Urban poor undetected by Vietnam, NGOs say

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 A woman and her son mending tires on Bui Thi Xuan Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Migrants have added to the poor population in Vietnam's urban areas but, so far, their numbers have not been accurately been measured in poverty surveys, according to a recent study by Oxfam and ActionAid.

A huge influx of migrants are now choking the poor, outlying neighborhood of Kim Chung Commune in Hanoi's Dong Anh District.

The Thang Long Industrial Zone, which developed starting in 1997, has brought around 20,000 newcomers to the commune and almost doubled its native population.

"Most of them are poor workers or vendors who have to rent a house," said Commune Chairman Phan Van Bien.

Vietnam needs to quickly establish a more holistic approach to providing these migrants with basic social services, according to recent findings released by Oxfam and ActionAid, two international antipoverty NGOs.

Statistics show that poor rural migrants are flooding into impoverished suburbs and industrial zones.

Vietnam has recently taken a new approach to counting this population.

According to a new proposal from the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, all families who have resided in a locality for more than six months, even with temporary residency status, will be included in poor household surveys.

At the moment, only individuals with permanent residency status can obtain access to health care, public education for their children and other vital social services.

Oxfam and ActionAid's recent report called the proposed move "a more realistic view of urban poverty" that could enable the government to get a more complete picture of the emerging problems.

So far, Vietnam has calculated poverty levels by income alone. Based on existing heuristics, the number of poor households in urban areas by the end of 2009 was tallied at around 0.8 million.

The report suggests that efforts should be made to measure poverty from a number of different perspectives - including non-income criteria such as unstable jobs, cost of living, lack of access to public services, or lack of comfort and safety in living conditions.

Le Kim Dung, Interim Country Director of Oxfam, said the number of poor households would jump considerably when those factors are taken into account.

The report cited an example of a female street vendor named D.T.C, and her husband, a brick layer, who migrated to the city from rural Quang Ngai Province. The couple lives with their two small children in a rented house in Ward 6 in Ho Chi Minh City's Go Vap District, where the migrants outnumber natives two to one.

Their monthly incomes for the first six months of 2010 were estimated at VND4.4 million. At the same time they spent VND4.1 million on rent, electricity, water, petroleum, food, medication and social functions (e.g. weddings).

What's left is VND300,000 to cover numerous contingencies and tuition fees for their two children.

Many people in this situation are not listed as poor and thus cannot benefit from the Social Policy Bank loans.

The red book (or Vietnam's permanent residency document) poses a major obstacle to obtaining help. The book serves as basic collateral in securing bank loans.

Poor migrants without such documents are also unable to apply for many basic social services, under the current system.

Hoang Phuong Thao, Country Director of ActionAid Vietnam, said red book holders are given priority in obtaining education, health and bank loan services.

Thus, many migrants find it difficult to enroll their children in public schools, which charge less tuition fees than private institutions. Without a red book registration attesting to poor household status, many families cannot secure tuition fee reductions for their kids.

"The high cost of schooling in the cities has made a number of migrant children drop out of school or start working at early ages," the report said.

Unstable, private sector jobs also keep poor migrants from health care.

"Most of us do not participate in social insurance, or health insurance, as the premiums are high compared to our salaries," the report quoted a migrant worker in the northern port city of Hai Phong as saying.

Because they lack residency status, many migrants must work for small, private firms. "Few" of their employers purchase insurance for them, according to a migrant worker in Go Vap District.

"In many cases this is not important to us as we do not plan to work for them for a long time," he was quoted as saying.

The report concludes that multidimensional poverty measures, which take into account lifestyle factors in addition to income levels, would help better-identify target groups and formulate appropriate policies to ensure sustainable poverty reduction.

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