Inside the International Flights Filled With Solo Babies

20 December 2020

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam—On Sept. 5, 2020, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner took off from South Korea’s Incheon International Airport en route to Vietnam. On board the repatriation flight VN409 were 403 Vietnamese citizens—including 41 unaccompanied babies, who were being sent back to the country without their parents.

Waiting at the Ho Chi Minh City airport for one of the babies was Nguyen Hoa My, who had set off at 2 a.m. that same morning from her home in northern Vietnam, in order to meet up with the flight from Seoul and retrieve her granddaughter.

The flight from South Korea was delayed by almost two hours. “Airport officials said the papers of two babies had gotten lost and there was a last-minute scramble to sort out the paperwork back in Seoul, which led to the delay,” Nguyen recalls. “I thought I would be able to see the baby immediately, but I was told I wouldn’t be allowed through. At that point, I didn’t yet know which quarantine center they were all heading to, but another grandmother received a tip-off and so we made our way over to Bau Bang together.”

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It was dusk by the time the women finally arrived. The place was already crowded, and the weather had given way to thick grey clouds and rain, reflecting their mood. “They were only letting people through in twos,” says Nguyen. They were each asked to pay the equivalent of $200 to cover the costs of quarantine. In line with the country’s COVID-19 protocol, everyone heading into quarantine was promptly tested upon arrival, with all samples coming back negative.

As the hours went by, courtesy was in short supply. Exhausted family members, many having traveled long distances, were desperate to see their tiny relatives. “There were no manners; everyone wanted to go first. We arrived around 6 p.m., but it wasn't until 11:30 p.m. that I was finally able to see my grandchild,” says Nguyen.

Eventually, her granddaughter’s name—Mai—was called out.

“I went running in and that’s when I heard Mai crying, but before I could pick her up I was escorted back out the room again. That was the first time I saw her; she was upset, which set me off. She’d had such a long day traveling, not being able to hold her when she most needed it was upsetting,” she says, recalling their first-ever encounter.

When Nguyen was finally allowed through to the isolation ward, her hopes of being able to reassure her granddaughter soon gave way to the realization that the 6-month-old, who was born in Korea and whom she had never met before, felt no greater comfort in her arms than she did being held by a random member of staff.

“I was a stranger to her. I didn’t know my grandchild and she didn’t know me,” says Nguyen.

“Compared to many others, we were lucky. Some babies didn’t settle at all that night,” she adds.

Indeed, it took up to a week for some of the infants to settle down, while their new guardians waited to take them home from quarantine. One doctor at the Bau Bang quarantine center, which deals with overseas returnees, told me: “The first five days were the worst, certainly the most distressing for the babies, with some even refusing to eat, which made it hard for everyone.”

The quarantine center staff were also caught off guard by the sheer number of lone infants, many of whom were no older than 6 months, some not yet weaned. Over the first 24 hours, a steady trickle of grandmothers, aunts, and the odd uncle, began to pour into the center, as news of the babies’ arrival and their whereabouts began to filter out.

As staff waited for the infants’ families, the Bau Bang District center was seized by a cacophony of crying babies, their sobs ringing down vast and vacant hallways.

Why were so many infants being sent to Vietnam without their parents in the first place?

What follows is a tale of personal sacrifice, made more difficult by the pandemic, and the quest for social mobility that sees many people leaving Vietnam’s provinces to seek opportunities abroad, often illegally. But with Vietnam among only a handful of countries expected to see positive economic growth this year, there’s a question of whether such sacrifices are even still necessary.

Shortly after September’s repatriation flight, a handful of articles appeared in local state-run media. One article explained the parents were unable to accompany the children “due to challenges posed by the pandemic”; another spoke of their “financial hardships,” with the parents described as “mostly low-income workers.” The head of the quarantine center went a step further and was quoted saying the parents were obliged to stay behind to complete their work contracts in South Korea.

“I was a stranger to her. I didn’t know my grandchild and she didn’t know me.”

