Vietnam’s border closures keep families apart and economic opportunities unrealised.
Tet, or Lunar New Year, is a time of family reconnection and renewal in Vietnam that normally extends to the four million members of the diaspora spread across the globe.
In the last decade and a half, the Vietnamese government has made a concerted effort to encourage diaspora to visit and return. Following the announcement of Politburo Resolution 36 in 2004 that symbolically recognised all Vietnamese overseas as comprising an integral part of the nation, a series of policy measures specifically designed to facilitate their return – ranging from land ownership to dual citizenship – were passed. One measure that has been widely taken up by the diaspora is the visa exemption arrangement for those with Vietnamese heritage. Allowing visa free entry and exit for five years, many Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) have used this to return to the homeland on a more regular basis, numbering over half a million annually in recent years. Diasporic returns are especially high during the Tet holiday. In recognition of this, the Vietnamese State Committee for Overseas Affairs organises annual “Homeland Spring” programmes to officially welcome returnees who are interested in participating.
2021 marks the first lunar new year affected by Covid-19. Last year, the holiday fell on January 25, just before the pandemic outbreak became serious enough to start shutting borders. Vietnam, which has been recognized as a model for containing the virus, locked down its borders on March 22, 2020. This included the cancellation of regular tourist visas, and the suspension of visa exemptions for overseas Vietnamese. Rather than encouraging homeland return this year, the Vietnamese government wants overseas Vietnamese to stay put in their host countries. Putting a nationalistic spin on it, officials at a National Steering Committee for Covid-19 Prevention and Control meeting emphasized that “not returning home at this time is also a contribution to pandemic prevention in Vietnam.” The government has limited inbound repatriation flights from January 10 until the end of the Lunar New Year holiday, in anticipation of growing demands for return. Land borders with Cambodia, Laos and China have been closed.
For many Vietnamese, 2021 is simply the beginning of “Covid Year 2”, with its ongoing horizon of waiting and apprehension that demands both strength and patience.
For many Vietnamese abroad, the desire to return goes well beyond the emotional benefit of restoring kin relations. While some have seen Vietnam as a possible safe haven given public health mismanagement of the pandemic in diaspora hubs like the United States and France, for others the motivation for returning to Vietnam is economic necessity. Labour opportunities abroad for Vietnamese workers have dissipated with the pandemic, and many are stuck in foreign countries facing high living costs with no income sources. Remittance flows into Vietnam, which have been in the top ten globally and on a steady increase for many years, witnessed a decline in 2020, and overseas worker contracts have evaporated. Whereas in the past there was a robust illegal labor broker market where Vietnamese paid high sums to leave the country, now there are reports of overseas Vietnamese stranded abroad without employment paying brokers in reverse – to penetrate closed borders so that they can return home.
Aside from migrant workers, the cessation of overseas Vietnamese returns has other profound economic impacts. There are over 25,000 overseas Vietnamese enterprises involved in at least 3,000 projects with total capital of more than 9 billion US dollars that are affected by Vietnam’s border closures, although there have been some arrangements to facilitate mobility for high-end investors and diplomats. More significantly, the Viet Kieu return economy, whereby overseas Vietnamese temporarily returning for the New Year carry personal gifts for relatives and inject money into local economies during typically month long stays thereby creating a robust multiplier effect, has also been interrupted by the Covid-19 closures. Vietnam’s economy has been hurt by the pandemic. Tourism has dropped by 67 per cent, foreign direct investment and consumption have also declined, and growth in more stable industry sectors flattened in 2020-21 as supply chains have been disrupted and global consumer demand has tapered.
In Vietnam’s zodiac calendar 2021 is the year of the Buffalo. The Buffalo represents strength, but also patience as it traverses a difficult journey. For many Vietnamese, 2021 is simply the beginning of “Covid Year 2”, with its ongoing horizon of waiting and apprehension that demands both strength and patience. For Vietnamese outside of Vietnam, this feeling is aggravated as they remain disconnected from kin and homeland, unsure of when they can return or if the economic opportunities they left home to seek will be restored.
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the globalized flow of goods, money, services and people for a second straight year, countries with significant overseas diasporas like Vietnam face a difficult economic and social journey ahead, as once porous borders indefinitely harden. Lunar New Year, normally a time of reconnection accompanied by social and economic performances of generosity, will for many this year be instead remembered as a time of immobility, isolation, insecurity and uncertainty. The Buffalo has some work cut out for it.
Ivan V. Small is Associate Professor of Anthropology and International Studies at Central Connecticut State University in the United States.