Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kazakstan' Africans Fight for Residence Rights
Malian citizen Idrissa Traore is locked in a legal battle with Kazakstan’s immigration service, which he accuses of imposing an unlawful fine on him and threatening to deport him if he does not pay up.
Traore’s ground-breaking decision to take on the migration police last autumn rather than give in was sufficiently unusual for the popular Vremya newspaper to write a story on it in December.
His case sounds like that of a recent immigrant to Kazakstan, but in fact Traore has been there for 20 years, since he was studying veterinary medicine in what was then the Soviet Union.
He is one of around 200 people of African origin who stayed on in Kazakstan after they finished studying at universities there and found themselves in a newly independent country. Despite their long residence in the country, many complain of difficulties which make their legal status uncertain.
Traore obtained full residence rights in 2004, but after applying for an extension to his permit in August, he was told nothing would happen until he paid an outstanding fine of 100 US dollars, imposed in 2007 because he was found to be living and working in the capital Astana, instead of the city of Almaty where he normally resides.
He insists he paid the fine at the time, even though officials claim they have no record of this.
More to the point, however, he should never have been fined in the first place, as foreigners with permanent residence are not subject to restrictions on where they live.
With his application for renewal of residency pending, Traore cannot work. Nor does he have his passport, as he had to submit that with his application.
Traore has taken legal action against the immigration police for imposing an unlawful penalty and depriving him of opportunities to earn a living, and has also asked the prosecution service to look into his claim that a migration official threatened to “find a reason to take his residence permit away”.
“It’s now a matter of principle for me. I am not going to pay anything,” he told IWPR, adding that he cannot go on accepting a situation where “there is no freedom of movement or of choice of workplace”.
Victoria Tuleneva is a lawyer with the Kazakstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, which is assisting with Traore’s case. She says he is quite right to insist he is not liable to a fine.
She argues that the police are treating Traore as if he were a foreign national staying on a visa – in which case his movements would be restricted – when he is in fact a permanent resident and therefore enjoys the same freedom of movement as a Kazakstan national, and is not required to register with the local authorities.
The official who has been dealing with Traore’s case, Aykeldy Asanov, deputy head of the migration police in Almaty, insisted foreigners were required to register. “They need to obey this rigorously,” he said. “If they don’t like it, they’re welcome to renounce it [residence rights].”
Asanov did not deal with the question of whether the fine was legal, and further calls to the migration police on this issue did not elicit a response.
Other Africans living in Kazakstan say they experience the same kind of difficulties when seeking the right to remain.
Lamin Bangura, a Sierra Leonean who chairs the Union of Africans in Kazakstan, is supporting Traore and says he himself has had similar problems with his residence permit in the past.
“This has been going on for years,” he said. “It’s as if the migration police deliberately think up ways to torment us when it’s time to extend our resident permits. When you bring them one document, they ask for another one, even though it isn’t legally required.”
Bangura said Africans faced discrimination, claiming that “people of other nationalities simply get their extension without any hassle. But we’re like outcasts.”
As a result, he said, Africans were left feeling they did not belong and that officials would rather they left the country.
“Where are we to go?” he asked. “We are married with children and we have jobs.”
Francis, originally from Ghana, said corruption played a large part – police were prepared to ignore violations in return for a bribe.
“Sometimes I think they created this system especially so as to milk Africans for money, like cows,” he said. “Once they get their money, they turn a blind eye and wait until milking time comes round again.”
Tuleneva said she did not think Africans were being singled out for this kind of treatment – in fact it happened to all immigrants.
“These are not isolated cases; they reflect the relationship between migration police and immigrants, and are typical of most of the ethnic groups who make up the immigrant community.”
According to the United Nations agency UNESCO, there are anywhere between 300,000 and one million migrants in Kazakstan, most of them seasonal workers from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Denis Dzhivaga, coordinator of a legal aid programme with the Kazakstan office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, says immigrants are seen as easy prey by corrupt police officers, not least because the former are often ignorant of their rights under the law.
“The migration police currently view migrants primarily as a source of income,” he said. “That leads them to interpret the law however they see fit.”
Following the publicity given to Traore’s case, the police indicated that his application for an extended residence permit might be approved, but for the moment the process is stalled for what they say are technical reasons.
Traore said he would like to see the immigration authorities adopt a different attitude, although people in his position are not asking for much.
“Even if they don’t feel at home, at least let them work legally, and live here legally without fearing that someone’s going to tell them they’re working illegally,” he said. “At any moment someone can ask them, “What are you doing here?’”
Andrei Grishin is a journalist and staff member with the Kazakstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law.
This article was produced under IWPR’s Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media programme, funded by the European Commission. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight