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‘Hunger was something we read about’: lockdown leaves Vietnam’s poor without food | Global development

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When the strictest lockdown to date was imposed in Ho Chi Minh City, Tran Thi Hao*, a factory worker, was told that the government would keep her and her family well fed – but for two months they have eaten little more than rice and fish sauce.

She was put on unpaid leave from her job in July, while her husband, a construction worker, has not worked for months. They are behind on their rent, with another payment due soon.

“I’m trying to hold on for as long as possible but I don’t know what will come next,” she says. “I don’t know how to put what I’m feeling into words. I want to ask why there’s been no support.

“The government said they would send help to people like me but there’s been nothing,” she says. “Everyone living around me is hanging on by a thread.”

Tran is not alone. Vietnam’s biggest city is under a tough lockdown, with people not allowed to leave the house even for food. Current restrictions could last until 15 September, when the city has proposed resuming economic activity.

Even before the stay at home order on 23 August, Tran, like millions of others, was falling into debt. The government promised to feed everyone and enlisted the military to help deliver supplies to those in need, but vast swaths of the population have received nothing. Last week, Vietnamese media reported that more than 100 people in one district had protested over the lack of help.

Vietnam had been hailed as a global success story in tackling the pandemic. As countries around the world mourned their dead and imposed nationwide lockdowns, the Vietnamese government kept the virus at bay by relying on strict quarantine measures, contact tracing and localised lockdowns. By early May, Vietnam had recorded under 4,000 infections and 35 deaths.

Now, the Delta variant is causing chaos in Ho Chi Minh City and neighbouring provinces. The past month has seen 299,429 new cases and 9,758 deaths in the country. In Ho Chi Minh City, the number of deaths accounts for 4.2% of recorded cases; more than 200 people die and 5,000 new cases are reported daily in the city. The neighbouring province of Binh Duong is seeing similar numbers.

As tighter restrictions have been gradually introduced since the beginning of June, it is the poor who have been hit the hardest. Factories and markets were ordered to close, and with them went thousands of jobs. Taxi drivers, street food vendors, factory and construction workers who were already near the poverty line have been unable to make money for months and are trapped in precarious and crowded housing in Covid hotspots.

Official statistics state that 3-4 million people in Ho Chi Minh City alone have plunged into financial difficulty due to the pandemic.

Civil society organisations are being flooded with tens of thousands of requests for food every day and cannot cope with demand. Food Bank Vietnam, a social enterprise run by Nguyen Tuan Khoi, who also has his own business, is supporting 10,000 people a day. Its website and social media channels get twice or three times as many requests.

A policeman hands back a commuter’s travel permit at a checkpoint in Vung Tau
A policeman hands back a commuter’s travel permit at a checkpoint in Vung Tau as Vietnam endures the strictest Covid lockdown yet. Photograph: Hau Dinh/AP

Numbers started to increase last month, but they have shot up in the past two weeks, says Nguyen. “This pandemic has affected people’s resilience. The complete lockdown has caused disruption to food supply. We, and other charities, are facing difficulties in reaching people in need. The demand is huge.”

In his 20 years of charitable work, he has never experienced anything like this. “The Vietnamese have been going through the most difficult days in the last few weeks,” he says. “I have never seen this amount of death and loss, and I thought I never would. Before the pandemic, we had hunger and poor people, but at least food was easy for many. I was born after the war, so difficulties around death and hunger were something we heard about and read in books. Now I can understand the hardship.”

Saigon Children, which helps disadvantaged young people into education and work, has been taken aback by the demand. Damien Roberts, the charity’s director, says: “Usually we’re building schools, doing special needs. Now 90% of our work is Covid relief. [Hunger] is very widespread at the moment.

“I don’t know the numbers but we’ve helped 16,000 people in the last eight weeks and we’ve barely scratched the surface.”

The messaging apps Zalo and SOSmap.net each list tens of thousands of people in need throughout the city.

City authorities have, as of 26 August, reportedly provided support including 1.2-1.5m dong (about £40) and a bag of essential foods to more than 1.2 million people in difficulty. They are proposing spending an additional 9.2bn dong to support people in lockdown.

Running parallel to the hunger crisis is a health system that has become overwhelmed. Hospitals are short-staffed, there is not enough medicine, and oxygen supplies are only just holding out. Social media is awash with stories of people calling for help and not getting it, and disturbing pictures and videos of crematorium queues and of people collapsed on the street.

Dr Tran Hoang Dang Khoa, an intensive-care doctor in a hospital set up for the worst Covid cases, is responsible for 14 patients on each shift and has been left exhausted. The 700 beds are always full, he says, with every day bringing more cases; half of those he treats die.

