When I first discovered that masses of Vietnamese people are migrating from remote rural areas of Vietnam to a place as exotic as Angola, I became curious to explore the motivations and destinies linked to this unexpected phenomenon. Consequently, in August and September 2013, we dedicated the first phase of field work of the AFRASO-subproject African-Asian Migration and Development to further investigate this topic.
The history of Vietnamese-Angolan relations officially started in 1975, when both countries gained independence and began their cooperation under the framework of the socialist Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON). In an early labour cooperation agreement between the two countries, Vietnam committed to send technical experts in agriculture, health, and education on a small scale to Angola from the mid 1980’s.
From these early days on, the current reality of Vietnamese-Angolan migration appears to have shifted drastically. While official numbers are non-existent, migration to Angola seems to have reached a record level during the last years with an estimated number of 40.000 Vietnamese now living in the country. However, most of these new migrants are no longer highly-skilled experts, but rather low-skilled workers migrating through irregular channels. They are primarily attracted by the high earning potential of up to 1.700 USD per month in Angola’s construction sector – a dreamlike income considering that the average Gross National Income per capita is around 280 USD per month at home and often even less than that in Vietnam’s poor rural areas.
From a simple dual perspective, what we found during our recent field work with the Angolan migrant households in Vietnam corresponds to two opposing experiences of Vietnamese migration to Angola: On the one hand, the group of early migrants, who built up high social capital in Angola already, obtained some form of legal status and became successful business men. These early migrants laid the foundation for the ongoing migration network effect by providing knowledge and material resources to facilitate the migration of subsequent generations. On the other hand, the second group that migrated more recently has typically illegal status and is struggling to follow the early migrants in making a fortune by performing manual work.
In the absence of official channels and opportunities, migration for the latter group is predominantly organised through an international network of informal agencies and brokers both in Vietnam and in Angola, partly constituted by the early migrants and their contacts themselves. In this unregulated recruitment process, young and low-skilled men from rural and impoverished areas of North-Central Vietnam are typically ‘hired’ to work in Angola’s booming construction sector, often for the early migrants’ own businesses and, through a web of subcontractors, eventually for one of the big Chinese infrastructure projects in Angola. Dreaming about this opportunity to become rich, they accept to pay 6.000 USD on average to the brokers (corresponding to almost four yearly average incomes in real terms!), money that they often have to borrow from multiple sources.
This system is a prime example of a commercialised migration network which offers relevant knowledge and services both at the origin and the destination – something which has been described in the literature as the ‘migration industry’. What brokers usually do not mention during the recruitment process is the high exposure to risks associated to illegal status, lack of formal labour contract, poor working conditions, violence, and diseases that dominate the migrants’ life in Angola. Many return to Vietnam unsuccessfully, unable to pay off their debt and putting their family’s future at stake. In this ongoing Vietnamese bonanza in Angola, many loose and few win. There is an urgent need to further regulate these processes to alter the benefits and to control the adverse consequences for migrants and their families at home alike.