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

Kyrgyzstan: Illegal Migrants Head for UK

Bishkek government struggling to stop thousands making risky trip to Britain for illegal work.
By Gulnura Toralieva

“I have two children both enrolled in university this year, and that requires a lot of money – so I had to go to England. In Russia and Kazakstan, you can’t earn that much, and [immigration] controls are very strict there now. But no one checks up on you in England, the main thing is not to cause a fuss and be noticed by the police.”


Sabira Musurmankulova recently returned to Kyrgyzstan after nine months working illegally in Britain. According to recent reports in the Kyrgyz press, she was in good company, with some 10,000 other Kyrgyz citizens currently doing just the same.


Their journey is made easier by a combination of disreputable travel agencies and a lack of mechanisms available to the Kyrgyz government to monitor the movement of economic migrants outside the former communist bloc.


For many, like Musurmankulova, such trips serve as an opportunity to find relatively high-paid work and send money to family members back home.


But those working illegally abroad are also vulnerable to exploitation, and if things go wrong they find themselves with little support.


Many who wish to leave Kyrgyzstan to find work do so with the help of travel agencies who are experienced at dodging visa regulations. A common method of these agencies is to strike deals with people residing in Britain who are prepared to issue private invitations, pretending to be friends or relatives of the prospective visitor, in return for a fee.


Musurmankulova told IWPR that prior to her own trip, she paid 2,000 US dollars to one such agency to organise a letter inviting her to Britain and a further 1,000 dollars for them to obtain the visa itself.


“The price also included three nights in a hotel and someone from the firm to meet me in England,” she added.


Once there, friends in London helped her find a job. “For the first month, I worked as a cleaner at a hotel but I only received pennies. Then I found a job as a waitress, a salesperson in a shop, and finally at a factory where I packed cartons,” she said.


By the time she returned home, Musurmankulova had earned 6,000 dollars, 5,000 of which she spent on presents for her relatives.


Another Kyrgyz citizen - who is still in Britain and asked to be identified only as Kurman - told IWPR that when he decided to travel to the country three years ago, he too did so with the help of a travel agency.


In his case, the agency organised an invitation for him from a college in Britain where he would supposedly study when he arrived.


But on arrival, rather than attending the college, Kurman found work. “My visa expired two years ago,” he told IWPR. “Now I work at a factory and earn good money.”


Karina also managed to stay on in Britain, having arrived on a student visa. “I extend my visa every time by joining some English courses and paying for them,” she told IWPR. “When I receive a document from them saying that I will continue my studies, it is quite easy for me to extend my visa.”


Having legally lengthened her stay in this way, she added, it was easy to dodge work regulations and save enough to send money home. “As a student I am officially allowed to work four hours a day, but no one checks up on me,” she told IWPR. “ I work day and night, then I send the money I earn to my parents who are not able to fully provide for their family. I have another three sisters in Kyrgyzstan who haven’t finished school.”


Bulat Sarygulov, deputy director of the migration department at the Kyrgyz foreign ministry, told IWPR that the government tries to regulate firms that help send Kyrgyz citizens abroad to work.


But he admitted they didn’t have information about the number of migrants working in Britain or about their living conditions. Because of a lack of relevant agreements with countries outside the CIS, he said, there is no way of keeping track of those who leave the former communist bloc to work.


Vasily Kravtsov, deputy head of the ministry’s foreign labour migration department, confirmed this difficulty. While his department is currently trying to prevent illegal migration to Kazakstan and Russia, he said, financial problems and the vast distance involved means they are “simply unable” to keep track of people travelling to Britain. Many illegal migrants are hard to detect because they make the trip via Kazakstan, Russia and Uzbekistan, he added.


One solution, he agreed, would be for the Kyrgyz government to organise deals providing rights for its citizens to work legally in other countries.


Under the current system, however, other government departments appear to be even more in the dark. When IWPR spoke to Altynai Sulaimanova, head of the department for illegal emigration and human trafficking, part of the prime minister’s office, she appeared unaware of the phenomenon of economic migration from Kyrgyzstan to Britain.


“Only students go to Britain, in order to continue their study there,” she said. “If they work there, that can be a good thing… students work all over the world. But I haven’t heard about older people going to Britain to earn money, we don’t have any information about that.”


In the meantime, thousands continue to face the risks associated with working illegally abroad – risks increased by the fact that the disreputable travel agencies they use often abandon their clients, leaving them to try and find work on their own.


“Of course, we are not protected in any way,” said Musurmankulova. “We are often not paid for our work or we are fired, and sometimes we have nowhere to live. But we don’t have the right to complain, since we’re there illegally…. we would be the first to be arrested… But what can we do? We have to feed our children!”


Gulnura Toralieva is an IWPR correspondent in Bishkek.