Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kazak Poor Resent Tajik Influx
Springtime brings out the beggars in Kazakstan - many of them gypsies who journey from impoverished Tajikistan and generate huge sums for the protection rackets that police them.
The gypsies, known as lyuli, first appeared on the streets of Kazak cities during the1992-1997 civil war in Tajikistan and have continued to return, as if migrating for seasonal work, every year.
There are around 2,000 of them in Almaty - many of them adolescents and toddlers - who pay protection money to the groups that control the business.
"My mum died and dad dumped me. I have to beg to earn my keep - and I have to give a big lump of what I earn to the 'bosses' - otherwise they might drive me away from this place," said seven-year-old Said from Dushanbe.
Every evening, collectors come by car to areas where the beggars operate to gather their cut.
"We've got a strict hierarchy in our business and everything's carried out in accordance with a strict plan," said one of the protection gang. " There are people who collect the tax from the lyuli, and that money is then taken to the bosses - and they pay us."
One of the collectors, Makhmud, told IWPR that in a country where the average wage is 100 US dollars a month, he took about the same amount in a day. "It's like that almost every day. Sometimes it's a little less. I have to give my boss the money and then he gives me a cut, " he said.
"I've got an apartment, a car now. And I'm just a humble 'tax' collector."
Not all Almaty beggars are part of the protection rackets. There are locals - pensioners, single mothers and disabled - who are genuinely in the grip of poverty. There are few social assistance programmes for these people, and they have to fend for themselves.
"I worked for 40 years at a factory, saved up some money and put it in an investment fund at the beginning of Perestroika. After a while it disappeared and I was left with nothing. For years I've been living on whatever good people will give me," said one pensioner.
The economic crisis has impoverished the majority of the population, and many people have been without work for years. Recently, Almaty residents have begun to give to beggars selectively, with priority given to victims of the Afghan war and desperate locals.
"If there weren't so many lyuli begging in Almaty, then the majority of people would gladly help us," said another pensioner. "The Tajiks (as the locals refer to luyli) will get by anyway, because they're very close to each other and supportive, and they don't need help as badly as we do. For them it's a business.
"We don't want to make lots of money, all we need is just enough to buy bread. We're trapped. We go begging because we know that if we don't we'll simply die. You can't compare us with the Tajiks. They're all rich, only looking poorer when they go out to work."
While local beggars spend most of their time sitting in the street, the lyuli walk into buildings, knocking on the doors of apartment blocks.
"You give them 10 or 20 tenge (13 cents) and they say that's not enough. They want more - 100 to 200 tenge," said one resident. " If you give all of them that much, you'll go broke!"
"Once I gave them 20 tenge, as I didn't have a lot of money on me. One of the women threw the money back at me and demanded more. I don't open the door to them anymore," said another.
Timur Jagiparov is an IWPR contributor
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight