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The Humans of Mongolia: Persistence of poverty a vexing challenge for government officials

Updated: May 25, 2023



(Image by Towfiqu Barbhuiya/Unsplash)


Part 1 of a three-part series


By NAANGA ENKHTUR

Global Business Journalism reporter


According to the most recent Mongolian government data, almost a million people do not have enough food to eat. The poverty rate stood at 29.6%, with a poverty line defined at 146,100 tugriks (or $55) per month.

Poverty has been a persistent problem in Mongolia since the demise of the Soviet Union left the country without an economic patron. One and a half years after Mongolia became a democratic country after 70 years as a communist satellite, Russia ended its financial assistance. Mongolia went from a $900 million annual social safety net from the Soviet Union to free-market reform, privatization of public property and massive income inequality. By 1998 the National Statistical Office found that 36 percent of the Mongolian population – 850,000 people – was living in poverty. Another 613,000 people were living just above the poverty level. While the overall poverty rate has declined in the intervening quarter-century, it has remained uncomfortably high. To offer a clearer understanding of the human side of poverty in Mongolia, this article describes life for homeless men under the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.


 

Living in "the Hole"

More than 500 people, dressed in formal clothing, poured into parliament house to participate the local governors' annual conference. The biggest issues of state always occupy the ornately decorated wood-paneled conference hall. From the podium of the venerable hall, the prime minister, Ukhnaa Khurelsukh, was describing the socio-economic condition of Mongolia. He sternly reminded the governors that "their work will be evaluated on the how effectively reduce unemployment and poverty in their region.” About a hundred miles away from the parliament house, an open trench oozing steam dominates the street next to the Humanity University. These steamy pipelines of Ulaanbaatar’s sewer system have become a place of residence for 13 homeless people during the long winter. They call their home "the Hole."


The trench was almost the same size as the cabin of a truck. Early risers among those ragged residents – all men –who call the Hole home emerge like marmots into the smoky air in the post-dawn frost to collect recyclables that bring them about $1 per day for meeting their needs.


They wake up early to avoid the general public because of their rancid smell and unkempt appearances, except for one bold old man. Their Hole, this underworld of the Mongolian capital, is littered with mementos of their meals: empty boxes of instant noodles and glasses of Eroolt vodka, the cheapest vodka in Mongolia. One of the trench's pipes was broken. Hot water drips from it with agonizing repetition. They saved this water to cook their instant noodles. After enduring 16 years of life in the Hole, Ganpurev Sergelen, 52, was the end of his rope. A recent pipeline accident caused him serious burns, including the complete soles of his feet. As a result, he lost a leg and lost hope. He and his fellow residents of the Hole are living in fear of being boiled alive if the pipeline explodes again. Sergelen walks leaning upon a cane now, and he can’t collect recyclables to make ends meet. His Hole-mates feed him from their stash of instant foods. The 52-year-old man describes his fellow residents of the trench. “Most of them are youth aged between 21 and 25," he says. "They are in an early part of life. For me, I am already in the late part of life.


Life in a trench is crowded, cold and dangerous. "More than 10 homeless people are living together here now," he said. "Even if it is hard for them to feed me, they understand that we have the same problem, so they wouldn’t dare to push one away to the outside in this cold winter."


He expresses sorrow for the loss of human potential. “I feel pity for them," Sergelen says. "Among them are bricklayers, carpenters. They are useful workforce in the country. But they are the very kind of occupant that live likes a dog. Even worse than a dog in the rich family,” he added with a long sigh.

Beggars in Mongolia are known as “human antelopes.” Because of a societal taboo about begging, people "throw away money to them instead of giving it in hand to hand," he says. "We say that if we are passing, throw it to their wind side. it is terrible, due to superstitions. I don’t know why we still believe this kind of stuff."

According to government statistics, there are about 1,400 people like Ganpurev living on the streets, and one-fourth of them live the street life permanently. Ulzii, an advocacy official at a social protection center in Ulaanbaatar, says the government is trying to convince homeless people to leave their street life.


“Under the state program called ‘The way to back home,’ we have been registering people who are habitual vagrants, to help them socialize again," he said, adding that "vagrancy is one kind of social disorder."


For Sergelen, such attitudes reflect the larger society. “In brief, the society has just pushed us away unconsciously," he said. "No matter what kind of reason, it pushes us into the underworld. It left us the only choice to end up in jails.”


Downtown Ulaanbaatar (Wikipedia Commons)

The Mongolian government's social protection programs target 12 groups, including homeless people, vulnerable children, the aged, and drug addicted people. In 2018, more than 15,000 Mongolians received social services from the 164 non-government organizations funded by municipal budgets — a total of 2.8 billion tugrik, according to the information given by Ministry of Labour and Social Protection. Under the auspices of eight non-government organizations, 590 homeless people (or 43 percent of registered homeless) received daily social services like feeding, washing and medical checks in 2018. Because of budget constraints, however, “we can't give social services all year long," says Undarmaa, an official of the “Life Skills” Reception Center of Social Protection in Ulaanbaatar. "Most of them are staying here temporarily. When the weather becomes warmer, they go back to the street, because our budget is so limited."


Undarmaa says that with a daily budget of $4 per person, "we couldn’t give service for all homeless people on the street.” In addition to the Life Skills center, the capital's homeless population is served by one hospital, Enerel, that delivers medical services to the homeless population.


While Mongolians have been doing more in recent years, life under Ulaanbaatar in still rough. Sergelen, living with just one leg now, wants everyone to know that the people in capital's homeless underworld are made of flesh and blood.


"They are human, like me," he says. "They are not poor. They have just been broken."


