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From Humanitarian to Economic: The Changing Face of Vietnamese Migration

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From Humanitarian to Economic: The Changing Face of Vietnamese Migration

From refugees to exchange students and labor migrants, Vietnam's migrant profile has changed dramatically in recent decades. (Photos: U.S. military and University of Melbourne Student Union)

Although war and conflict forced the majority of Vietnamese migration that occurred in the second half of the 20th century, Vietnam’s tremendous economic growth has driven recent migration to and from the country. No longer are the indelible images of people on unseaworthy boats trying to survive pirates to reach refuge on foreign shores the face of Vietnamese migration. With a decade of real gross domestic product (GDP) growth of more than 5 percent annually, unemployment below 6 percent, and a growing labor force, the face of Vietnamese migration today is more likely to be a student pursuing an overseas education, a construction worker in the Middle East, or a Chinese or Canadian tourist visiting the beaches of Nha Trang and boating in Ha Long Bay.

Vietnam has witnessed net emigration for many years. Despite changing demographics including an increasing elderly population and declining population growth rate, the overabundance of highly skilled, productive workers is still likely to result in net emigration for many years to come. At the same time, Vietnam’s economic vitality is spurring growing inflows of tourists and business travelers, leading the government to revamp its immigration and visa policies through a law implemented in early 2015.

The years of emigration, which date to the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, have yielded a global diaspora estimated at 4 million, a small percentage of Vietnam’s estimated 2014 population of 93.4 million. Nearly half of the diaspora, approximately 2 million, lives in the United States. Labor migrants—increasingly women—working in neighboring Asian countries have driven more recent growth in the Vietnamese diaspora, in addition to the share of overseas Vietnamese students who settle in the countries where they earn university degrees.

This country profile will examine regional and colonial settlement in Vietnam, before exploring the two faces of Vietnamese emigration—the mass humanitarian flows of the Indochinese refugee crisis that began with the end of the Vietnam War and continued for the next two decades, and low-skilled economic migration to communist allies in the Soviet Bloc. The article then looks at more recent trends including increasing labor migration to Asia and the Middle East and a rise in migrant brides, before discussing the impact of Vietnam’s 2015 immigration law on tourism and foreign labor.

A History of Migration: Regional Movements and Colonial Settlement

Intraregional migration has long been a hallmark of Southeast Asia, one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the world. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, whose present borders were defined following the reunification of North and South Vietnam on July 2, 1976, recognizes 54 ethnicities, many of which are the result of centuries of historical migration. The Kinh, Vietnam’s ethnic majority, composed 86 percent of the population, according to the government’s 1999 census. The largest minorities are the Tay (1.9 percent), Thai (1.7 percent), Muong (1.5 percent), Khmer Krom (1.4 percent), and Hoa (1.1 percent), whose ethnic brethren also live in modern-day Cambodia, China, Laos, and Thailand.

European migration to mainland Southeast Asia, mostly in the form of religious missionaries, began in the 17th century. By the 1850s, the apparent threat of French influence to the dynastic Vietnamese court provoked a military contest in which 3,000 French soldiers captured Da Nang in 1858 and Saigon in 1859, thus prompting French colonization of the region known as Indochina, encompassing modern-day Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Even at its peak in 1945, the French population in all of Indochina was estimated at only 50,000, compared to Saigon’s 1945 population estimate of 220,000. Throughout the colonial era until complete French withdrawal in 1954, no more than 100,000 French troops are estimated to have served in the region.

Figure 1. Maps of French Indochina and Vietnam

Sources: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, "French Indochina;" Central Intelligence Agency, “Vietnam Administrative Map,” 2001, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/resources/cia-maps-publications/Vietnam.html.

In the late 1940s, France struggled to control its Asian colonies, leading to the First Indochina War. After the defeat of the French by the Viet Minh, Vietnamese independence forces, at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French withdrew from the region. The Geneva Accords issued in July 1954 divided Vietnam into northern and southern halves, ruled by separate regimes. The communist Viet Minh forces, led by Ho Chi Minh, controlled North Vietnam; the United States, dedicated to containing the spread of communist regimes, supported the South Vietnamese government.