Covid-19 patients receiving oxygen in a make-shift ward at a field hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, as Vietnam is gripped by a fourth wave.
Covid-19 patients receiving oxygen in a make-shift ward at a field hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, as Vietnam is gripped by a fourth wave of coronavirus. Photograph: AFP/Getty

“Our health system wasn’t prepared for this, and we haven’t reached the peak,” he says. “We lack everything – staff, medication and ventilators – but I don’t know who to blame.”

The current situation also reflects delays to Vietnam’s vaccination programme, according to Dr Nguyen Thu Anh, a public health expert with the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Hanoi. “The vaccine acceptance rate is high,” she says, “but we don’t have enough vaccines coming into the country. Regardless of the commitment from vaccine providers, as well as Covax, the actual number of vaccines arriving is lower than what was planned.”

According to the health ministry, up to 1 September, Vietnam had rolled out 20m doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. Just 3.6% of the population of 75 million adults have received two jabs. In Ho Chi Minh City, with an estimated population of 10 to 13 million, 5.8 million adults have received their first dose and 337,134 have had both jabs. The programme was besieged by cumbersome bureaucracy, which resulted in delays, according to a statement from the ministry in June.

Efforts are concentrating on Ho Chi Minh City, but as Nguyen says, the virus has already spread. “The problem is we are trying to allocate vaccines to Ho Chi Minh City. The number allocated to other provinces is quite small, so it’s another challenge.”

Outside the major cities, healthcare provision and infrastructure is much worse, and doctors and academics fear the effect of Covid on communities there.

Back in her 15 sq metre room in Ho Chi Minh City, Tran, her husband and eight-year-old son are stuck in a building housing hundreds of other factory workers. She is desperate to go back to work. The new school term is due to start online but she has no computer and, for now, her son’s education will have to take a back seat.

“I can’t even begin to think about my son’s education right now,” she says. “I’m worried about getting our next meal and this month’s rent.”

Across town, Nguyen Lam Ngoc Truc, 21, also needs to be able to earn money again. She lives in a slum on the riverbank with 30-40 other families. She sold street food to students but has not been able to work since June. Her mother, father and brother are also out of work. They have survived on handouts of rice and instant noodles from charities and neighbours.

In her neighbourhood lives the city’s vast migrant population, many of whom are unregistered and therefore unaccounted for and invisible to the authorities.

“The government should keep their promise when they said they would support people,” she says. “They should give food to everyone. No one is telling us what is going on.”

* Names have been changed to protect their identities

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Under the volcano: a year after Mount Nyiragongo’s eruption, people of Goma start to rebuild their lives | Global development

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Migration crisis: The Nicaraguans who are learning to swim to avoid drowning in US river crossing | International

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Seeing his son with the water below his waist, standing firm on the stones of the riverbed, Pablo Cuevas ruled out using the 60-meter rope he had bought to cross the Rio Grande with his family, because it would prove more of a hindrance than a useful tool in their desperate attempt to reach American soil.

“Dad! The river is calm!” shouted the 22-year-old from about 30 meters away from the bank. Faced with the imminent arrival of Mexican or American border agents, the man let go of the rope, hugged his five-year-old grandson very tightly and entered the waters. It was mid-morning on April 17, less than a month ago. The Rio Grande, a “treacherous” river according to the migrants who have lived to tell the tale, was calm that day. It was a lucky break for this family that fled Nicaragua because of their father’s job: Pablo Cuevas is a renowned human rights defender in his country.

Accustomed to tense situations back home due to his clashes with gangs and police officers under the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, Cuevas concealed his fear of jumping into the river so that his wife, daughter-in-law and his other grandson would not lose the courage they had rehearsed during the 40-day journey to Ciudad Acuña, in Mexico’s Coahuila state. The trip had taken them across Central America and Mexico, along a road rife with robberies, kidnappings, extortion, fatigue, hunger and death that 49,738 Nicaraguans followed in the first quarter of 2022 alone, according to the United States Customs and Border Protection. That is the largest number of migrants from this country to try to cross the US border in recent history.

Migrants crossing the Rio Grande into the United States from Mexico on May 13.
Migrants crossing the Rio Grande into the United States from Mexico on May 13.ADREES LATIF (REUTERS)

It was on the first week of March, as he sat inside his home in Managua, that Cuevas made the decision to join this unprecedented exodus to escape the political violence and precarious economic situation that Nicaragua has been experiencing since 2018, following social protests that were brutally repressed. by the police and paramilitary groups. The country’s sociopolitical crisis has deepened since June 2021, when the Ortega-Murillo presidential couple intensified the hunt for opponents that facilitated Ortega’s re-election and perpetuation in power.

