Trang Bui, Bao Yen

Photos by Thanh Nguyen

By Trang Bui, Bao Yen