One senior staff member at Bau Bang told me the babies were sent back to Vietnam “for their own safety,” after daily COVID-19 infections in South Korea peaked at 441 in late August—at the time, the biggest single-day hike since March. (Thanks to measures like the strict 14-day quarantine for returnees, Vietnam has been one of the most COVID-resilient countries on the planet. At the time of writing, this Southeast Asian country of 96 million people had announced its first confirmed case of community transmission in almost three months, taking Vietnam’s COVID-19 tally to 1,339 infections and 35 deaths. By contrast, American deaths had surpassed 267,000 and infections more than 13.4 million.)

While coronavirus fears may have been a contributing factor in returning some of the infants, all the families I spoke to claimed that most of the babies’ parents could not have returned even if they had wanted to (though none did), because of their irregular status. Officially, seats on Vietnamese repatriation flights are only offered to citizens with a legal right to be overseas.

Between the news reports linking the repatriation of the unaccompanied babies to the economic fallout from the coronavirus, and those suggesting that health concerns had spurred parents to take drastic action, none told the full story.

Tran Thi Hau’s house is a hive of activity.

Outside, a man with a soldering gun is installing a metal wire fence around the perimeter of the yard “to keep the children from running out into the road,” Tran says, a baby in her arms as she sees me arrive.

The house sits on a busy thoroughfare, frequented by lorries, at the periphery of a nondescript village a few hours’ drive from Hanoi.

A jumble of plastic loafers and sandals greet us on the steps leading inside. I take off my shoes and I’m ushered through to the living area, where a young boy and girl, startled by my arrival, seek refuge behind their grandmother’s back.

By anyone’s standards, the house is spacious and comfortable. Vietnamese Peppa Pig plays on a large flat screen TV. Photos of deceased loved ones watch over the family from their position atop a large altar, alongside a potpourri of incense, plastic flowers and ancestral offerings including platefuls of fruit and cake.

“Things weren’t always like this; I was very poor before,” says Tran, as she balances her 10-month-old granddaughter on her knee.

When her children were at high school, Tran had taken part in an export labor program, spending six years as a domestic helper for a family in Cyprus. The savings from that job helped build this large property.

If Tran’s is the house that immigration built, illegal migration turned it into a home.

“My son-in-law’s work was always irregular. But now there are entire months he doesn’t work at all.”

After her daughter Ngo Thanh Binh’s first marriage broke down, she decided to go in search of work abroad.

“We heard about communities in nearby communes whose family members had left Vietnam and found success elsewhere. We asked around and eventually we were given the contact details of the people who helped Ngo secure a tourist visa to South Korea,” says Tran.

Their “help” set the family back more than $10,000, paid for through bank loans and by pooling the family’s finances.

“When my daughter heard how easy it was to make money there, it motivated her to go herself. It was either that or farming,” she says, convinced the choice is a binary one.

Despite the hefty price tag, the money they handed over was only enough to secure the visa. As far as logistics and getting past security was concerned, Ngo was on her own. “The flight itself was paid separately. Once in Seoul airport, she had to go through to the other side by herself, nobody helped her with that. If officials had decided to stop her and send her home, we would have lost everything. It’s the same as gambling, it’s a risky business: go big or go home,” says Tran.

“If you’re lucky, you get away with it, but there are no guarantees — like the container in England,” she adds, her voice trailing off.

Tran is referring to last year’s Essex lorry tragedy, in which 39 undocumented Vietnamese nationals were found dead after being smuggled into Britain in the back of a lorry. The trial of four suspects implicated in their deaths is currently underway in the United Kingdom.

The night that Ngo “made her escape,” as her mother puts it, a lost phone charger meant she was unable to make contact with her parents until the early hours. The message, when it came, read: “Mom, I made it.”

According to Tran, the idea to leave for South Korea was Ngo’s alone: “Nobody encouraged her to go, because we all know the risks,” she says.