“Before the government closed the CPDH (Permanent Human Rights Commission),” says Cuevas, alluding to the last such organization left in Nicaragua, I received threats and intimidating messages. Someone from the government told me that I had better leave… I have never been a fan of desk jobs, I always liked to be out doing field work, but there came a point when I could no longer practice freely, and my wife was having nervous breakdowns thinking that they could arrest me at any moment. So we decided to leave, and the route through the Rio Grande seemed the best, after analyzing it with many users I had who had already crossed into the United States,” he tells EL PAÍS.

The Cuevas family’s greatest fear was drowning in the river. Between March and April 2022, news of Nicaraguans killed in those waters shocked the country: 10 people registered by the Association of Nicaraguans in Mexico, although there are other agencies that put the number at 14, such as the non-profit Comunidad Nicaragüense en Texas. There were cases like that of a four-year-old girl swept away by the current, or the most recent drowning, on May 1, of Calixto Nelson Rojas, a radio host for Radio Darío, a station that was burned and attacked by the Sandinista regime. The death of the radio journalist was recorded by a Fox News reporter: it happened before the eyes of US and Mexican border agents who did not help him because they were prohibited from doing so, even as Rojas cried out for help. The reason for not saving him was that a Border Patrol officer allegedly drowned weeks ago while trying to rescue two migrants.

Relatives and friends of Nelson Rojas, who drowned in the Rio Grande, carry his coffin during his funeral.
Relatives and friends of Nelson Rojas, who drowned in the Rio Grande, carry his coffin during his funeral.STRINGER (AFP)

Cuevas, a man who was well informed thanks to his work as a human rights defender, knew about the dangers of crossing the river. “We began to do introspection exercises with the family, to remember one of our camping trips to the sea in Nicaragua, specifically once an undercurrent dragged us out to sea, but we were able to swim and save ourselves,” says the lawyer, who is now living in Florida, where he has started an organization to help other Nicaraguan migrants. “So I told my family to remember to bury their feet firmly in the bottom so we could cross the river.”

The Cuevas were able to cross without a rope and without a life jacket. However, some 3,000 kilometers south of the Rio Grande, in Nicaragua, dozens who have decided to leave the country and do not know how to swim are taking precautions before heading north: they are signing up for Mario Orozco’s swimming lessons.

‘I know it is a dangerous river’

With no major signs of a solution to the sociopolitical crisis, Nicaragua has become a country on the run. In 2021 alone, the United States Border Patrol tallied 87,530 Nicaraguans who tried to enter the southern border without documents. An exponential increase occurred in June, when the Ortega-Murillos imprisoned all their adversaries and ended the possibility of a resolution to the conflict through transparent elections. If one asks people in Nicaragua about the best decision in this scenario, the majority, especially young people, will answer the same thing: to leave. Migrant groups leave at dawn from some gas stations in Managua, while others who feel politically persecuted, such as Pablo Cuevas, do so clandestinely across the Honduran border.

Border Patrol figures from January to March of this year provide a measure of this booming exodus: 70,066 Nicaraguans have surrendered to patrol officers. “But there is an underreporting,” says the Association of Nicaraguans in Mexico. There has been a change in the migratory dynamics from this country, driven by political violence that has aggravated endemic ills (a precarious economy and lack of jobs). In 2018, at least 120,000 Nicaraguans applied for asylum in Costa Rica. But the pandemic plunged this latter country into an unemployment crisis and Nicaraguans reconfigured their flight path. First, because Costa Rica has collapsed and second, because Joe Biden’s immigration promises were interpreted as greater flexibility by the US government.

Eddy Hurtado learns to swim at a recreation center in Esteli, Nicaragua.
Eddy Hurtado learns to swim at a recreation center in Esteli, Nicaragua.MAYNOR VALENZUELA (REUTERS)

Suddenly, the migrant caravans in which Hondurans and Salvadorans used to predominate began to be led by Nicaraguans, who are now also prey to the mafias along the route. Among those preparing to flee the country, crossing the Rio Grande became the best option despite the dangers of its waters. That is why the post on Facebook by professional swimmer Mario Orozco offering free lessons went viral in Nicaragua.

Orozco assures that some of his friends drowned in the Rio Grande and that moved him into action. “I am a professional swimmer, I know the techniques to swim in open waters. So I took one of my days off to teach and avoid these tragedies,” he says, emphasizing that his work is humanitarian and not political. The swimmer is concise and prefers not to delve into details. He does not say why but, for those who live in Nicaragua, it is understood: anything that the Sandinista government views as criticism can cost jail time.

The pool where Orozco teaches is usually packed, as a reflection of the urgency to leave Nicaragua. “I know it is a dangerous river,” says Roberto García, a Nicaraguan who left the country a few weeks ago and is now in Tapachula, Mexico, where he is “preparing myself mentally” to ford the Rio Grande. “There are those who take swimming lessons; I, for example, am watching YouTube videos, asking other friends who have already crossed where it is less deep; the current less strong… I am afraid, but the situation is more critical when I am going to cross with my son,” confesses García, an auto refrigeration technician who used to provide services to the Supreme Court of Justice.