Chinese Migrants

The Hoa, who are ethnic Chinese, have a history of migration in Southeast Asia since the 2nd century BC. Hoa migration to French-controlled Southeast Asia grew with the Convention of Peking in 1860, under which French authorities permitted the entry of Chinese seeking employment overseas. By 1874, the French allowed restricted business activities, while requiring Chinese immigrants to register their clan and dialect. More than 500,000 Hoa immigrated to Indochina in the early 1900s, developing into a large community of traders controlling numerous commodities.

Starting in the 1930s, Vietnamese communist leaders began enacting policy to integrate the Hoa into northern Vietnamese society. In the 1950s, the South Vietnamese government issued a series of decrees on the legal rights of the Hoa in Vietnamese society regarding citizenship, residence permits, the required adoption of Vietnamese names, and authorization to engage in commerce. Although initially restrictive to foreign-born Hoa, these policies were later relaxed in the 1960s. The situation for the Hoa, like for nearly all minority ethnicities in the region, worsened considerably with the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam War and the Refugee Crisis

Following the division of the country, the Viet Cong, South Vietnamese communist guerillas, and the Viet Minh, had by 1959 begun a large-scale insurgency in the South that marked the opening of the Second Indochina War. By August 1964, the U.S. government believed that escalation of its presence in Vietnam was the only solution to stop communism from spreading. The Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War) continued across the country for the next ten years, killing and displacing millions of people throughout the region.

Initial U.S. Relief Operations

With the end of the Vietnam War, marked by the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, the United States launched a series of operations aimed at supporting the massive vulnerable population trying to escape the country. At 2 p.m. on April 29, the U.S. military began Operation Frequent Wind, which evacuated 7,000 American civilians and U.S.-allied Vietnamese by helicopter from various points in Saigon. The operation continued through the night until 7:53 a.m. the next day, when the last ten Marine security guards, having lowered the U.S. flag from U.S. Embassy Saigon, evacuated via a Marine Corps helicopter. Until that November, Operation New Life processed 110,000 refugees from Saigon who had been brought to Guam. Operation New Arrivals was initiated to relocate Vietnamese refugees from Guam and other Pacific Islands to the United States. These initial relief efforts saw 130,000 refugees resettled directly by the United States, with many more to come in the following decades.

After the end of the Vietnam War and the withdrawal of the United States, China invaded Vietnam in 1979, launching the Sino-Vietnamese War, a brief border conflict, and aggravating the Indochinese refugee crisis. As a result, approximately 250,000 Vietnamese, many of Hoa ethnicity, immediately fled by land into China. Many were eventually permanently resettled in the southern Chinese provinces of Guangdong, Yunnan, Hainan, Fujian, Jiangxi, and Guangxi. In 2007, the Chinese government began considering legislation to grant citizenship to this long-standing refugee population that in 2014 stood at 315,000, according to estimates from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Boat People and the Indochinese Refugee Crisis

Following the initial surge of refugees resulting from Saigon’s fall, the ensuing Indochinese refugee crisis, lasting nearly 20 years, saw more than 2 million people, including 1.6 million Vietnamese, flee communist-controlled territories in Southeast Asia under treacherous conditions. More than 880,000 of the 1.6 million Vietnamese were eventually resettled in the United States.

The advent of the Sino-Vietnamese War amid a crackdown by the communist regime against the former South Vietnam led to a mass exodus of Vietnamese in 1978-79 on poorly constructed boats, giving rise to the term “boat people.” The huge volumes of refugees spurred UNHCR, in partnership with the Vietnamese government, to create the Orderly Departure Program (ODP), which organized the process of resettling Vietnamese and other displaced populations in the region in need of humanitarian aid to the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe. By the end of the program in 1997, more than 600,000 people were permanently resettled, with the United States accepting approximately three-quarters of them. Even with ODP, UNHCR estimates that as many as 400,000 people died at sea from weather, piracy, starvation, or illness.

