In Vietnam, no birth certificate means big trouble
Bureaucracy and persecution await those without the right papers
Children without birth certifcates are given basic education by Catholic nuns in Hue
After a full day’s work as a motorbike taxi driver, Nguyen Dao – who declined to use his real name – reluctantly heads out to work as a security guard patroling his neighborhood in Hue, central Vietnam.
His shift is grueling: 8pm-to-5am for just 90,000 dong (US$4.25) per month.
“I have no choice. If I refuse, I will face problems from the authorities,” he said.
Dao, 27, was born an orphan and never given a birth certificate. Without it, he cannot get other important papers he is legally obliged to carry, such as an identification card or household registration. This puts him at the mercy of police. With no ID, he faces the constant threat of an on-the-spot 200,000 dong fine.
In theory, to be given a birth certificate, all he has to do is pay the official fee, a maximum of 200,000 dong. But Dao claims he would also have to pay an additional bribe of two million dong, or even more, which puts it out of reach.
The certificates are issued by the Justice Department which works with the Public Security Bureau (PSB) at the local level to check peoples' backgrounds. The PSB does offer an alternative to paying large fees for birth certificates, albeit an unappealing one. “They made me guard the neighborhood,” said Dao. It's a job no one else wants to do because of the long, unsociable hours and minimal pay.
The PSB told Dao that if he does the job for 18 months, that precious birth certificate will finally be his.
Dao is just one of many. "There is a large and growing number of people without birth certificates throughout the country,” says Lovers of the Holy Cross Sister Marie Nguyen Thi Sang.
Sister Sang works for Nordic Assistance to Vietnam (NAV), an NGO that assists orphans, vulnerable children and people with HIV/AIDS, who are also the main groups lacking the required documents.
NAV provides the fees needed to process birth certificates. So far they have performed this service for around 400 people – mostly children – in seven provinces including Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. And Sister Sang and her co-worker nuns are proud to say that they never pay bribes.
In Sister Sang's opinion, stigma and strict rules are the root cause of the problem. Unwed mothers cannot get birth certificates for their children because they must supply a marriage certificate. People with HIV/AIDS, who already suffer severe discrimination in Vietnam, are often too afraid to meet with authorities to process the paperwork.
The state's two-child policy, designed to slow population growth, adds to the problem as parents incur fines if they try to register a third child. In some cities the fine is more than 500,000 dong.
Earlier this month, the Ministry of Justice asked Hanoi to investigate claims that authorities in the small village of Tam Minh demand over one million dong each time a couple have more than two children. There are allegations that this has been going on for years.
“Such fines are against the law,” said a ministry statement.
Lacking a birth certificate does not just lead to expense and loss of rights when it comes to getting other paperwork. It almost invariably means missing out on education, healthcare, jobs and social security.
Hoang Quoc faced a similar situation to Dao. For much of 2011, he was forced to join the local civil guard, which involved confrontations with drug dealers, smugglers and criminals.
When he finally received a birth certificate and identity card last year, he was 30 years old. He believes that despite that dangerous work stint he still may not have got it, had he not become friends with a police officer who helped him.
His two young children were given their birth certificates after Catholic workers with NAV negotiated with authorities. They now study in first and fourth grades at a local school.
“We are deeply grateful to the Catholic workers. Without their efforts, our children would have no access to education,” he said.
Future generations might face fewer problems. Last month, the government approved a project to simplify administrative procedures and citizenship papers as part of a seven-year program running up to 2020. This will see all citizens receive an identification number to use with authorities.
The changes will help Vietnam save about $77 million every year, the government said. By then, it is hoped, Dao will have been able to give up his night job.
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