García was imprisoned for seven months for participating in the 2018 protests in Nicaragua. Upon release from prison, his workshop was never able to recover due to police harassment and lack of customers. Weary, he decided to migrate. “I don’t even want to think about the day I’m going to cross the river with my wife and son. It unsettles me. My son is 10 years old and I only think of him, especially when I see so many brothers drowning in the news… like that announcer from León. It was a horrible video. One feels powerless. I don’t want a similar video of us,” he says. He also doesn’t want to leave one last message like that of the radio host Calixto Rojas before jumping into the waters of the Rio Grande: “Today I’m leaving for Piedras Negras at one in the afternoon. Tomorrow at eight I will be trying to cross the river.”

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‘Cramped and unsafe’ Glasgow housing unit forced to suspend mother and baby services | Immigration and asylum

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A housing unit has been forced to close its services to mothers and babies after a damning report found that the “cramped and unsafe” accommodation breached their human rights.

In its report, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland said the unit, which housed asylum-seeking mothers and their children, had radiators and gas cookers dangerously close to babies’ cots, a lack of natural light and little ventilation, and no space for babies to crawl, play or walk.

Each of the 38 rooms measures approximately 5 metres by 3 metres (16ft x 10ft) and contains a single bed, cot, kitchenette and shower.

The unit, run by a Home Office subcontractor, Mears Group, was opened in January 2021 to house mothers and babies while Covid-19 restrictions were in place. Women were moved out of flats in the city centre and accommodated in the unit on the periphery of Glasgow’s Southside.

A cooker, sink, bed and cot often crammed into one tiny room.
A cooker, sink, bed and cot are often crammed into one tiny room. Photograph: Twitter

The accommodation was described as “prison-like” by the charity Amma Birth Companions, which repeatedly called for its closure. Mears said the last mother and baby had now left the unit and the Scottish Children’s Commissioner confirmed that the women had been relocated to more appropriate accommodation.

The removal of mothers and babies from the site comes after criticism of accommodation provided for asylum seekers in Glasgow when a knife attack at a hotel in the centre of the city in 2020 left six people wounded and the attacker shot dead by police. Campaigners from a Glasgow group, Refugees For Justice, said the attack was a “direct result of the dysfunctional UK asylum support and accommodation system” and that there was an accommodation crisis in the city.

Ai* arrived at the unit in the autumn of 2021, when she was three months pregnant. She lived there for seven months, and, following the birth of her daughter in March this year, she was moved out.

“When I first arrived, I thought I was only going to stay for a few hours, but then they gave me a key for the room,” she said through an interpreter. “When I opened the door, I was really scared. The room was so small, with no privacy and you [could] hear all the babies crying all around.

“Then there were mice in the room. I told my midwife, who complained to the staff at the unit, but they did nothing. They just told me to cover up the food.”

Ai, who was in a safe house for trafficked women until she arrived at the unit, says that she was asked to sign a tenancy contract, which stipulated that nobody could stay over to support her with her baby, and imposed a 10pm curfew.

“Every mum has to manage by themselves,” she said. “There were so many loud noises, and fire alarms going off in the day and at night, which scared my baby. Sometimes we had to take our babies outside at night, when the alarm went off.”

The unit housed 38 women, and Ai says there were only six washing machines, all far away from the rooms.

“I had to wash my clothes and my baby’s clothes in the sink sometimes, pouring dirty water in where I washed plates and prepared food,” she said.

She added that the window in her room would get stuck, with a barrier in front of it, leaving the room poorly ventilated and cold.

Mears said it was aware of a pest-control issue and had put measures in place at the unit, adding that furniture had been arranged so that cots were not set up close to kitchen equipment.

In a statement, Mears added: “The mother and baby unit was purpose-designed with the advice of the local authority and NHS at a time when we had a significant number of mothers and babies to support and did not have suitable accommodation.

“Our aim was to provide a good standard of accommodation and enhanced wraparound support for mothers and their children. As accommodation needs have changed, we now operate the unit as initial accommodation for single females who are newly arrived into Glasgow.”

Maree Aldam, of Amma Birth Companions, welcomed the news that the last family had now left the unit. She said: “Although we welcome the progress made to relocate mothers with babies into more suitable accommodation, we remain concerned about the long-term effects of this experience on the affected mothers and their babies.

“We continue to call on the Scottish government to put in place minimum housing standards that will protect every child in the asylum process from ever enduring such living conditions again.”

* Name has been changed to protect her identity

The headline and text of this article were amended on 19 May 2022. The housing unit is not closing down, as an earlier version said; it remains open for mothers and children, but no longer offers services to mothers and babies.

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