As refugees fleeing by boat surged to more than 25,000 each month in 1979, several maritime Southeast Asian nations established camps to absorb the flows, most significantly Malaysia’s Bidong Island and Indonesia’s Galang Refugee Camp. Galang processed more than 170,000 refugees in its nearly two decades of existence, UNHCR estimates. Bidong, an island of about one square mile, received close to 40,000 refugees during the height of the flows in 1979. By 1989, UNHCR’s Steering Committee of the International Conference on Indochinese Refugees adopted the Comprehensive Plan of Action in order to reduce the continual flow of people fleeing Vietnam by boat, as neighboring countries resisted accepting further refugees. In addition to those resettled through ODP, UNHCR received more than 800,000 Vietnamese into camps across Southeast Asia, and after processing, resettled more than 700,000 abroad, while repatriating 100,000 to Vietnam. The United States admitted more than 400,000; Canada and Australia more than 100,000, respectively. The boat people form the majority of the global Vietnamese diaspora.

The United States is host to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. In 2012, Vietnamese immigrants in the United States numbered nearly 1.3 million; the figure rises to nearly 2 million when including their descendants. The United States passed the Amerasian Immigration Act of 1982, which allowed for the resettlement of Vietnamese Amerasians (a person born in Asia to an Asian mother and a U.S. military father), but did not permit family members to immigrate and required coordination with the American father. The Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1987 expanded on these provisions; under the two acts, more than 25,000 Vietnamese Amerasians and 67,000 of their eligible family members have immigrated to the United States.

Australia hosts the world’s fourth-largest ethnic Vietnamese community, with approximately 0.8 percent of the resident population in 2011 born in Vietnam. While many Vietnamese-Australians originally arrived as refugees, family reunification has been the more common path recently. Between 1991 and 2011, the population of Vietnamese-born in Australia increased from 124,000 to 185,000; in 2011, 233,000 people reported speaking Vietnamese at home, according to the Australian decennial census.

Though the United States, Australia, and Canada received the largest numbers of refugees, thousands more Vietnamese were resettled around the world. Even Israel received more than 300 Vietnamese refugees between 1977 and 1979. In June 1977, the Yuvali, an Israeli freighter ship in the South China Sea en route to Taiwan, picked up 66 starving boat refugees, 16 of whom were children. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, recalling the plight of the 900 German Jews fleeing on the St. Louis in 1939 who had been turned away from the Americas and forced to return to Europe, offered the refugees asylum and resettlement to Israel.

Vietnamese in the Soviet Bloc

In the era following the end of the Vietnam War, Vietnamese migration had two very different faces: refugees and other humanitarian migrants largely taken in by Western and neighboring Southeast Asian countries, and new student and labor migrant flows headed to Vietnam’s communist allies.

The North Vietnamese victory led the unified country to develop stronger ties to the communist world. After the Socialist Republic of Vietnam joined the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) in 1978, an economic organization led by the Soviet Union comprising several socialist nations, the Vietnamese government offered scholarships to encourage its students to go abroad to more developed communist nations, ostensibly in order to obtain skills and training that would benefit the Vietnamese economy upon their return. In addition, Vietnam sent its citizens abroad to other COMECON countries to work at very low wages, largely in manufacturing, as a form of loan repayment, as arranged in bilateral agreements.

During the initial wave of such migrants in the early 1980s, the Soviet Union, having long been one of Vietnam's strongest allies, received many Vietnamese emigrants. For years, the Russians have provided university scholarships for Vietnamese students; an estimated 50,000 Vietnamese studied in the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. Various Vietnamese communist officials, including revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, studied in Moscow, home to the majority of the Vietnamese diaspora in Russia. In 2002, more than 26,000 ethnic Vietnamese were counted in the Russian federal census. There were 13,000 Vietnamese immigrants in Russia in 2013, according to estimates from the United Nations Population Division.

Many students and guest workers also migrated to then Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s. While originally obliged to return to their homeland, many overstayed their visas and remained following the end of communism in the country. The Vietnamese community, currently estimated between 40,000 and 80,000, remained relatively isolated at first from larger Czech society. Many first-generation immigrants worked as street-market vendors, though the second generation has become more integrated, and Nguyen is now the ninth most common surname in the Czech Republic.

Bulgaria, like other COMECON nations, also agreed to take in low-wage and low-skill Vietnamese guest workers and exchange students. While an estimated 35,000 Vietnamese worked in the country during the communist era, and more than 5,000 Vietnamese students studied at Bulgarian universities, the vast majority returned to Vietnam after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

The former East Germany was another significant destination for Vietnamese seeking training overseas. Through policy aimed at expanding its internal labor force and assisting lesser developed communist countries, the East German government committed to industrial training of Vietnamese students through the 1970s and 1980s. These trainees, mainly in the textile, construction, and metal industries, were initially envisioned as temporary workers who would return to Vietnam at the expiration of their five-year contracts. By the end of the 1980s, the guest worker program had grown to include nearly 60,000 Vietnamese. Under East German rules, these workers were strictly controlled and prevented from integrating into German society.

Following German reunification in 1990, Germany, which also hosted large populations of foreign workers from Turkey and North Africa in the western part of the country, offered economic incentives to Vietnamese guest workers still resident in the former East German states to return to Vietnam. More than 30,000 Vietnamese accepted the offer of DM 3,000 (USD $1,850 in 1990) to repatriate. Germany, which resettled more than 28,000 Vietnamese refugees during the Indochinese refugee crisis and thousands of asylum seekers since then, still has a sizeable Vietnamese population, which was estimated at 125,000 in 2007.

In total, between 1981 and 1990, more than 210,000 Vietnamese traveled to communist Eastern European countries as guest workers, according to Vietnamese government data. The single largest migration occurred in 1989 with more than 160,000 Vietnamese emigrating in that year alone, of which approximately 45 percent were women. However, because of political and social changes resulting in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the arrangements dissolved. By 1992, with increasing rates of unemployment and social conflict between Vietnamese and native workers, approximately 80 percent of the guest workers in Eastern Europe had returned to Vietnam.

Economic Reform: Increased Migration after Vietnam’s Opening

Beginning in 1986, Vietnam initiated a series of reforms known as Doi Moi to open the country and create a “socialist-oriented market economy.” The reforms, which included the loosening of some migration restrictions, led to a marked increase in both internal and international migration. As Vietnam greatly reduced the number of state-sector employees, while having a relatively young population and high rates of unemployment, economic motivations became the major force driving emigration for many Vietnamese, as seen in the increased movement to Soviet Bloc nations in the latter half of the 1980s.

With the growing resistance of Eastern Europe to Vietnamese migrants in the early 1990s, the government pivoted towards Asia and the Middle East as new markets to export labor. With an initial focus on Japan and South Korea in Asia, and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Lebanon in the Middle East, 3,000 Vietnamese left to work overseas in 1993, according to Vietnamese government estimates. By July 2000, the Vietnamese government reported that in excess of 118,000 labor migrants were working in more than 40 countries, with women accounting for 20 percent of that volume. Labor migration continued to grow strongly, and in 2007 more than 85,000 Vietnamese laborers emigrated in that year alone. Between 2000 and 2010, labor migration increased at a compound annual growth rate of 5.5 percent. Although the global financial crisis of 2008 reduced the growth rate on the annual emigrant flow, on average about 90,000 Vietnamese laborers now leave Vietnam each year to work on contract overseas.

Figure 2. Annual Vietnamese Migrant Laborers by Major Destinations, 2000-10

Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam, Consular Department, Review of Vietnamese Migration Abroad (Hanoi: ADN Company, 2012), http://eeas.europa.eu/delegations/vietnam/documents/eu_vietnam/vn_migration_abroad_en.pdf.

