Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Economic Migrants Flock to Kazakstan

Almaty struggles to stem the flow of economic migrants into the country.
By IWPR Central Asia

Outside Almaty, a cluster of summer houses are home to unwelcome guests - illegal migrants from Tajikistan who travel to Almaty for work.

The economic migrants are drawn to Kazakstan because jobs - in tobacco, rice and cotton plantations and construction sites - are more plentiful and better paid than in other, poorer Central Asian states.

Kazak employers are keen to use the illegal labour force because it's cheap. Uzbeks, in particular, are in demand because they have a reputation for being hardworking and disciplined.

One local Almaty entrepreneur said he hired eight Uzbek building workers to build a car-wash, after local construction companies quoted him the $10,000 for the job. " They're good workers and they don't drink or smoke, " he said. " When they go home, they'll live happily for a year on what they earned here. I paid each of them $100 per month. And they finished the job in five months. "

The promise of decent wages is not the only lure. Unlike other Central Asian states, Kazakstan is relatively stable, offering a safe haven for those caught up in local conflicts, such as Kyrgyz from the strife-torn Batken region. "I've been here two months and rent a room in a village, " said a bed-linen saleswoman." By Kyrgyz standards, I make a good living here."

The influx of foreigners is only half the problem. Kazaks from the provinces are migrating in large numbers to the cities in search of work. "There is no work in my village - half of what I earn I send home, " said a day labourer from the village of Narikol, whose been working illegally in Almaty for eight months. " My dream is to buy a flat in Almaty. You can actually earn a living here."

It's thought there are up to 20,000 provincial workers in Almaty - most don't even have a temporary work permit. Usually, they live in the suburbs, in dormitories, rented rooms or in holiday homes in surrounding villages. They often have a support network waiting for them - villagers who moved to the city several years before.

Some experts say that unless a viable programme of support and development for small towns and villages is not worked out in the future, the migration of rural people to the cities is likely to significantly increase.

Meanwhile, the number of Kazaks who've decided to leave the country to find work is increasing. Some try the legal route: 36 Kazak companies have been licensed to export labour abroad - and many of them end up being exploited.

According to one newspaper report, 60 people sent by an employment agency to work in sawmills in the northern Russian republic of Yakutia found themselves treated little better than slaves. After months of hard labour, they earned nothing.

Others take the illegal option, using tourist visas to go abroad. A labourer from Kaskalen who worked on a farm in Germany for six months said this sort of employment was lucrative - but not easy to find. "I followed the advice of a German friend, " he said. " I earned $2000, and I'm planning to go back. But if you don't have connections, it's impossible to find work here."

Up to 100,000 Kazaks emigrate every year. Popular destinations include Germany, South Korea, Israel and Europe. Over half head for the Russian Federation, ending up in large economic centres along the border: Astrakhan, Saratov, Samara, Orenburg, Omsk, Novosibirsk.

The more pressing problem for Kazakstan, however, is the foreign migrants turning up in the country. Political experts warn that unless the problem is brought under control, it could become one of Kazakstan's biggest geo-political problems in the near future.

One fear is that some of the migrants may bring with them the religious extremism that's been destabilising their neighbours.

For the moment though, Kazak officials seem incapable of shoring up their porous borders. Last year, the authorities tried to halt the influx by putting a stop to Uzbek and Tajik trains passing through Kazakstan, but to little avail.

Kazak interior ministry official Sakhimbek Kairbekov points out that there is only one highway into Kazakstan, but plenty of alternatives. "If someone needs to get past a checkpoint, he just treks around it."

Eduard Poletaev is IWPR contributor in Almaty