Mongolia grapples with swelling slums as migrant workers in search of better life flock to city

Boys climb a fence in one of Ulaanbaatar's suburbs in Mongolia.
Boys climb a fence in one of Ulaanbaatar's suburbs in Mongolia.PHOTO: NYTIMES

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia (NYTIMES) - The land beneath Ms Dolgor Dashnyam's home is wet and gritty and smells of decay. Here, atop one of Ulan Bator's largest landfills, Ms Dashnyam lives under a roof made of soggy mattresses.

She spends her days rummaging through piles of gin bottles and discarded animal bones, picking up pieces of scrap metal to sell in order to buy water and bread.

Ms Dashnyam, 55, was once an ambitious college graduate who dreamed of owning a farm and getting rich. But a scarcity of affordable housing has pushed her and thousands of low-income residents to the fringes of Ulan Bator, the city of 1.4 million that is Mongolia's capital, where they struggle for basic necessities like food and clean water.

"Nobody cares about us," said Ms Dashnyam, who makes about US$3 (S$4) a day and says she has been unable to obtain government-subsidised housing. She was laid off from a job in farming. "We don't exist."

Hundreds of thousands of people have flocked to Ulan Bator in recent years, drawn by the promise of high-paying jobs and a path to the middle class. Many are fleeing harsh conditions in the countryside brought on by climate change, with droughts and bitter winters devastating fields and livestock.

But city life has grown increasingly bleak. While luxury high-rises are plentiful along sleek downtown streets, affordable housing is scarce.

Homelessness is rising, advocates for the poor say, as an economic slowdown hurts jobs and wages. Pollution is worsening, and access to public resources like electricity and sewers is strained.

Ulan Bator, nestled in a valley about 4,400 feet above sea level, was never designed to house more than a few hundred thousand residents. Now it is on course to expand indefinitely, raising fears that the government may not be able to keep up with the influx of migrants.


City officials, citing concerns about a lack of space at schools and an overburdened welfare system, said this year that Ulan Bator would not accept any more rural migrants. The government has cautioned against constructing homes in some areas because of the dangers of overcrowding.

Still, many Mongolians are defiant.

On craggy hillsides and rocky plains, they are setting up makeshift shacks and gers, or yurts, the traditional homes of Mongolian nomads.

On a secluded hill in northern Ulan Bator, Ms Enkh-amgalan Tserendorj, 50, washed clothes outside the family yurt, where she and her husband have lived since last year. Ms Tserendorj said she did not want to live so far from downtown but had no choice.

Under Mongolian law, citizens are entitled to claim small plots of land of about 7,500 square feet, leaving many people struggling to find attractive spaces.

"It's unfair," she said. "Every good piece of land is occupied."

Ms Tserendorj's 26-year-old son has tuberculosis, and she said the family's isolation had made it difficult to find proper medical care. She said she was also concerned by a lack of reliable electricity and the threat of natural disasters like landslides.

Ulan Bator's government has vowed to invest billions in affordable housing by 2030 and to begin transforming several yurt districts into residential complexes. The government hopes to have 70 per cent of its citizens living in apartments by 2030, compared with about 40 per cent right now. The city's population is estimated to increase to 1.6 million by 2020, and 2.1 million by 2030, from 1.4 million in 2015.

But advocates say the government's housing plan falls short. And some worry that the city does not do enough to protect residents who are forced by the government to leave their homes to make way for new construction.

"Families are living in fear that they will be left homeless," said Mr Nicholas Bequelin, the East Asia director for Amnesty International in Hong Kong. "The authorities are falling short in their responsibilities to protect residents' rights."


Climate change has added to the pressure to resolve the housing crisis. Mongolia has been particularly hard hit, with a series of devastating droughts. Temperatures are also on the rise; this summer was the hottest in more than a half-century.

Mr Gandavaa Mandakh, a former herder, moved to Ulan Bator three years ago from a town in southern Mongolia after losing dozens of cows, camels, goats and sheep during harsh winters.

Mr Mandakh, 38, now works as a taxi driver; his wife works as a cook at a Korean restaurant. They have three children and earn about US$500 per month.

"Of course, we have many problems here," he said, noting the city's bad traffic and overcrowded schools. "But it's still better than staying in the countryside."

In a yurt a few miles away, Ms Dolgorsuren Sosorbaram, 59, a retired private business owner and a lifelong resident of Ulan Bator, said she had grown tired of rampant air pollution, which can reach hazardous levels in the winter. She said that life in the city was becoming too difficult and that the government should do more to encourage residents to work in the countryside.

"There's no more space here," Ms Sosorbaram said as she yanked stalks of flowering yellow wormwood from the ground outside her home. "It's time for us to return to our roots in the countryside."

While Ulan Bator once offered the promise of riches, a sharp economic slowdown has brought fresh anxiety. Mongolia's economy, which depends heavily on mining, was once a darling of global investors, growing by 17.3 per cent in 2011 as commodity prices surged. It has sputtered in recent years, expanding 1 per cent last year and 5.3 per cent in the first half of this year.

Some of Ulan Bator's poorest residents say the slowdown has hurt their earnings and made homeownership a distant dream.


At the Ulaan Chuluut landfill in the northern part of the city, scavengers like Ms Dashnyam have given up hopes of an ordinary life. They wake each morning to the sound of rumbling garbage trucks, chasing after each one with a metal rod in hand to sort through garbage and pick out the most lucrative items, such as cans and pieces of metal.

In May, Ms Dashnyam thought her problems might be solved. Officials who said they represented the General Intelligence Agency of Mongolia showed up at the landfill, saying they would pay several thousand dollars a head if Ms Dashnyam and the other landfill dwellers could locate a stack of documents that had been mistakenly discarded.

After several days of searching, Ms Dashnyam and her friends found the documents. But when the government workers took the files, they paid only a small portion of what they had promised, the scavengers said.

Ms Dashnyam, who has lived at the landfill for several months, said she worried she would be stuck there in the winter in sub-zero temperatures.

"We have no other option," she said. "I just hope I can survive."