Despite not speaking the language, Ngo found work almost immediately. “For the first two years, it was challenging. She was just about earning enough to pay back her debts and cover her outgoings and other basic needs. Initially, she found work at a frozen food plant, peeling prawns, but the temperatures were so low that even with her overalls, she complained about being cold all the time,” says Tran.

Initially, Ngo made between $400-$600 a month —a sum that her mother describes as “not much”—changing from one random job to another after she decided she could no longer stand the sub-zero temperatures at the frozen food plant. By her third year, Tran says her daughter spoke Korean well enough that she was able to secure a stable job as a quality controller for a manufacturing company, which saw her monthly income more than double to between $1,000 and $1,200. Average monthly earnings in South Korea are $2,900, about 10 times the Vietnamese average of $281, according to the Census and Economic Information Center (CEIC).

Tran says that, as well as work, Ngo found love abroad with another Vietnamese migrant; in his case, he entered South Korea on a legitimate work visa. For a while, they were making a substantial amount of money, especially once they married and the couple was able to pool their resources by moving in together, thus reducing their costs. Ngo sent money home regularly. Having paid off her debts and after she helped her parents turn their house into a home, through money which enabled them to furnish the property, they decided to try for a baby.

A few months later, elsewhere in Seoul, Nguyen’s daughter—the mother of little Mai—found herself having a similar conversation with her husband, weighing their options and also concluding it was time for a baby.

If undocumented workers in some countries keep a low profile for fear of being caught by the authorities and sent back home, the families I spoke with paint a very different picture for Vietnamese citizens in South Korea.

“Not having legal status only limits your right to access state-funded services. That’s it,” Nguyen tells me, as we sit cross-legged over a spread of local fare, baby Mai nestled between her legs.

“You don’t live 10 to a room, fearing a knock on the door,” she says, carefully inserting a small spoon of broth inside her granddaughter’s mouth.

Health care is expensive, however. With no work permit, Nguyen’s daughter Le Binh An doesn’t benefit from health insurance. The birth costs alone were $5,000.

“For a month, he cried every day since sending their daughter back. I had to tell him to hang in there…he’s finally learned to accept the situation.”

“An hadn’t worked for about six months when COVID struck,” says Nguyen. In anticipation of the baby’s arrival, they moved into “a bigger and nicer house,” which required a deposit of $600, a sum they borrowed from Le’s older sister, who is legally residing in South Korea with her Korean husband.

“Their monthly rent is $500,” Nguyen tells me. “It was bad timing. Between one thing and another, they had little money coming in but many expenses. They haven’t had money to send through all year because they spent it all on the baby.”

Like Tran’s daughter Ngo, Le made it into the country by paying specialist brokers about $4,300 for a tourist visa. She has since been joined by her other siblings, as well as her husband, each person going through the same channels to secure entry.

Up until taking a break during the pregnancy, Nguyen’s daughter usually had regular work coming in. “An did whatever came her way: housekeeping, factory work, domestic help, anything,” Nguyen says.

“And then COVID,” she adds, shrugging her shoulders. “My son-in-law’s work was always irregular. But now there are entire months he doesn’t work at all.”

“It’s no longer clear that going abroad—whatever your legal status—is any more beneficial to your child than if you were to stay put and seek alternative employment here. ”

Ten years have passed since Le moved to South Korea, and Nguyen hasn’t seen her since.

“I see my firstborn often, or I did before the pandemic. But not An,” she says, reaching for a tissue and blowing into it, “I miss her very much.”

She hardens when asked if she tried to persuade her to return: “No, she can’t come back. She must stay. If she comes to Vietnam, she will not be able to get back into South Korea. It’s important that she stay to give her daughter a good life.”

Kneeling alongside us, Nguyen’s two young grandsons, who have finished their meal, are comparing Pokemon cards. I recognize two of them as toddlers in another family portrait hanging on the wall. The two brothers haven’t physically seen their parents since the adults left for South Korea four years ago, when the boys were aged three and five.

In many Asian countries, where multi-generational households are common, children are often raised by extended family members. In this respect, Nguyen’s family set-up is unremarkable.