Higher Wages But Possible Abuse

As with the Soviet Bloc countries, the Vietnamese government continues its policy of sending Vietnamese laborers abroad for employment. The Vietnamese Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs’ (MOLISA) Department of Overseas Labor (DOLAB) sets standards for employment and protection of Vietnamese migrant laborers’ rights. Through bilateral agreements with other nations, MOLISA seeks to expand overseas markets for Vietnamese labor while enforcing its minimum standards. MOLISA also licenses, regulates, and monitors the private firms that recruit overseas laborers at commission. The growth in outbound migrant laborers to countries in Asia, namely Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, and Taiwan, has been the strongest. Vietnam’s extraordinary economic growth is not enough to match the approximately 1.5 million Vietnamese entering the nation’s labor force each year. This growing labor supply, not estimated to peak until 2033, keeps the nation’s wages low at usually less than USD $200 per month, especially so in rural areas where employment is scarce. Meanwhile, unskilled Vietnamese laborers can obtain a monthly net wage between $90 and $140 in Malaysia’s agricultural sector, between $300 and $450 at construction sites in the Middle East, and between $700 and $900 in industrial jobs in South Korea and Japan. More than 100,000 Vietnamese laborers went abroad in 2014, including to Taiwan (60,000), Japan (20,000), South Korea (7,000), Malaysia (5,000), Saudi Arabia (4,000), and Qatar (1,000). There are now more than 500,000 Vietnamese working as contract laborers overseas.

Because of poor working conditions, health hazards, language barriers, and discrimination against foreign workers, not all contract workers’ situations are as lucrative or desirable as originally believed. With the possibility of large wages overseas, many Vietnamese migrant laborers recently have been willing to pay thousands of dollars to private brokers in order to obtain an overseas labor contract, often at rates above the legal limit. Because of these market distortions, Vietnamese workers incur some of the highest debts among Asian emigrant workers, and are often the most vulnerable to forced labor, including debt bondage. Some migrants break their contracts and seek out better employment, often in violation of host-country laws. Of the more than 16,000 Vietnamese migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, more than 700 were found to be working illegally, which led the Saudi government in 2013 to offer an amnesty if they switched to legal employment. As of 2015, the Vietnamese Embassy in Riyadh had repatriated dozens of its citizens.

Female migrants are particularly vulnerable. Women now account for approximately 35 percent of the roughly 90,000 contract workers leaving each year. They work largely as caregivers in Taiwan and in light manufacturing in Malaysia. Vietnamese authorities are working with the United Nations and other international organizations to address the abuses female workers experience abroad, difficulties with reintegration on return, and negative social attitudes in Vietnam towards women working overseas.

Migrant Brides on the Rise

In addition to growing numbers of female labor migrants, the economic and diplomatic opening of Vietnam has seen a rise in the number of migrant marriages. Seeking economic security, many Vietnamese women from poorer rural regions, most often from families in the Mekong Delta with high debts and low incomes, have sought a foreign spouse. Government statistics show close to 133,000 Vietnamese either married or registered to marry a foreigner between 2005 and 2010. The two most common destinations are Taiwan, where 80,000 Vietnamese brides now reside, and South Korea, now home to 40,000 Vietnamese women and their Korean spouses. Though Vietnamese law bans marriage brokers from working in Vietnam, agencies abroad continue to recruit brides. As with migrant laborers, market distortions have allowed marriage brokers to extract very high commissions; Taiwanese men have reported spending upwards of $10,000 to arrange a marriage to their Vietnamese bride. However, the bride or her family will often receive a small fraction of the commission. Because of language and cultural barriers, Vietnamese brides often have difficulty integrating into the society of their husband’s nation. Additionally, incidences of domestic violence towards foreign female spouses have been increasing in both South Korea and Taiwan, where authorities are working to build programs to assist victims.

Whether migrating for marriage or labor, the resultant financial remittances to family in Vietnam have sharply increased, furthering Vietnamese economic development. In 1999, overseas Vietnamese remittances exceeded $1.2 billion, and are estimated to top $12 billion in 2014, according to World Bank data, making up more than half of foreign investment in Vietnam. Successful overseas migrants can help alleviate poverty for their family in Vietnam, and have improved living standards, especially in rural areas.

