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Kazakstan: Migrant Workers Face Deportation

Illegal immigrants are being rounded up only weeks after a controversial campaign offering them work permits.
By Olga Dosybieva
Kazakstan has followed a campaign to legalise labour migrants with a large police operation to identify and deport those who could not or would not take advantage of the scheme.

Like Russia, Kazakstan is a net importer of labour from the poorer Central Asia republics, and for years they have lived in the grey economy, receiving no formal rights or benefits and paying no taxes.

Last year’s legalisation scheme was designed to clear up the ambiguity. From August, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were able to apply for temporary residence papers and work permits.

The scheme closed on December 31 with the authorities saying an impressive 164,586 CIS citizens had received work permits. The largest number, more than 71 per cent, were from Uzbekistan, with Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan comprising the rest.

However, those who didn’t register last year now face deportation. Operation Migrant began immediately after the legalisation campaign ended with the Almaty police conducting raids on city markets, train stations and building sites. It’s not yet clear how many have been deported but at one market police filled two buses with illegal immigrant in just two hours.

Political analyst Eduard Poletaev told IWPR that the Kazak government is cracking down on labour migrants for economic reasons. “Control over migrants has been increased because the Kazakstan authorities are concerned that if the economic situation in neighbouring countries worsens - and given the fact that Kazakstan's economy is developing thanks to oil dollars - an increasing number of migrants may come to Kazakstan, which may cause chaos on the labour market,” he said.

But some who failed to register and are now vulnerable to deportation insist it wasn’t their fault they didn’t get work permits. They say their employers hindered the registration process, preferring that they work illegally - a claim confirmed by one businessman in the building sector.

He says law enforcement and other officials in Kazakstan often demand bribes from businesses that employ illegal workers but says that’s cheaper than paying taxes.

“I gladly hire illegal immigrants,” he said. “Firstly, they work better than the locals, and for much less money. Secondly, hiring these people allows me to avoid paying a certain amount of money in taxes. If I paid the full amount, I would have to close my firm.”

Alimbek, a Kyrgyz who works at a building site in Almaty, says the only migrants legalised during the recent campaign were the ones permitted to do so by their employers.

“We have no rights, our employers or the police can take our documents,” he said. “We try not to show ourselves in public places, to avoid being detained, or because we are simply scared of humiliation and beatings. None of us can complain to the authorities. We only get medical aid in extreme cases. Many illegal immigrants don't even know the word contract.”

Only those with permanent contracts were allowed to register for work permits, meaning some like Mukhitdin, who came to Almaty from Samarkand and sends money home to his wife and five children, failed to get one, because they only had temporary jobs during the registration period.

And there were other blips as authorities tried to extort bribes at a local level. The news agency Inforbyuro reported that in the Aktyubinsk region in the northwest, immigration officials colluded with notaries, telling those seeking permits that they must first have their employment contracts certified. This was untrue but netted notaries an illegal three million tenge (23,500 US dollars), a portion of which they are suspected of sharing with the immigration officials.

Red tape slowed down the registration process, according to the Aktyubinsk prosecutor's office, and left many who should have qualified without a work permit when the legalisation scheme ended.

Some, however, say they prefer their illegal status because they don’t have to pay any tax. Labour migrants with work permits earn about 26,700 tenge (200 dollars) per month in Astana but up to 20 per cent of that is lost through tax.

But though they may be better off financially, illegal workers lead precarious lives. Conditions for them are often difficult and dangerous, as highlighted by a recent court case in Aktobe. Inforbyuro reported that 18 illegal workers were allegedly enslaved, beaten and raped at a private bathhouse in the city. The owner is now on trial at the Aktobe city court on charges of human trafficking, illegal exploitation and the mistreatment.

Meanwhile, in Mangistau, in the west, police uncovered a human trafficking ring from Uzbekistan and the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan. Over 150 women were allegedly brought to Aktau on the Caspian shore over a one-year period, promised work as waitresses and dishwashers. Instead, their documents were taken and they were put to work as prostitutes.

For 20-year-old Yusuf Zhumanov, the price he paid for working illegally was high. He came from Bukhara to Shymkent and worked on a building site, living on the streets. He says he wasn’t paid and lost both his feet to frostbite in the winter, because he couldn’t afford warm clothing and footwear.

Whether further legalisation campaigns to help workers like Zhumanov will follow is unclear, but what is certain is that the financial benefits to the Kazak economy of more legal workers paying taxes is huge. The government says around 2 million labour migrants came to the country last year compared with just 200,000 two years ago. Budget revenue from taxes from the legalisation campaign alone will exceed one billion tenge.

“In 2007, tax revenues from the salaries of legalised foreign labour migrants will be over 340 million tenge a month, or over 4 billion tenge a year,” said the deputy ministry of internal affairs, Alik Spekbaev, at a press conference in Astana.

The director of the Kazakstan Human Rights Bureau agrees that legalisation is a “step forward” but warns that the problem of illegal migrants is a complicated one to tackle - and not only in Kazakstan.

“Unfortunately, the problem of labour migrants has not yet been solved in any country in the world,” said Evgeny Jovtis.

“It is a long time before we can talk about solving the problem, given the transparency of the borders, especially the southern borders, and the discrepancy in legislation among Central Asian countries on this issue, and the lack of clear agreements between governments.

“I think that a solution to the problem is not legislation in one country - but legislation across the CIS. It is an issue of agreements between nations on regulating the flows of labour.”

Olga Dosybieva is an IWPR reporter in Almaty.

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