Webinar on “Migration from Post-Đổi mới Vietnam: Transnational Brokers, Digital Technologies and New Mobility Pathways”

Wednesday, 26 June 2024 — In this webinar, Prof. Lan Anh Hoang discussed how transnational migration is imagined, mediated, and experienced by Vietnamese individuals in the Digital Age. She also highlighted the transformational impact of the digital boom on Vietnamese migrants’ aspirations, practices, and mobility pathways.


The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute organised a webinar titled “Migration from Post-Đổi mới Vietnam: Transnational Brokers, Digital Technologies and New Mobility Pathways,” presented by Lan Anh Hoang, Professor in Development Studies, School of Social and Political Sciences, the University of Melbourne, Australia. The webinar was based on her empirical research conducted over the past 20 years in Vietnam, Taiwan, Russia, and Australia.

Moderator Dr Le Hong Hiep with speaker Prof. Lan Anh Hoang. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Prof. Lan Anh started by providing an overview of transnational contract labour migration in Vietnam. This started in the early 1990s and has been treated as a poverty reduction strategy by the Vietnamese government. Currently, the main destinations for Vietnamese migrants are Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, China, Hungary, and Singapore. As of 2024, there are about 650,000 Vietnamese migrant workers in 40 countries and territories. Last year, 155,000 workers were deployed overseas, setting a new record.

The Vietnamese migration industry is notorious for poor governance, corruption, and exorbitant migration costs, which are closely linked to the high rate of contract violations among Vietnamese workers. These Vietnamese workers hail from impoverished rural households in the north and north-central regions of Vietnam, and their migration is primarily debt-induced and debt-financed. For many of them, working overseas represents their first experience in the formal economy and introduction to the concept of a labour contract.

Prof. Lan Anh then discussed Vietnamese migration to post-Soviet Russia, a legacy of the Cold War. Since the 1950s, students were sent to the former Soviet Union, and from the early 1980s, Vietnam began exporting labour to the former Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries. Although many of these students and workers left Russia after the collapse of the communist regime, many subsequently returned. The exact number of Vietnamese living in Russia is unknown due to most of them being irregular and undocumented, but it is estimated to be around 150,000 people, primarily from north and north-central Vietnam.

As a result of their undocumented status, these migrants lack access to formal employment opportunities and instead rely on informal market trade for their livelihood. This type of work can be highly exploitative, unstable, and unpredictable, leaving the migrants vulnerable to economic shocks, police extortion, and anti-immigration crackdowns. In media and public discourse, these migrants are often portrayed as criminals and terrorists. Consequently, the migrants in Prof. Lan Anh’s study viewed Russia as a temporary phase in their lives rather than a place where they could establish a home, raise a family, and envision their future.

For the past four years, Prof. Lan Anh has been researching Vietnamese migrants in Australia. Vietnam ranks among the top five source countries in Australia’s migration programme and is also one of the top five sources of international students in the country. Currently, Vietnam-born residents constitute the sixth-largest migrant group in Australia, with more than 168,000 people. Despite the growing number of skilled migrants from Vietnam to Australia, the family stream remains the primary migration pathway, which is more accessible than seeking Australian permanent residency (PR) as a skilled immigrant.

Prof. Lan Anh highlighted the significant changes in migration patterns from post-reform Vietnam. From the early 1990s to the early 2000s, there were three main migration flows. The first is the South-South intraregional flow, which includes temporary labour migration, or contract migration, from poor and rural areas in north and north-central Vietnam to other Asian countries. This migration is facilitated through government-regulated channels and driven by poverty. The second flow is the South-South migration to Eastern Europe, which is characterised by largely clandestine, transient migration from north and north-central Vietnam. This is driven by high unemployment rates among the lower middle classes. The third main migration flow is the South-North movement to Western Europe, North America, and Australia. This includes temporary student migration and permanent family union migration, driven by the desire for social and occupational upward mobility among middle-class families.

Over the past two decades, these migration flows have undergone substantial transformations. The South-South intraregional flow has expanded to include not only temporary labour migrants but also marriage migrants, student migrants, and skilled migrants. The South-South migration to Eastern Europe now not only includes undocumented economic migration but also labour migration and student migration. Meanwhile, migration to the Global North has expanded to include permanent skilled migration. New migration flows have also emerged, such as economic migration to China and Southeast Asia, labour migration to the Middle East and North America, and undocumented migration to Western Europe. Finally, voluntary immobility has increased as a result of growing economic opportunities within Vietnam itself.

Prof. Lan Anh identified five key factors contributing to these changes in migration patterns: 1) the evolving migration policies of both sending and receiving countries; 2) increased wealth and mobility among potential migrants; 3) shifting values and lifestyles; 4) technological advancements; and 5) the growth of transnational brokerage networks. The remainder of her presentation focused on the last two factors, using the case study of Vietnamese migrants in Australia to illustrate her points.

Particularly, Prof. Lan Anh explored how informal brokers leverage Facebook to sell the Australian dream to Vietnamese people. Facebook allows Vietnamese migrants to access information, seek advice, connect with transnational migrant networks, verify their agents’ credibility, and evaluate the deals offered by their brokers. Simultaneously, brokers rely on Facebook as their primary marketing and sales tool.

Prof. Lan Anh categorises migrants who rely on these brokers as “unlikely migrants”. Traditionally, migrating to Australia or any Global North country as a student or professional requires a certain level of education, specific skills, and proficiency in English, typically associated with elite backgrounds in Vietnam. However, many migrants interviewed and observed online by Prof. Lan Anh belong to the lower middle class. Their decision to migrate to Australia is heavily influenced by open access to social media and online migrant communities. Moreover, brokers employ e-marketing and e-sales tactics to persuade these individuals that obtaining a visa to Australia is possible.

In contrast to “front-door migrants” who obtain an Australian visa through formal and legal means, these “back-door migrants” face multiple layers of risks and vulnerabilities. In many cases, this leads to years of precarious living conditions followed by eventual deportation.

Prof. Lan Anh concluded that digital technologies and social media are playing an increasingly pivotal role in shaping how Vietnamese people imagine and navigate transnational migration. The migration industry operates in a space where the line between legality and illegality is blurred, and state control and authority have been ineffective. These digital divides give rise to new patterns of mobility, reproducing and exacerbating existing social inequalities. This is largely due to the varying capacities of migrants in navigating the complex social-digital landscape. While social media serves as a vital resource for the educated, English-speaking middle class, it often presents risks and vulnerabilities for less privileged groups.

During the Q&A session, Prof. Lan Anh addressed a wide range of topics, including the response of Vietnamese and Australian authorities to back-door migration, the risk calculation and decision-making processes of migrants, the intersections between migration and gender, the support available for Vietnamese migrants overseas, the political divide within the Vietnamese migrant community in Australia, and the impact of the Russian-Ukraine war on Vietnamese migration to Russia.