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

No Easy Fix for Tajik Migrants' Problems

Analysts say more must be done to look after the rights of Tajiks who go off to work in Russia.
By Lola Khalikjanova
While a new framework agreement on labour migration agreed by former Soviet states is a positive step, experts say Tajikistan and Russia must do more to protect the rights of vulnerable expatriates working in Russia.

The declaration, which commits members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS, to coordinate policy to protect migrant workers travelling between them, was issued by the presidents of the grouping’s 11 states when they met in the Tajik capital Dushanbe on October 5.

The 11 full members of the CIS are Russia, four of the five Central Asian republics (Turkmenistan has only associate status), all three countries of the south Caucasus, and Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.

Although analysts interviewed by IWPR welcomed the migration agreement, most said that in the case of workers from Tajikistan, neither Moscow nor Dushanbe was ready or willing to resolve all the problems once and for all.

Under the declaration, CIS members will coordinate their migration policies to guarantee their citizens the freedom to travel, live and work in other member states, and will take action to prevent discrimination against them. Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev noted afterwards that participating states had agreed to set up a database to monitor the supply and demand of migrant labour, according to the RIA Novosti news agency.

The issue of rights for labour migrants is, as Russian president Vladimir Putin pointed out, a “sensitive issue” for the former Soviet countries. Economic growth has made Russia and increasingly Kazakstan destinations for workers from the poorer Central Asian states.

Tajikistan, in particular, experiences an annual seasonal exodus of men looking for manual jobs and higher earnings than they could ever earn at home, where unemployment rates are high and wages low. According to official statistics, average pay in Tajikistan is 30 to 35 US dollars a month, whereas in Russia a skilled worker can earn 300 dollars or more.

Official figures from the Tajik authorities say more than 400,000 Tajiks go off to work in Russia every year, while at least 100,000 more head for Kazakstan. Seasonal fluctuations in the data and the large number of illegal migrants lead some experts to suggest the number of Tajik migrants in Russia is closer to one million – a seventh of the entire population.

Since April, Russia has imposed tougher immigration rules, setting a quota for workers coming into the country, banning them from working as market traders, and making employers more responsible for ensuring that those they hire have legal status.

Some analysts in Tajikistan welcomed the new CIS declaration as a step in the right direction.

“The decision adopted at the summit has formalised the common interest that all CIS countries have in the labour migration issue,” said political analyst Rashid Abdullo. “It represents a substantial step towards finding an appropriate solution to the problem at an official level,”

However, Abdullo added that solutions were likely to take time

Political analyst Parviz Mullojanov said neither Russia nor Tajikistan was currently prepared to deal with the consequences of proper regulation, and despite the latest CIS declaration of intent, little of substance was likely to be agreed for some time to come.

“Russia is not currently ready to accord legal status to the full number of foreign immigrants, as it would then be required to grant all of them the full range of benefits, which would be a burden on its national budget,” he said. “So no real progress should be expected in the near future.”

Nor is Tajikistan in a position to cope if the flow of workers is subject to stringent regulation, as this will almost certainly mean a fall in overall numbers as the “illegals” are weeded out. The country is unusually dependent on workers sending back money to support their families. World Bank figures suggest these remittances are equivalent to 35 per cent of Tajikistan’s gross domestic product.

Political analyst Firuz Saidov insists that the vital economic contribution made by Tajikistan’s migrants should force their government to lobby on their behalf.

“The challenge for the Tajik government is to show them they are not abandoned and it does cares about its citizens. It has to do this because it’s the migrants who provide economic stability for the country,” he said.

Muzaffar Zaripov, director of the Tajikistan office of the International Organisation for Migration, IOM, argues that Moscow, too, has plenty of reasons to take positive action. He cited the tighter regulations introduced earlier this year which brought many Tajik migrants into the legal economy in Russia and cut the influx of illegals.

Zaripov would now like to see Russia introducing even tougher legislation governing domestic employers, although he does not recommend simply fining them because that may simply prompt them to shed their illegal staff in order to evade punishment. Then it is the worker, not the company, that suffers. “He is deported, loses his job, and gets none of the wages he was due,” explained the IOM official.

Another important issue that Zaripov would like to see Moscow tackling more robustly is the rising wave of xenophobia, which leaves people from Central Asia and the Caucasus vulnerable to discrimination and racist attacks. He would like to see the authorities taking action against media outlets that encourage xenophobic attitudes among Russians.

“Every time people talk about labour migration, they mention Tajiks first and foremost. That is very bad…. The level of xenophobia increases because [false] information is circulated in the Russian media,” he said.

One group who have definitely lost out from the changes that Moscow has already made are people who have been deported for breaching immigration rules. Once deported, they cannot re-enter Russia for five years. As IWPR reported in June (Tajik Migrants Fleeced by Shady Travel Firms, RCA No. 498, 22-June-07), some of those who end up being deported have been duped by intermediaries who promised to get them legal status.

Earlier this year, Dushanbe asked Moscow to “amnesty” as many as 50,000 people who had been deported, but Russia’s migration agency said each case would need to be reviewed individually, meaning the process was likely to take a long time.

Mullojanov doubts Moscow will offer such an amnesty.

“It would be quite possible from a technical point of view, because the total number of deported Tajik nationals is not large. However, such a move would create a precedent that the Russians are unlikely to accept at present,” he said.

Zaripov agrees that Russia could review these cases, but warns that “this would be a very laborious task – they would have to decide on each case individually, and there are some cases where the deportation itself was conducted in an illegal manner”.

Abdullo suggests another reason why no action is likely to be taken in the short term – Russia is now focusing on its December parliamentary election and a presidential ballot next March, and the campaign period is not a good time to be raising a thorny issue like immigration.

“The authorities there are campaigning for votes, and a significant proportion of the Russian electorate is against immigrants of any kind,” he said.

Lola Khalikjanova and Aslibegim Manzarshoeva are IWPR contributors in Dushanbe.

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