One Year On: The current impact of Covid-19 on Vietnam’s immigration system
| Kenneth Lau | Laurent Quistrebert, Resident Vietnam

One Year On: The current impact of Covid-19 on Vietnam’s immigration system

Slightly more than a year has passed since the first Covid-19 case was detected in Vietnam (and slightly over half a year since our last blog entry on Vietnam) and it is important to take stock of the current immigration landscape in the country.

The overarching impact of Covid-19

Of course, the elephant in the room when it comes to any new immigration policy continues to be Covid-19. In our previous blog, we noted the relative success that Vietnam was having (at the time) in containing the Covid-19 pandemic. This was due to a number of factors, including its quick action in closing its borders to foreign national travellers (a travel ban which continues until this day). Despite (or because of) recent outbreaks of Covid-19 cases in the country, the Vietnamese authorities have been zealously trying to defend that image. For instance, while the authorities had opened up exceptional special entry approvals to allow some foreign national assignees to enter Vietnam (even during the pandemic), those requirements have started to tighten up, have become more complicated and are onerous to meet. “Travel bubbles” that were once envisioned as a promising way to restart business travel into Vietnam have been virtually abandoned.

While this stringent approach to containing the pandemic has been difficult to manoeuvre (from the immigration perspective), it has not been unexpected. In fact, in our previous blog, we alluded to the low risk tolerance of the authorities in Vietnam. Unfortunately, this has resulted in an unpredictable environment in terms of government processing times and requests, particularly when it comes to the special entry approvals mentioned above. Oftentimes, these new requirements or additional processing times are instituted in reaction to sudden Covid-19 outbreaks in the country (such as a recent outbreak in the northern part of the country just prior to the Tet holidays), with no notice and with little room for negotiation.

Practical impact to employers and employees

From a practical perspective, these sudden changes have been difficult for employers to manage moves into the country. While Vietnam ostensibly still has the special entry approval process in place, the various authorities in the country (who are part of the adjudication process) have created so many hoops to go through that it has been rendered almost impractical. With new changes being added on a weekly basis to these special entry requirements, it has become a frustrating process for any company to complete on a timely and holistic basis (rather, companies now have to respond quickly to ad hoc requests by various government agencies).

Therefore, employers and employees seeking to enter Vietnam at this time (during the pandemic) should keep the following in mind:

  • For these discretionary special entry approvals, it is possible that the authorities will request additional documents without notice even on the date the application is submitted. This is made even more likely when there is a sudden outbreak of Covid-19 cases in the country.
  • If the sponsoring entity is located in a tier 2 or 3 province, companies should expect multiple layers of procedures to go through, i.e., in the province where the sponsoring entity is located, as well as the province in which the employee arrives. This then multiplies the time required to obtain all of the required approvals.
  • Local officers also have broad discretion in their requests and in the processing times imposed. This often requires checking and double-checking with the relevant officers on a very frequent basis.
  • If the employee has already booked a flight to Vietnam, the risk that it will be cancelled remains high, which would then have downstream impacts. For example, if the company/employee has already booked a reservation at a government-designated hotel (for the quarantine requirement), this would then also need to be changed and the relevant health authorities will also need to be updated.Airline ticket prices have increased significantly, especially between Europe and the APAC region. Notwithstanding, it is still advisable to book a flexible, refundable ticket as there is always a risk that the employee may be unable to travel on the date planned.

     

New Labour Decree

In most years, the implementation of a new Labour Decree (as occurred in Vietnam in January this year) would be the biggest news when it comes to work authorisation for foreign nationals. While overshadowed by the impacts of Covid-19, the Ministry of Labour – Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) still proceeded with the implementation of new Labour Decrees. This was not unexpected, given the promulgation of a new Labour Code in the middle of 2020.

The practical impact of the new Decrees (which have yet to fully play out) has been to add onto the confusion caused by the current Covid-19 restrictions and special entry rules. In some cases, the new Decree (which included some drastic changes) has allowed over-eager officers to implement their own interpretation of the rules, given that further implementing guidance (in the form of Circulars) have yet to be released by the authorities. This has also led to inconsistent approaches by the various local Labour Department offices in the country.

Conclusion

With the above in mind, it is clear that the immigration landscape in Vietnam is currently uneven and uncertain. The underlying and foremost concern of the authorities, of course, are the public health ramifications of any relaxation in the immigration rules. While Vietnam has done a good job of containing the pandemic thus far, it does not plan to begin its Covid-19 vaccination program until March 2021 and does not expect to have the majority of its population (of 95 million) vaccinated until the end of 2021 or even the beginning of 2022. Given the somewhat reactionary and strict response by the authorities thus far to any outbreak (or potential outbreak), any relaxation to the special entry rules and requirements is not likely to occur until the vaccination program is well under way.

This blog was published on 25 February 2021, and due to the circumstances, there are frequent changes. To keep up to date with all the latest updates on global immigration, please visit our COVID-19 microsite, subscribe to our alerts and follow us LinkedIn.