Almost a month has passed since Nguyen left Bau Bang with her granddaughter, enough time for the 6-month-old to develop an emotional attachment to her. Every time Nguyen puts Mai down, however briefly, she starts crying and looking around for her, her arms reaching into the air.

Although the babies were technically “unaccompanied,” insofar as they did not return with a legal guardian, in reality, they each traveled with an adult who agreed to take responsibility for them for the duration of the flight—for a fee.

Trawl Facebook for Vietnamese community groups based in South Korea and many come up, some with tens of thousands of members. Three of the four families I spoke to said they had sent their babies back with people who had posted about the upcoming flight on one such group, although they said the Vietnamese Embassy in Seoul was also able to provide assistance in connecting parents with people booked to return. The fourth family I spoke to said they found somebody through an acquaintance. In all four cases, the parents agreed to cover the cost of the flight; just one had agreed to pay an extra sum once the child was safely delivered.

“An contacted them and asked for help, which she had to pay for,” says Nguyen. “Don’t be taken in by their age; all those old women asked for money to bring the babies back. Why would anyone help us for free?”

Back in Seoul, once both parties were in agreement, a trip to the embassy was required to prepare the power of attorney and ensure all the necessary documentation.

“I had concerns, initially, but it was all above board, there were no risks, because the embassy was the witness. They had lawyers deal with the paperwork,” Nguyen adds.

Two other families whose babies were on flight VN409 paint a similar picture.

Subsistence farmers Nguyen Hai Duong and her husband were unable to pay for their son to continue his education, so upon finishing high school, he found work as a driver in Vietnam earning around $180 a month.

As more and more success stories from people of other communes heading to South Korea started circulating, and neighboring villages began sprouting larger homes, some with cars parked in the driveway, Pham Van Tuan believed that only by heading abroad, could he offer his family a similar quality of life.

“Their remittances, recruitment fees and other expenses contributed to at least 6.5 percent of Vietnamese GDP in 2019. ”

Pham has been in Seoul four years now and has since been joined by his wife and his only sister, who is enrolled as a student there.

“He works in construction,” his mother tells me. “But it’s not stable. It’s just like construction here in Vietnam; it’s on and off, there’s no pattern. Tuan doesn’t speak Korean, so he can’t apply for a company, which means he can’t get a stable job. Sometimes, he’s unemployed for the whole month.”

Like all of the families I visit, they too enjoy a high level of material comfort. Tempting though it may be to interpret this as a sign her son’s gamble has paid off, Nguyen Hai’s comments hint at a more complex reality: “He’s paid off the cost of his trip. But we borrowed a lot of money for this house. And he had to borrow money—$12,000—for his sister to get there, not to mention the tuition fees.”

Student visas in South Korea cost between $50 and $80. Undergraduate tuition fees for the year at top universities come in at around $6,500. But when I point out the difference between the actual costs and what her daughter paid to an agent to get a Korean visa, the fiftysomething-year-old insists they went in the only way they could.

A video call comes through from her son as we’re speaking. Nguyen Hai turns the cellphone to a large red hammock in the corner of the room, where Pham’s 7-month-old daughter is fast asleep.

“It’s difficult for him,” she says, as she hits the red button, ending the call. “For a month, he cried every day since sending their daughter back. I had to tell him to hang in there… he’s finally learned to accept the situation.”

My plans to meet with a fourth family, based in one of the Central Vietnam provinces repeatedly battered by storms and typhoons throughout October and November—which provoked regular flooding and multiple landslides—were derailed on multiple occasions. Over the course of numerous phone calls, however, they too confirmed that their adult child had entered South Korea via a tourist visa paid for through agents.

In each case, families describe borrowing from multiple sources in order to afford the agents’ fees. No smuggling was involved. The visas appear to be legitimate. Tourist visas for Vietnamese nationals visiting South Korea start at $55 for a single trip. As one would expect, visa applications are subject to strict criteria, such as proof of income and savings, which these families say they would not normally fulfill.

