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Begging for survival in Saigon

Begging for survival in Saigon

After 11 years of begging on the streets of Ho Chi Minh city, 14-year-old Sok Sang still relies on body language and a cheerful smile as he wanders through markets from daybreak till nightfall seeking change from adults. He has picked up just a few phrases of Vietnamese, like “please give a little bit of money” and “do you want to buy a lottery ticket?”

The second phrase he learned about two years ago when police began cracking down on beggars because tourists found them disturbing. Beggars in Ho Chi Minh, including hundreds of Cambodian children, switched to selling lottery tickets to avoid being rounded up, detained and sent back to the parched fields of Svay Rieng province, where most of them were born.

Sok Sang left his home in Svay Rieng province’s Kampong Rou district with his older brother when he was three. He remembers almost nothing about it: not even his mother’s face. But even though he cannot remember what she looks like, he says he and his brother need to earn enough to send her about US$30 a month.

“I cannot waste the money that I earn because I have to send it to my mother to support my family. They have no land, no food. They need rice,” he explains, his smile quickly replaced by a look of depression.

He sells between 10 and 20 lottery tickets a day, earning a commission of 2,000 dong (10 US cents) for each one. He, his brother, and several other Cambodian lottery ticket sellers, rent a room from a Vietnamese family that distributes tickets.

The number of Cambodian children begging in Vietnam’s financial capital is unknown. One official with the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimated that there were as many as 1,000 Cambodians, most of them children, begging or selling lottery tickets in the city. Research conducted by the International Organisation of Migration found that most of them came from Svay Rieng province, which is best known among tourists for its border crossing at Bavet.

In dry season, the highway through Svay Rieng to Vietnam cuts through parched fields dotted with clusters of shacks, before arriving at a strip of neon casinos in the town of Bavet. On the other side, there are irrigation canals: the fields are green; rice yields are high, and the towns and homes suggest a development process that is more inclusive, exuberant and less of a gamble.

Detained and deported
Suon Sopea, 38, and her three-year-old daughter have also switched from begging openly to selling lottery tickets. Soun Sopea crosses the border a few times a year, usually for a month at a time. She has a small plot of land in Svay Rieng, but with no irrigation she can only grow enough rice to feed her family for a few months a year. She has been arrested in Vietnam once.

“We were begging on the street and the police took us to a detention centre because I had entered Vietnam illegally. They didn’t threaten us, just made me fill out a form and promise not to return to beg. Then they brought us back to Cambodian in a van full of beggars,” she explained while begging in Ho Chi Minh’s tourist district.

Now, she sells lottery tickets in the morning, during lunch hour, and in the evenings to Vietnamese customers. Later, she moves to the tourist district, carrying her daughter on her back. She said conditions at the detention centre in Vietnam were better than sleeping on the street. She received two meals a day. The problem was, however, that she could not earn any money.

New Year surge
Sixteen-year-old Yin Soeung has been begging in Ho Chi Minh since he was nine. He says the most lucrative time is around Vietnamese new year.  He is also from Svay Rieng and, like his compatriots, he came to Ho Chi Minh city because his family could not afford to feed itself.  “I had to cross the border to beg for money to support my family.”

It’s a matter of survival for him as well as his family, he said. “I have no place to stay at night and I have to avoid police and gangs. I have no choice. I have to sell the lottery tickets to live.”

Yin Soeung said that many Cambodian beggars and lottery ticket sellers had lived together in a Khmer pagoda until two years ago when the chief monk asked them to leave.

Protection and social order
The Vietnamese government considers the homeless and beggars as people in need of protection, according to a policy framework developed by its social affairs officials.  It also sees them as a threat to social order, according to a 2006 report by the IOM. The report pre-dated the crackdown on beggars by almost four years.

In Ho Chi Minh, the social protection section of the city’s department of labour, invalids and social affairs operates a shelter, but checking into it is also a ticket to deportation. Last year 546 beggars, 356 of whom were children, were deported to Cambodia from Vietnam, according to Va Saren, Svay Rieng’s director of social affairs, veterans and youth rehabilitation department.

“There’s not much we can do to prevent people from crossing the border illegally to beg in Vietnam,” he said, explaining that it is easy to avoid border police. “As long as they need money and as long as the Vietnamese give money to beggars they will continue to go.”

Ho Chi Minh’s rapid boom in the 1990s drew beggars not just from border areas of Cambodia, but also from rural Vietnam, he said.

Nuth Saban, now 23, was among those drawn by the city’s booming economy from the impoverished village of Kbal Thnol in Kampong Rou district’s Thnot commune. The village is only about 25 kilometres from the border, and all she had to do was walk across it. The first time she went was with her mother, when she was 12.

“The reason my mother brought me and my siblings was because Vietnamese people always give money to children,” she explained, in front of their dilapidated Svay Rieng shack made from bamboo and mud.

Child beggars work from 5:00am until 8:00pm and at night they sleep in groups of about 25. “The sky is our roof, the sidewalk our mat,” she said. “We have to avoid police and gangs. The police arrest us the gangs try to take our money.”

Now a mother of two, Nuth Saban has followed in her mother’s footsteps. “I’ve been bringing my son to beg in Vietnam since he was five months old. Now he is five. The reason I bring my children is because I can earn a lot of money from them.”

She has been arrested three times and once spent 20 days in jail but would like to prevent her children from begging in Vietnam and allow them to go to school.

“If I do not stop them, them my family will always be a family of beggars,” she explained.  

Va Saren said his department tries to encourage children deported back from Vietnam to go to school, but to do this it also needs to provide support for their impoverished families. With NGOs they help the families start micro-businesses to ensure a sustainable income and reduce the need to cross the border to beg.

“We’re trying to reduce the numbers,” he explains, admitting that they are unable to stop the flow.

This story is produced under the SEAPA fellowship 2011


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