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Reciprocate rural migrants with improved social services

 Migrant workers stand looking for daily jobs on a Hanoi street. A survey found that urban migrants' living conditions and access to social services pale in comparison to native city dwellers.

With support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Vietnam, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City recently conducted an "urban poverty survey" which compared the quality of life for permanent urban residents to that of migrants from surrounding rural areas.

The preliminary findings indicate that, while the migrants have managed to improve their incomes in their adopted urban environments, their living conditions and access to social services pale in comparison to those of native city dwellers.

Nguyen Tien Phong, head of the Poverty and Social Development Cluster under the UNDP Vietnam, sat down with Thanh Nien Weekly to explore the bigger picture.

Thanh Nien Weekly: What did the survey discover about the quality of life for rural-urban migrant workers?

Nguyen Tien Phong: The preliminary findings show that migrant workers living in the two cities are mainly youths and they come to work. The survey considered their quality of life from many angles: their accommodation conditions, their access to health and education services, and their level of community integration.

The average income for these migrants is not much lower than that of the native city dwellers. It averages out to about five sixths of city residents. This is a surprising discovery, as most migrants are thought to be poor.

However, there is a rather substantial difference (between migrants and local residents) in terms of other quality-of-life indicators.

The migrants tend to live in rented and more crowded houses with poorer facilities and pay more for utilities such as water and electricity.

Migrants suffer fewer chronic illnesses than local residents because most of them are young. However, when they do get sick, they visit hospitals less than city nativesperhaps because they lack money or time.

The main difference between migrant and native urban residents is their health insurance coverage. Up to 66 percent of people holding permanent residency in the two cities enjoy health coverage, while only about 43 percent of migrants are covered.

There is also a discrepancy in their access to education: 65 percent of migrant children study in public schools as opposed to 82 percent of the children of permanent residents. This means that many of the children of migrant workers pay higher school fees to attend semi-public or private schools. The migrants also receive less educational support. They are not, for example, extended school fee exemptions that are enjoyed by the poor households of the city natives.

What can these cities do to improve the situation?

First, it should be recognized that migrant workers, including seasonal laborers, who come to these cities to work make great contributions to development in these cities. This has been the case in Hanoi, HCMC, and Binh Duong Province - which would not have enjoyed such rapid development without the work of migrants. If their difficulties are addressed, it wouldn't only improve their quality of life, it would reduce the absorption cost of migration for cities.

The key is to ensure equal access for migrants and city residents to job opportunities, social services (including poverty reduction support) and opportunities to participate in community activities. The recent removal of the ho khau (proof of permanent residency) requirement for the enrollment of kids in local public schools and the decision to allow long-term migrant residents (who own houses or work in the cities) to obtain permanent resident status represent two big steps in the right direction. However, more can be done. City authorities should know more about migrants living in their localities. Information such as where they are, how they are living, which problems they face, etc. would be very useful for urban planning and the management of urban development. Ultimately, research and better communication between the two parties would benefit everyone involved.

Won't better access to social services and welfare programs for migrants spark a new wave of migration?

Many city residents and authorities often ask this question fearing that rural-urban migration puts pressure on social services and other public services in the cities. There are alternative ways to look at the topic.

Migrants contribute greatly to a city's development so who benefits when they can't access basic social services? Large scale urban development works more efficiently when these populations are healthy and educated.

It's clear enough that the more these migrants have access to social services and share in the benefits of development, the more they will contribute to the community they're living in.

From a national development perspective, migration from rural areas to urban centers is inevitable in a country that seeks to improve its quality of life through industrialization. People migrate to cities from rural communities to secure higher paying jobs in industrial and service sectors. They come to cities to improve their lives and the lives of their families by sending remittances to those who are left behind working low-paying agricultural jobs.

The development "planners" have a very similar aim, namely to "minimize the costs" of industrialization and "maximize the benefit" to people. In economic terms, administrative measures, which aim to limit or control migration, only increase the cost of industrialization. Because migration to urban centers is inevitable, putting up barriers to rural-urban migration will only make the problem worse and people (both migrants and city residents) worse-off. Expanding social services that aim to improve the migrants' accommodations, health and education should be seen as investments in economic growth and in the human development of the country.

People can decide to live in their homeland or migrate. These migrants leave their homes in the hopes of finding better jobs and better lives in the cities. They can return if there are good job opportunities available in their home provinces - as evidenced by the recent development of "industrial zones" in some rural areas, such as the Mekong Delta.