Given the sums involved and time frames required to pay off their debts (typically between one and three years), however, the math doesn’t always add up.

Asked if they had considered applying for a visa via the proper channels, without going through an agent, the families were all dismissive.

Tran’s reply, in particular, though peppered with inaccuracies, encapsulated the way the families saw paying for entry to South Korea as a perfunctory transaction; as with many services, the right agent can help with complex bureaucracy, saving crucial time, if not always money.

“If we wanted to go through the legal process, we would have to learn the language; who knows whether we’d pass the test? Applying for a tourist visa to South Korea is really hard. You have to prove your income. How can we make 300 or 400 or 500 million dong a year for three years in a row to prove it?” said Tran.

When it was pointed out to her that, while proof of sufficient funds is required, the sums involved are nowhere near as high and that a language test isn’t necessary for a tourist visa, she paused before replying: “Anyway, this is the easiest way to go, who knows how long we would have to wait if we applied. This way works and it’s quick.”

Independent anti-trafficking and modern slavery expert, Mimi Vu, has seen it all before, including the cognitive dissonance at play.

“They think they are making very rational decisions, but it’s often based on extremely faulty information,” she says.

“No parent wants to be away from their child. But it’s no longer clear that going abroad—whatever your legal status—is any more beneficial to your child than if you were to stay put and seek alternative employment here. There is also a certain irony, that in order for many families to have ‘a better life,’ it often involves untold suffering and sacrifice on the part of the person working abroad; not that they will usually admit this to their loved ones.”

Of the families I spoke to, the parents all envisaged staying on in South Korea until their babies were at least of school-age. As a minimum, everyone said they wanted to be able to build themselves a house and set aside enough money to cover their children’s education, and a few also wanted to save enough funds to start a business once back in Vietnam. Most were unable to put an actual figure on these ambitions, but prompted for an answer, Tran and her family agreed they would need in the region of $80,000. If these calculations are correct, it’s difficult to imagine how the parents will make it back within the next decade, much less by the time their daughter reaches school age.

The Daily Beast is aware of at least one other flight bringing back unaccompanied children en masse, this time involving 24 toddlers, aged between 18 months and five years. Flights returning smaller numbers of unaccompanied children (usually individuals) have also taken place.

Given that Vietnam benefits hugely from its overseas workforce (including informal workers), and that the same is true of South Korea, through its access to cheap labor, could their governments have done more for these families?

“Their remittances, recruitment fees and other expenses contributed to at least 6.5 percent of Vietnamese GDP in 2019. While bringing overseas workers home is commendable in the time of COVID-19, more governmental and corporation support from both Vietnam and Korea, in this case, is needed to help overseas workers’ families when their work dries up due to structural unemployment caused by this global pandemic,” Professor Angie Tran of California State University, expert in transnational labor movements, told me via email.

Over the past two decades, remittances to Vietnam have consistently increased, last year reaching an all time high of $16.7 billion, according to the World Bank (WB). This year, although remittances fell to $15.6 billion, it remains the ninth largest recipient globally, behind just China and Philippines in the East Asian and Pacific region.

This remittance culture has made Vietnam largely reliant on money from families working abroad. Ending this reliance is a challenge in itself.

“Dealing with immigration of any kind is as much a communications challenge, as it is a development one,” according to Vu.

“Remittances hit a ceiling when you’re working illegally. COVID presents a number of opportunities to reset the narrative. Flights out are limited and everything is very controlled, Europe is also shut down again. So we have the advantage now that people, for the most part, have to stay here. Vietnam’s economic prospects are higher than they’ve ever been and, despite COVID, jobs — especially in the manufacturing sector — are plentiful. These are the messages we need to get out to people, especially in the rural provinces. But also, we need to have a way to connect those people — most at risk of using dubious brokers — to these jobs. Because, actually, factories have a very hard time of recruiting, they cannot recruit fast enough, there’s a supply and demand disconnect.”

