Blown deeper into shadows: migrant housing and vulnerability in the wake of the Tianjin explosions

It’s been two months since the massive Tianjin explosions. While few clear details have emerged about the causes of the disaster, or who is to blame, reports are hinting at who may have suffered the most, and the news is not surprising:

China’s migrant underclass bears brunt of Tianjin explosions

Migrant workers bear the brunt of blasts in Tianjin

Fireball wrecks migrant worker lives

But beyond the headlines, a few photos, and brief interviews with migrants who fled from collapsing dormitories, it’s difficult to find more details about how Tianjin’s migrant community is coping after the explosions. The official death toll has now settled at 173, but because the Chinese government is known to strictly limit the spread of information, many suspect they may be under-reporting the true depth of the tragedy. Official information about the entire event has been shrouded in mystery, with the families of victims complaining that the government has offered little in the way of answers. What we know from news outlets points to migrant worker housing near the site of the explosion now looking like “crumpled, discarded sweet wrappers”- as evidence that migrants may make up a large proportion of the victims. As is often the case for migrant workers around the world, many lived in informal or unsafe housing, and although the explosion area was relatively unpopulated, those who live nearby happen to be the urban poor. Additionally, while the luxury apartments and buildings in the nearby Binhai New District seemed to be “relatively intact,” the worker housing was flimsy and likely poorly constructed, and was no match to the magnitude of the blast. Many of the migrants who survived, originally from poor rural regions, now face injury or homelessness; the blast has left a total of at least 6,000 people displaced.

The pre-disaster housing situation for migrants in Tianjin, drawn to the city to find work in low-wage jobs, was not unique. Currently more than half of the country’s population lives in cities, a result of a massive rural-to-urban influx in the past few decades. The acceleration of urbanization in China has been an economic engine behind much of the country’s growth – and in Tianjin, approximately 13.2% of the city’s population is temporary. The lack of affordable housing for these migrants poses a major challenge to migrants themselves – and to those who see the future of urbanized China as an indisputably rosy one. While housing shortages and crowding were already problems in China’s cities before the 1990’s, rapid privatization of housing in recent decades has led to increased home ownership and improved living conditions for the wealthy, but also skyrocketing housing prices for low- and middle-income families. Because the government sold off a great deal of public rental housing to private developers at deep discounts, affordable housing has become extremely difficult to come by. The urban poor must make do with informal illegal housing (such as make-shift rooms, basements, and bomb shelters) in order to survive in the city.

Approaches to addressing this housing deficit have yet to benefit poor migrants. Recent attempts by the Chinese government to invest in affordable housing have only targeted those among the poor who possess legal residence in the city, and such efforts largely exclude migrants. Due to the Household Registration or Hukou system, which requires people to obtain local residency in order to live legally in an urban or rural area, many migrants are not entitled to welfare benefits – including social services, free education, and affordable housing. Approximately one-third of urban residents in China lack these legal residency rights. Even in Tianjin, the province with the highest per capita income in the country, large numbers of migrants are forced to live on the margins of society. Various policy changes at the city level across the country, in part driven by demand for labor and therefore need for rural-urban migration, have adjusted the way the Hukou operates, but in Tianjin a migrant possessing a rural Hukou still needs to purchase an urban Hukou in order to be entitled to legal settlement and many of the key social services that local residents receive. In essence, the Hukou provides a way for the government to manage migration without having to execute direct control over mobility- the regulation comes from within, as the social and economic controls of the system prevent migrants from integrating fully into urban society.

Disasters like the Tianjin explosion are enough to knock the already tenuous existence of many migrants off balance. Rapid population growth and density tend to increase vulnerability to disasters, in part because lack of housing forces people to seek out unsafe living conditions, but also because escape routes are few and congestion creates an even greater challenge for those trying to flee. The migrants’ “illegal” status makes it much easier for the government to miscount or hide the true number of casualties when reporting to the world. And now, in the wake of crisis, Tianjin’s poor migrants lack the resources to recover from such a disaster. Many are living in fear and confusion, feeling that no one has taken action to protect them from danger in the wake of the explosions. A Chinese activist even began making her own list of those she believes to be missing, partly in concern that the deaths of migrant workers may be “brushed under the carpet.” And for the migrants who survived, the disaster is far from over.

Although the government has been quick to censor personal online accounts of those who experienced the explosion, some accounts have provided insight before being deleted. In particular, we’re able to learn more about victims’ losing fight to receive more compensation from the government, and perhaps form a better picture of the financial prospects for the urban poor who survived the explosion. According to Foreign Policy, “renters have not received a penny of financial assistance,” as the government has been focused on compensation to homeowners. Amid complaints that the 104 young firefighters killed at the scene of the blast were poorly trained, the government has offered an “unusually large” payout to their families, a likely attempt to avoid criticism. But, as the Wall Street Journal notes, the payout is seen as “instructive of the government’s selective approach to post-disaster settlements.” Migrant renters, with little economic push, social ties or platform for raising dissatisfaction, are easy to leave out of the group selected for a pay-out.

Migrants who have moved to the city often can only afford to live in tiny rooms within apartments that have been subdivided to hold several tenants in one unit. If middle class and even upper-crust homeowners are struggling to find decent housing and express frustration about lack of compensation, renters are likely to be facing a far more desperate situation. Profiles of individual victims illuminate the fact that many experienced loss of valuable belongings in the wake of the disaster, as many were unable to return to their homes while cleaning crews were allowed free reign over the damaged buildings. For a working class person, the theft of cash and personal valuables might have meant the loss of the result of years of difficult work far from family – and loss of any sort of security to fall back on. A temporary resettlement site has been providing emergency services and shelter, but nothing in the way of actual resettlement help. Without family to depend on, as locals could, migrants are left quite powerless.

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