A thorny government decree and spotty implementation have created a maze of confusing regulations for the parents of mentally disabled young adults seeking IDs
Nguyen Thi Trinh spent three years haggling with Ho Chi Minh City police before they accepted her 18 year-old son's application for an identity card.
Residents in Vietnam can't apply for a job, rent a room or travel by plane without it. But, Trinh says, they refused the application because her son was born with Down's syndrome.
"They wouldn't accept my son's [application]," said the mother, who lives in District 3. "I took him down to the police station, but they said it is not necessary to issue ID cards for [the mentally disabled] because they are immune from criminal liabilities."
In Trinh's latest attempt, she returned to the District 3 police office on March 3 only to be rejected again.
"We can't issue an ID card in this case. Those having mental illness and Down's syndrome won't face criminal charges even if they commit a crime," a lieutenant colonel told her, adding that she could take her case to the municipal police department.
Trinh demanded that the senior officer give her a formal rejection of her request, in writing.
Instead, he did an about face, and gave her an official application form. Trinh was told to obtain approval from the ward police chief before submitting her application to the district police.
Despite all her efforts, her son's fate remains unknown.
The policeman who finally accepted her application said he was confused about what to do.
"I have never received an application like this," he said. "I'll try to process it."
If all goes according to plan, her son's ID card will be available on March 21.
What to do?
Mothers like Trinh all over the country are faced with the infuriating task of pushing the police to issue their loved ones basic identification documents.
For some, it is easy.
Cung Thi Bich Hong of Phu Nhuan District wrote in to Thanh Nien and said she had no trouble obtaining an ID card for her 28-year-old daughter three years ago. Her daughter was even able to secure a job, thanks to her ID.
For others, it is horribly difficult.
Based on reader response, it seems that district and provincial police stations vary widely in their interpretation of the thorny law.
Ma Hoang Le, director of the HCMC Center for the Handicapped, said that he was really upset about discrimination in issuing ID cards.
"Without this paper, [the mentally handicapped] face more difficulties in their daily lives, applying for jobs and maintaining their residency rights," he said.
Following a decree issued in 1999, all Vietnamese citizens were required to apply for an ID card after their 14th birthday. That responsibility was suspended for those serving jail time or confined to centers for compulsory education, rehabilitation or medical treatment.
The law also suspended this obligation (or right, depending on how you look at it) for patients suffering from mental illness, and those who have lost control of their behavior.
Many people have lodged complaints with Thanh Nien saying that those suffering from metal disabilities have faced a host of difficulties in daily life without an ID card.
Many complain that police stations all over the city have rejected their applications for the personal papers even though they were not exempted under the decree.
Grounded for life
Han, the father of a son with Down's syndrome, said he couldn't obtain an ID card despite the fact that he's now 20 years-old.
During his latest attempt on March 4, the District 3 police rejected his request.
"He doesn't need an ID card because he has Down's syndrome," an officer told him. "He won't face any criminal charges so he doesn't need to be managed [via ID card]."
Following the rejection, Han visited the municipal police department where a policeman took their application.
Asked why the district police didn't handle the job, the municipal officer said that the district police wouldn't dare do so. He also said that his was among the rare cases when an application from a person with Down's syndrome was accepted.
Han was overjoyed.
"Two years ago, my sister in Sweden wanted to take him abroad for treatment but we couldn't because he doesn't have an ID card," he said.
The lack of a card has even prevented some highly active and independent mentally handicapped citizens from travelling domestically.
Nguyen Thi Thanh Loan, a master of Aikido at the HCMC Martial Arts Association for the Blind, said that several of her students were chosen to perform at a recent festival in Hanoi.
They couldn't participate in the event, however. They were all turned away at the airport for not having personal identification papers.
Reconsidering the law
Vu Xuan Dung, an official at the Ministry of Public Security, said that local police may have misinterpreted existing regulations when they rejected the Aikido students' applications for identification cards.
By demonstrating their ability to practice martial arts, they possess the ability to control and be aware of their behavior. Thus, he said, they are eligible for their ID cards.
However, he said, those lacking that level of behavioral cognition cannot, by law, obtain an official ID.
Ta Thi Minh Ly, director of the Ministry of Justice's Legal Support Department, said that it is necessary to reconsider the existing regulations.
"There's no reason that a mentally disabled person should not be allowed to board a flight [because he/she doesn't have an ID card]," she told Thanh Nien.
Ly also said that an ID card is simple document that everyone should have. Nothing about it requires them to demonstrate any special cognitive abilities, she said.
Truong Thi Hoa, Esq of the HCMC Children's Sponsor Association, said that the state should draft detailed regulations for issuing ID cards to people with mental disabilities.
"The law should require them to simply be accompanied by their parents when submitting an application," she said. "They are human beings and no one can deny them their basic rights. When born, they should receive a birth certificate and when they reach the required age, they should have the right to apply for an ID card and passport like everyone else."