In response to the Essex deaths, a U.K.-funded campaign aimed at dissuading future migrants from taking similar risks popped up in the form of billboards at airports and bus stations across the country; the takeaway message, in Vietnamese, read: “Don’t gamble with your future — illegal migration can lead to human trafficking.”

For Vu, such campaigns achieve little if they are not accompanied by clear, alternative pathways to financial autonomy within Vietnam.

“Thirty-nine dead people is not deterring anyone, what makes you think a billboard will? The negative, scare tactic will only take you so far. For meaningful change, you need positive reinforcement,” she says.

The messaging also disregards the fact that illegal immigration doesn’t always have the look and feel of illegality. After all, in the case of the babies from flight VN409, the families I spoke with said the parents had entered South Korea on the back of legitimate visas, even if the manner through which they were obtained was not. Changing behavior will not happen overnight.

“These communities are very distrustful of outsiders. Outreach is essential. It requires having staff from those communities, who are able to communicate the message in the local language or dialect or accent,” says Vu. “It requires understanding the complicated logistics and helping people connect with factories. You need town hall meetings where employers are brought in to outline exactly what the benefits are: health insurance, income, savings. ‘We’ll teach you financial literacy.’ If they need training, ‘we’ll provide six months’. A minimum salary of $400. They are straightforward, practical steps, but also a lot more time-consuming. Do that and then you can reinforce that message with the truth that going overseas, in the way many people choose to go, isn’t what it’s cracked up to be; that for many, years of debt bondage or slavery awaits.”

South Korea is one of the most popular markets for Vietnamese migrants seeking work elsewhere in Asia, lured by the promise of higher salaries and the appeal of K-pop and Korean cinema.

Last year, Vietnamese nationals represented the highest positive net migration of individuals to the Republic of Korea. In April, the number of Vietnamese travelers entering South Korea jumped 66 percent to more than 10,000, despite Vietnam’s borders closing in March and the overall number of foreigners entering South Korea dropping 62 percent. It was the first time that Vietnamese travelers made up the greatest proportion of new arrivals in a single month, overtaking Chinese nationals.

Such is the prevalence of illegal Vietnamese immigration in South Korea, that in a bid to discourage guest workers from overstaying their visas, earlier this year Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc approved a pilot scheme requiring them to deposit 100m VND ($4,239) at the Vietnam Bank for Social Policies (VBSP) before heading off to work in South Korea. In September, Vietnam’s Department of Overseas Labour revealed that more than 1,400 Vietnamese workers were set to lose their money, after Korea disclosed they had failed to leave once their contracts had ended.

According to the International Monetary Fund, Vietnam is expected to grow by 2.4 percent this year, making it one of the only economies in the world to avoid a recession. Next year, GDP is projected to grow by 6.5 percent.

“What not enough people seem to realize is that, today, Vietnam is the land of opportunity; that’s the message that the Vietnamese government is trying to get across, so far, with mixed results,” says Vu.

On the one hand, as the Vietnamese state endeavors to push back the tide of illegal immigration, on the other, it acts as the country’s primary labor broker.

“It is important to understand how the transnational labor brokerage state system works and benefits on the backs of these migrant workers when the governments are labor brokers, in addition to private labor brokers, who send over 560,000 Vietnamese workers to work in more than 43 countries and territories worldwide via intergovernmental agreements,” says Professor Tran.

“Trying to address the illicit labor migration to work in Korea requires not only providing accessible sources of communication for their informed decision to work overseas, but also revealing how conspicuous consumption (such as big mansions and cars) in rural provinces can hide immeasurable sufferings of family separation, family breakup, precarious work and racism faced by informal work in labor-receiving countries.”

Somewhere in Seoul, a Vietnamese couple is preparing to downsize. Stripped of their belongings, the place they called home for the past year is reduced to an empty shell. As they carry the last remaining box out of the small apartment, they take one final look around, before closing the door behind them.

*All names have been changed to protect the identities of the families interviewed