As Phu Quoc Island, off the coast of the southern province of Kien Giang, is drawing a large population of freelance construction workers from the Mekong Delta region, children who follow their parents to this ‘Pearl Island’ have to suffer a loss of basic rights.
Some get no education, others start school six years later than their peers, and there are kids who do not even have their birth certificates.
Passion from the dump
More than 20 families, most of whom are Vietnamese Khmer ethnic people from the Mekong Delta, are making ends meet around the An Thoi garbage dump on Phu Quoc Island.
Danh Khang’s parents took his whole family from their hometown in Phuoc Long District, Bac Lieu Province to Dong Nai Province, then Binh Duong Province and Ho Chi Minh City to make a living.
Four years ago, they ended up on Phu Quoc.
Khang, due to such mobility and insufficient livelihood, could not make it to school until he was 12.
Now 14, Khang is in grade 3 with classmates that look like his little brothers.
“I don’t want to be illiterate as my parents,” the 14-year-old emphasized.
|Danh Khang, 14, is quite popular with his eight-year-old classmates at An Thoi 2 Elementary School on Phu Quoc Island, off southern Vietnam. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
Khang is currently enrolled in An Thoi 2 Elementary School, located one kilometer from the garbage dump where his family live.
According to his father, he has not skipped a single lesson for the last three years whatever the weather conditions.
“At first it felt weird, but it was great fun learning how to read. I’m no longer embarrassed. But I’ll quit after grade 5, so I can find some work,” Khang said.
It is the norm
Most of the students at An Thoi 2 Elementary School are children of Vietnamese Khmer ethnic people coming from other regions, so starting school late is absolutely the norm, according to Le Thi Thu Van, a teacher here.
“Kids like Nguyen Thanh Dat, Nguyen Thanh Nhieu, or Danh Khanh enter their first grade at 12 years of age, six years later than their peers,” she elaborated.
“Children who [started school] two to three years late are just countless.”
Children starting school at a later age than standard is prevalent in many schools on Phu Quoc, especially those close to large construction sites in Ganh Dau, Cua Can or Duong To Communes.
Nguyen Anh Khoa, principal of Cua Can Elementary and Middle School, informed that during the 2018-19 school year, the number of students enrolled rose by almost 150.
Nearly 50 of these start school two to four years late.
“The children did not get any education before their families settled down on Phu Quoc, so it is no extraordinary to see siblings a few years apart sitting in the same classroom,” he added.
Hundreds of children on this island are going without education, official household records, and even birth certificates.
Without such documents, children are deprived of access to formal education and public healthcare.
|Many children now live in makeshift campsites around trash dumps on Phu Quoc Island, off southern Vietnam, as their parents eke out their living here. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
Danh Hoang, 34, wracked his brain hard before he could finally, without certainty, say the ages of his four children.
“The eldest is Danh Tri, who is 14, then Danh Hung, 12, Danh Tam, 10, and finally my daughter Danh Thuyen, who is four,” he said.
None of his children have their birth documents.
“Neither of us [Hoang and his wife] can read. We also lost all the birth docs,” he explained.
This construction worker originally came from Rach Gia District, a mere three hours’ boat ride from Phu Quoc, but for years he has not been able to go back to his hometown to finish his children’s birth paperwork.
“It may take a whole week for all the paperwork. I just can’t afford to leave for one single day. My family won’t get anything to eat.”
|More than 20 Vietnamese Khmer families from the Mekong Delta are dwelling around trash dumps on Phu Quoc Island, off southern Vietnam. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
Similarly, Nguyen Be Ngoc has not completed her daughter’s birth certificate procedures, as the girl was born in the trash dump area.
"Maybe she’s nine," Ngoc said about her daughter Nga.
To the perhaps-nine-year-old, having no birth certificate is such a big loss as she simply cannot get through the school gate.
As Nga was born on the island, paperwork should not be an uphill struggle, but somehow her parents did not even welcome outside help.
|The perhaps-nine-year old girl named Nga does not have her birth certificate as she was born in the trash dump area. Photo: Tuoi Tre|