 

A photo of father and son playing together in the street went viral in October 2018; they had no idea what would happen next. Their dirty, soiled clothes and large garbage bag which laid next to them, filled with glass and plastic bottles, and aluminum cans — is easily tell us they were homeless or at least doesn’t have a good life-condition.


However, what followed was amazing. A reporter from Zaluus.com website tracked the photo, found him and did an interview. The interview dives deep into their world as soon as it published, the society approves that together we have power over poverty. Their lives were turned upside down. Ankhbayar spent his days wandering, rummaging through the garbage bins in the street, picking up plastic bottles and aluminium cans with his 5-year-old son, Bat-Erdene, in the area called Modny 2 in Ulaanbaatar's Bayangol district. Collecting and redeeming recyclables is their go-to method of income.


About 20,000 people collect recyclables in Mongolia, according to the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. Mongolia accounts for 1.4 million tons of secondary recycling, as of 2018, and is home to 16 waste recycling factories and 206 locations for collecting recyclables. The industry employs about 20 thousand Mongolians. When Munkhgerel.D saw the article about the father and son, she realized that she had run into them before.


“On a spring day of last year, I came across a father and son who carried a plastic bag over the shoulders," she recalled. "When I passed them, the son said that ‘I am tired, Dad!’ and the father was quickly digging through his large bag filled with plastic bottles and found a soda bottle with few sips left, and gave it to his son. The son said that ‘I am not tired anymore,’ and smiled at his dad. So I can clearly remember them because they made a deep impression.” After that, she wanted to help them, and shared the article with an acquaintance who is a director of the Wedding House in Ulaanbaatar, and asked her to help them to make the man's dreams come true, because seeing his wife in a wedding dress was his unfulfilled dream.


Ankhbayar had mentioned that "I want to see my wife with a wedding dress, but a man like me couldn’t bear the cost of marriage and its ceremony in the Wedding House." Even if he couldn't afford a ceremony, "at least, I would love to take a picture with my wife in a wedding dress,” he said. After the story was shared on the internet, the wedding house in the Bayangol district in Ulaanbaatar agreed to conduct their marriage. A restaurant covered all the costs of the wedding feast and a woman in Darkhan city offered to give her wedding dress to Tumengerel, Ankhbayar’s wife. It was the happiest Ankhbar had been in years. Five years ago, lots of happy things occurred in his life. He met his future wife — Tumengerel — married her and became a father. At that time, the Mongolian government used to gave 500 thousand tugriks for newly married couples, and also gave one million tugriks for selling their stocks of Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi. It was enough money to buy new ger (a traditional Mongolian yurt) to start a new life in someone’s yard near the bazaar market Narantuul in Ulaanbaatar.


Ariuntuya.A, a security guard in the Bazaar market Narantuul recalled seeing the happy family.


“ I don’t know much about these people, don’t even know their name," he said. "But they are already recognizable for me. Every day they pass through here, looked so happy with hanging together, laughing each other.” But soon after, they lost all their belongings due to fires involving electrical failures. It wasn’t the first time life had hit him hard. Due to a brain stroke at the age of 4, his right-hand fingers numbed and he lost functional movement. Illiterate and dealing with health issues, he tried almost every possible job from a carrier of heavy cement bags at a construction side to security guard at a night club, But all of them ended up unhappily, and he said they never paid him what he had earned.


His bad news was compounded when his wife was diagnosed with brain cancer. His daily income of $3 is barely enough to cover her medicines and their food. “I wish I had enough money to buy candies for my son," he said anxiously while his son Bat-Erdene was playing his broken bicycles in next to tattered yurts). "He [Bat-Erdene] must be enrolled in a primary school next year. We were planning to send him to join preschool education in this year, but we could afford to buy learning toolkit required by kindergarten and didn’t know where to get medical checks.”


When Ankhbayar saw his son, his fretful face changed to a proud smile.


“I bought this second-hand bike with 10 days' income because he was always talking about that if he had a bike, he would go to kindergarten by his bicycle," the father recalled. "My son talks about becoming a policeman when he grows up. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a policeman too. I can't because I'm not literate. I always worried about my son being illiterate, just like me. ” Even though life is hard for him, Ankhbayar never copes with his stress by drinking alcohol. A security guard in black-market named Ariuntuya mentioned that she has never seen him as drunk.


“For me, they seem to try hard for achieving a better life," Ariuntuya said to a reporter. "I know he used to try to sell every kind of stuff including phone cases, deodorant for car cabins, snacks and tobacco and so on. But I have never seen him as drunk."

Ankhbayar is part of a sub-strata of society in Mongolia, almost all of them in its biggest city. According to a government survey, 1,375 people live their lives while wandering, trying to make ends meet through recycling or petty sales of merchandise. Most of them are suffering from alcoholism and 300 of them had no homes, according to 2018 statistics. Of the 1,000 homeless people registered in the nation's social welfare system, half of them are addicted to alcohol, according to the recent survey made by Ulaanbaatar’s labor and welfare service agency.


Ankhbayar's diligent attitude in the battle of life touched many people, and society turned into a Genie, a jinn in Arabian tale “A Thousand and One Nights,” who helped make people’s wishes come true. The district's mayor contributed to enroll Bat-Erdene in kindergarten, paid their registration, and provided them with national ID cards. The General Head of the National Emergency Management Agency of Mongolia hired Ankhbayar as a security guard.


A non-government organization dedicated to reducing violence against children raised a donation of 4 million MNT to supply Bat-Erdene with an affordable home and bought a new ger and yard for them. They also received services for managing their wedding like free make-up, beauty services, photography and video shooting, free clothing, bedding, and more.


Note: Part of this article was initially published on the mglzone.com in Mongolia by an unknown reporter and was later translated into English by Narantungalag Enkhtur, with additional editing by Rick Dunham.


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