Figure 3. Annual Remittance Inflows in Current U.S. Dollars, 2000-13

Source: Migration Policy Institute tabulations of data from the World Bank Prospects Group, “Annual Remittance Data (October 2013 update),” http://migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/global-remittances-guide.

Vietnamese Students Studying Abroad in Record Numbers

Vietnam has built on its history of sending students abroad to communist countries; as of 2009, more than 100,000 Vietnamese were studying in over 50 countries. These students are now more likely to pay their own way through school. Recent data from the Vietnamese government show that approximately 90 percent pay for their own schooling, with the remainder receiving full or partial scholarships. Factors such as cost, distance, and educational quality drive students’ choice of destination. As of 2010, the largest destinations for Vietnamese students were Australia (25,000), China (13,000), the United States (12,000), Singapore (7,000), the United Kingdom (6,000), France (5,000), Russia (5,000), and Japan (3,000).

Although both Australia and the United States are among the most expensive, Vietnamese students consistently report favoring these destinations, and data from the Institute of International Education have shown strong increases in enrollment. Between 2000 and 2014, Vietnamese student enrollment in U.S. educational institutions increased by more than 700 percent.

Managing Rising Flows: The 2015 Immigration Law

The rising number of tourists arriving in Vietnam over the past decade has paralleled the country’s rapidly growing economy. The Vietnamese government, promoting tourism as a major source of export service growth to the economy, on January 1, 2015 enacted a new immigration law, The Law of Entry, Exit, Transit, and Residence of Foreigners, to manage the flows. Many laborers arrive on tourist visas and then apply for work permits within Vietnam. The Vietnamese government has sought greater control of migrant labor entering and working in Vietnam with the 2015 law by restricting foreigners from changing visa status while in the country. The law also adds new entry restrictions on criminals and past violators of Vietnamese immigration law, restricts the exit of foreigners subject to court proceedings, and expands the number of visa categories to 20.

Although citizens of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Member States may enter without a visa for durations of less than 14 days, only three of the top ten countries by volume of annual tourists to Vietnam are from ASEAN. In 2014, according to Vietnamese government statistics, more than 7.8 million tourists arrived in Vietnam, growing from 3.1 million in 2005. In 2014, the majority of foreign tourists were from China (1.9 million), followed by South Korea (840,000), Japan (640,000), and the United States (440,000).

Tightening Restrictions on Foreign Labor

Notwithstanding its surplus labor supply, Vietnam has also become a destination for foreign labor migrants in recent years, largely from China and other Asian countries. As of 2012, the Vietnamese government reported that more than 77,000 foreign laborers, mostly Chinese, were working in Vietnam in construction, clerical positions, and the medical sector, including 24,000 without work permits; 58 percent were from Asia and 28 percent from Europe. Public opinion views foreign workers as further increasing Vietnamese unemployment, leading authorities to deport hundreds of such workers.

Future Trends

Although free trade agreements, further economic development, urbanization, and climate change undoubtedly will affect Vietnamese international migration to some extent, the trends are hard to predict. The much-anticipated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP), a trade agreement between Vietnam and 11 other Asia-Pacific countries (including the United States, Canada, and Australia), will undoubtedly change current Vietnamese migration. The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), an initiative for further economic integration scheduled for creation in 2015, includes provisions for the freer flow of skilled labor between Member States. Concomitantly, ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea are negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which aims to further liberalize trade among those countries. Even if such agreements do not specifically change members’ immigration rules, the economic effects of increased trade will have a direct effect on migration between the member countries.

The massive internal migration of Vietnamese from rural to urban areas, along with Vietnam’s transition from a mostly agrarian to service economy, will continue to affect Vietnamese international migration flows. Environmental degradation wrought by unsustainable development, and worsened by climate change, may force migration as people seek to stabilize their livelihoods. According to the Vietnamese government, a three-foot sea rise would submerge one-third of the Mekong Delta, where 17 million people live and almost half of Vietnam’s rice crop grows. Despite such enormous challenges, Vietnam is on track towards an ever more developed face of migration.

Editor's note: the views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

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