Problems in Mongolia

Problems in Mongolia

Problems in Mongolia

Problems in Mongolia: Mongolia’s ex-herders struggle for survival in the city

A small, hungry cat is tied up next to the door of this family’s ger. It meows incessantly and seems eager to be free as it strains at the cord around its neck. Animals often reflect their owners.

The family who live in this small ger in a slum on the edge of Ulaanbaatar were forced away from their nomadic herding lifestyle to the capital in 2005 when all of their 500 livestock were killed in a “black dzud”, the Mongolian term for a snowless period of extreme cold, with temperatures dropping to minus 50 degree Celcius.

They have no skills other than herding, useless in the city. So both parents are unemployed, and are forced to rummage though the rubbish for recyclable bits and pieces as their only source of income.

The mother, Byambaa, 22, tells me: “We had no choice but to come to the city, but there is no life here. I am chained to the house looking after the children, but I cannot even breastfeed my youngest because I do not have enough nutrition for myself.

“Life was so good when we had our animals. At times it was a hard life but we could manage on our own. Now we have nothing.”

The malnourished state of the two girls is obvious. The four-year-old looks half her age, with a huge protruding belly. Her face carries a look of longing, of a child constantly hungry. She only just learnt to walk, due to a bone deformity from undernourishment.

The little baby, 9 months old, cannot even move around the bed she lies in as her legs are gravely underdeveloped.

Key to the family’s survival is being able to register with the government for benefits and to be eligible to work. But to register in the city they must be de-registered from their former place of residence. This would require them
to make the long journey back to Umnugobi, an impossibility given that they don’t even have enough food to eat.

The Mongolian Red Cross Social Care Programme, providing help to over 10,000 of the most vulnerable people in Ulaanbaatar, is literally keeping this family alive with food deliveries and warm clothing.

A volunteer has been visiting the family for a few months and is trying to help with the registration process so that the family can escape this extreme poverty trap. She is part of the network of volunteers who know their community inside-out and are able to identify the most vulnerable.

This is a bleak picture of the effects of intense climatic conditions on the livelihoods of the nomadic people of Mongolia. This case is similar to thousands of families who have been forced to migrate to the city, hitchhiking for days in the back of empty trucks in the hope of a new beginning.

In a city built for 500,000 people, Ulaanbaatar’s current population of over 1 million struggles to cope. In the face of a host of physical, social and political risks, the government does not have the know-how or capacity to reach all of those most in need. This is development at its most haphazard.

Byambaa is very young and it is clear that she is not sure how to look after her children in these circumstances. They have no other family to support them or to learn from. The Red Cross volunteer provides psychosocial support to this young mother and advises her how to take care of her baby.

When asked what her hopes are for the future, Byambaa replies: “I want to be registered with the government so that I can receive some help from them and so that my husband and I can find temporary work to feed our children.”

She is unable to think past the immediate future. Life is about survival, pure and simple.

Amanda George

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