Uzbek Government Concerned at Migration
The authorities in Uzbekistan are trying to gather more information about the hundreds of thousands of people who work as migrant labour abroad. Officially, a new registration system is intended to make it easier to help migrants if they get into trouble, but many believe the government is concerned about the exodus of its adult workforce and wants to stem the flow.
Other reasons for keeping tabs on Uzbek citizens abroad are to exert the same kind of political control as they are subject to at home, and also to recover some of the taxes they would have paid if they stayed in Uzbekistan.
A government order dated May 15 has two stated aims – to streamline the registration procedures that would-be migrant workers must go through, and to ensure they are protected once they are out of the country.
A local government official who asked to remain anonymous said the authorities were merely carrying out their responsibility to care for their citizens.
"Our state is still a young one, and we are gradually altering our legislation so that it is on a par with international standards," he said, insisting that "both the country and the people benefit from labour migration”.
Under the new rules, Uzbek nationals planning to leave the country have to fill in a form stating details of their future job and whereabouts. This is a revised version of a document already in existence, although IWPR understands that most people who went through the procedure before the change were travelling to countries outside the former Soviet Union.
The vast majority who went to Russia or Kazakstan simply ignored the requirements. That, however, is likely to change with a range of official and semi-official measures designed to keep a closer eye on the migration flow.
Low salaries and scant job opportunities force many in Uzbekistan to leave the country in search of work. Information from various official sources indicate that around 800,000 people work outside the country – a massive 10 per cent of the total working population. Other estimates put the figure at three million, while some regime insiders say it could be up to five or six million.
The discrepancy is partly attributable to the difficulty of counting migrants, not least because many are “illegals”, and because of seasonal variations in the numbers. Another factor is that for a government which claims economic successes year after year, it is somewhat embarrassing if a major part of the workforce is voting with its feet.
To get a better idea of the figures involved, the government’s statistical agency and the customs committee have been instructed to produce quarterly reports on the number of people moving abroad and their reasons for leaving. Uzbek consulates abroad are also to monitor people’s movements.
Alongside these public measures, the authorities are also using more subtle, covert means of control, using the neighbourhood or “mahallah” committees which the government has turned into the lowest tier of local administration. These pass on information about migrants to the police and according to one mahallah official, the intelligence agency or National Security Service, SNB.
Mahallah staff insist that there are no restrictions, and that the new requirement to register is for the migrants’ own good.
“By all means, go wherever you want,” said one secretary of a mahallah committee, who asked not to be named. “As soon as you settle down, let your family know, so that they can inform us what address you are living at. This is required by the SNB.”
According to one regional governor who asked not to be named, the authorities have recently launched a quiet propaganda campaign through the state-controlled newspapers and television channels to discourage migration.
“These articles are about the difficulties that our fellow-citizens face, and information about the modern slave trade,” he said.
The official contrasted the present situation with the early Nineties, when the propaganda line was all about how well Uzbekistan was doing compared with Russia. “The situation has fundamentally changed,” he said. “Now the authorities have nothing to boast about, so the local media are full of reports about the difficulties that befall our citizens.”
According to former diplomat and analyst Toshpulat Yoldashev, “The presence of five to six million able-bodied, economically active people abroad is the biggest slap in the face to a boastful government which says that everything is fine here when it is not the case.”
He added, “The country has villages where there is no one left to carry the coffin when someone dies. Old men and women have to do it because there are no young men there – they’ve all left.”
Iskandar Khudoiberganov, a political analyst and former director of the Centre for Democratic Initiative, said the government had opted to conduct the anti-migration campaign through covert tactics.
“If the authorities conducted this campaign openly, there would be great anger among the population. So everything is being done very quietly,” he said.
Khudoiberganov believes the government is nervous of having so many Uzbek nationals outside the country and thus beyond its political and security influence.
“I think the authorities are very worried that [Uzbek] citizens are not under their control, and may bring back awkward ideas such as the fact that people live better in Russia, and questions about why we live like this in Uzbekistan,” he said.
Yoldashev added, “They’re gathering information about people who are dissidents and who have left the country…. The government wants to have precise statistics about people who leave the country in order to know who they can put pressure on.”
Another, very practical motive for tracking migration is to increase tax receipts. Estimates of the contribution that migrants make to the economy range between 1.5 and three billion US dollars, but this takes the form of remittances rather than payments to the government budget.
Khudoiberganov believes the authorities want to find a way of recovering the taxes the thousands of workers would have paid had they stayed at home. “Six million people have left the country, in other words people who would have contributed taxes to the state treasury – and that’s a lot of money,” he said.
Like him, Yoldashev believes the registration process is a precursor to taxation. He predicts that the authorities will try to recoup the difference between the 13 per cent income tax people pay in Russia and 28 per cent in Uzbekistan.
But Khudoiberganov warns that imposing taxes on people who have left the country to work will only make people leave permanently – either by acquiring Russian citizenship or by applying for refugee status.
This is already happening, according to one farm manager, who said life in the other former Soviet republics looked increasingly attractive compared with the repressive atmosphere in Uzbekistan.
“They feel themselves beyond the surveillance of the state, and naturally they ask why people can’t live like this in Uzbekistan,” he said. “We all live next door to each other, in countries which at one time were pursuing the same path of development.”
Whatever the authorities do to curb the flow of emigration, Yoldashev says people will continue to go, to escape economic hardship and lack of opportunities.
“It’s practically impossible to stop this process. Whatever the authorities do, people need to eat and you can’t sew their mouths shut,” he said.
“They say that if you can’t give us a decent job with a decent wage… what right have you got to keep us here?”