How have travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic made the situation of Vietnamese migrant workers in Southeast Asia more precarious?
The right to repatriation amid COVID-19
In 2020, Vietnam managed to control the spread of COVID-19 successfully. However, behind this positive news hides the trade-off made by Vietnamese migrant labourers as the government implemented policies on travel restrictions, such as the suspension of international commercial flights, which hit them especially hard; the limitation of repatriation flights; and the restrictions of the movement through the borders of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. These policies have had increasingly negative impacts on the lives of Vietnamese migrant workers, whether regular or irregular, in Southeast Asian countries.
Article 23 of the Constitution of Vietnam (2013) recognises the right of Vietnamese citizens to return to the country and provides that the exercise of this right shall be prescribed by law. This means that Vietnamese citizens can return home from abroad at any time and if there are any limitations on the right to return, these limitations must be regulated by legal documents. Meanwhile, Vietnamese law – specifically the Law on Exit and Entry of Vietnamese Citizens of 2019 – does not regulate the case of the right to repatriation of citizens being restricted. There are only regulations that define and prohibit illegal entry, related to the standard immigration procedure and documents. For regular Vietnamese migrant workers, this means an ordinary passport, which many use and which is very accessible.
In order to limit the right of Vietnamese migrant workers to return, the government issued administrative documents in the form of directives, notices, recommendations and official dispatches between various bodies to create barriers by stopping flights from high-risk areas to Vietnam, issuing regulations on registration for return to the home country with Vietnamese representative missions in destination countries, and requesting airlines to stop transporting passengers to international airports or suspend cross-border activities for border gates. The lack of a foundation for restricting rights based on legal documents, especially provisions in the law, is a flaw that needs to be overcome urgently to ensure compliance with international standards under article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Many Vietnamese migrant workers have already suffered from those barriers. Vietnamese migrant workers in Southeast Asia account for mainly low-skilled labour-intensive jobs in agriculture, fisheries, domestic work, manufacturing and construction, with low wages. Therefore, when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, which caused a disruption in the supply chain and a drastic decrease in tourist traffic, these workers immediately lost part or all of their income. These workers usually rely on the difference in exchange rates between Vietnamese currency and other countries’ currencies, combined with a frugal lifestyle to save a majority of their income for their families. This is no longer a viable option.
Taking advantage of the visa exemption policy between ASEAN member states, a sizable proportion of Vietnamese migrant workers enter ASEAN countries legally but then stay on and work in the destination countries under an irregular status. They are under pressure to hide from the authorities, have limited access to public services, and frequently face violence or exploitation by employers. In normal conditions, they consider these problems as temporary matters, as they can return to Vietnam when needed.
The suspension of international commercial flights immediately severely affected the ability of migrant workers to return home. Due to the dependency on the authority of diplomatic agencies in selecting eligible citizens, these workers face difficulties in arranging their lives. They cannot decide when to fly and how much to pay for the ticket, while prices could be three times higher than the normal price. Hence, they have to wait for the representative mission and have to exhaust their resources to sustain their lives. As a result, these workers often face the risk of being arrested, detained, and charged fines.
The authors conducted a small survey with 54 Vietnamese workers residing in countries in Southeast Asia, excluding Brunei and Timor Leste. Based on 51 complete answers we analysed, we came to the following conclusions.
Even if there is a provision that states that employees whose contracts have expired, who lost their jobs, or who no longer have an income cannot be supported by the destination country, in order to be given priority to book charter flights to return home, they will only be considered if they have not been earning an income for two to three months. Thus, immediately after they lose their jobs, they are not prioritised for consideration. They believe that these unjust criteria are the biggest difficulty preventing Vietnamese workers from returning home. 96.8% of surveyed Vietnamese workers said that they received little or no support from Vietnamese representative missions in these difficult circumstances. Despite them having to struggle to manage their lives with the financial burden caused by the pandemic and the limitation of their right to return, the diplomatic agencies only provide them with instructions to join the waiting list. Those agencies are incompetent in mobilising resources to support Vietnamese workers abroad adequately.
Notably, although they see themselves as having difficulties, surveyed workers still think that restricting movement is reasonable. The most popular solution to deal with this situation would be to increase the number of repatriation flights instead of reopening commercial flights.
Migrant workers’ difficulties are exacerbated by travel restrictions in Vietnam. Although even the affected workers themselves somewhat sympathise with and accept these measures in the hope of ensuring the safety of their beloved ones in the country, the disadvantage and vulnerability of migrant workers should be recognised by the Vietnamese government, in particular, and other ASEAN member states. In order to relieve this situation, Vietnam needs to add proper and detailed legal provisions to restrict the right to return home, improve the transparency of the repatriation procedures that are conducted by diplomatic bodies, regulate representative missions to provide migrant workers with more adequate and realistic support, and encourage ASEAN member states to recognise the rights of workers regardless of their migrant status and to supplement this rule into existing regional documents.
Nguyen Thi Kim Cuc
Ms Cuc Nguyen currently works as a lecturer at the Faculty of International Law, ULAW. From 2017 until now, she has been teaching Public International Law and International law on Human Rights at ULAW. She has conducted some in-depth academic studies and has also written some articles on international law and human rights in journals published in Vietnam as well as for multi-level conferences.
Dinh Duc Nguyen
Mr Duc Nguyen is an independent junior researcher in the field of Human Rights. He has worked in both INGOs and grassroots organisations in Vietnam. Duc is concerned about human rights, international relations, and international law.