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Tajik Migrants Fleeced by Shady Travel Firms

Taking the bus is the cheapest option for people hoping to earn a living in Russia, but they have little protection from unscrupulous tour organisers.
By Rano Babajanova
Hard-up Tajik labour migrants who choose to travel all the way to Russia by bus are finding that the apparent saving is a false economy. Many report being tricked into parting with money for buses that never materialise and travel documents that turn out to have been forged.



The bus journey to Russia from Tajikistan takes several days and is fraught with difficulties, but at approximately 170 US dollars - around half the price of a plane ticket - many of the thousands of people going to Russia for seasonal work each year are choosing this option.



Depending on the time of year and how the migrants are counted, there are anything between 400,000 and a million or more Tajik nationals working in Russia. Many work on building sites or do other manual work, especially after the Russian authorities banned non-nationals from working as market traders earlier this year. The remittances they send home are a mainstay of Tajikistan’s economy.



Soghd region in the north of Tajikistan has 54 firms which transport migrant workers by bus or even truck. For a fee, private agencies will not only organise the bus trip but also help arrange the necessary travel documents. The buses run from the Soghd region through Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan and then on via Kazakstan to Russia.



Many of the workers have jobs already waiting for them, fixed up by friends or relations already in Russia.



Tajik nationals do not require a visa to enter Russia, although they must carry an immigration card, issued free at border and customs checkpoints.



But some unscrupulous organisers try to cut costs by transporting workers to Russia by illegal routes. They also provide them with fake immigration cards, taking advantage of the fact that many do not speak Russian and have no idea what they are signing.



SENT HOME FOR HAVING THE WRONG PAPERS



Three hundred migrant workers from Tajikistan were caught out by such a company in April this year, when they were deported from Kazakstan on their way to Russia by bus.



Unknown to them, they were given fake ID cards by guide who organised their journey to the Russian border. They were detained by the Kazak authorities for illegally entering that country after police stopped their bus and ran checks on their ID papers.



“The bus conductor and driver clearly decided to save money and avoid paying customs duties, so they took a back route [across the Kazak-Russian border],” commented a businessman in Khujand, who did not want to be named. “Some of them do that to avoid paying customs fees on goods they are taking to Russia.”



Abdusattor, from the village of Chilgazi in the Isfara district of Soghd, was one of the group of 300. He had tried to fly to Siberia, but was unable to find a convenient flight.



“I originally wanted to travel to Novosibirsk by plane, but at the ticket office, I was told that there were no tickets on this route until May 20,” he said.



Abdusattor turned down the ticket office staff’s offer to arrange an earlier flight through a middleman - and for extra cash – and decided to take the bus instead. He sold everything he could to pay for the trip.



A friend recommended an agent in Khujand, the administrative centre of Soghd region, whom Abdusattor paid the equivalent of 150 US dollars to arrange the trip, believing his assurances that the travel documentation would be in order.



But near Kazakstan’s northern border with Russia, border guards at Pavlodar detained the whole group.



“Because of the irresponsibility of our guide… all 300 labour migrants were deported,” said Abdusattor, who is now barred from entering Kazakstan for the next five years.



The organiser had promised the trip would be like “a fairytale”, but this proved far from the truth.



“As soon as you leave the country, people start treating you like a stray dog. The poor passengers get to the border with Russia by changing from one bus to another. Furthermore, they have to cross huge fields and steppe land on foot with large, heavy packs,” said Abdusattor.



TRAVELLERS RECOGNISE THE RISKS



In Khujand, IWPR interviewed travellers about to set off on the long trip to Perm, a Russian city in the Urals mountains. The trip organisers had assured them that they would be allowed into Russia with no problems, but many of the bus’s passengers appeared uncertain what travel documents they needed.



Some thought they should have Russian immigration papers, but did not know how to get them. Abduvoris Eshmatov and Yokubjon Okhunzod said they had heard they would need immigration cards for Russia, but had no idea what they should look like.



At 19, Halim Uzganov was a newcomer to life as a migrant worker, but said he had little choice as he had no opportunities to pursue further education or find employment at home.



“I am going to Russia for the first time, to get a job in Perm. I don’t know what difficulties I’ll face on the journey. But I don’t have any other options,” he said. “I don’t know what barriers the Uzbek, Kazak or Russian border guards and customs officers will create for me, but I have to go to earn money.”



Hojiboy Tojiboev was older and had worked in Tajikistan, but he too felt he had to take the risk and go to Russia.



“I’m a teacher, but the [monthly] salary for that profession in Tajikistan is not enough to feed my family for two days. So I’ve had to force myself to go on this journey to look for work,” he said.



One man, who gave his first name as Izzatullo, was among the many who had opted for the bus to save money. “When spring comes, I face a cash crisis. I’ve been through a lot of hardships, and a plane ticket costs 300 [US] dollars while the bus only costs… half that amount,” he said.



The more experienced travellers had their own horror stories to tell.



Umar Irismatov, said he had had problems several on previous bus journeys. On one occasion, he and 50 others got as far as Uzbekistan travelling in minivans, where they were supposed to get on a bigger bus to Russia. But Uzbek policemen stopped them, carried out a strip search - “the most insulting thing of all”, said Irismatov – and ordered them to return to Tajikistan.



“They stamped our passports and gave us 24 hours to go home. Most of the men did go back and then had to get their [Tajik] passports changed,” he recalled. But he and about 30 others managed to sneak into Kazakstan, where they caught a train to Russia.



“Of course, after these humiliations and difficulties I want to take the train, but that would take a month; you need to book the ticket a month before the train leaves. The work in Russia won’t wait for us, and my family is hungry,” he said.



FRAUDSTERS PICK ON THE UNWARY



Ayubjon Latipov is one of many people who say they have been tricked out of their money by dishonest middlemen.



Friends put him in touch with a man who showed him identification that appeared to prove he worked for a local travel agency which specialises in trips to Tyumen, a city in western Siberia. The man told Latipov and a group of others that all they had to do was sign contracts and they would be taken to Russia both safely and legally.



“When we paid for the journey, we took crowded minibuses through the Batken region [southern Kyrgyzstan, near Tajikistan], and he was supposed to meet us with a bus on the [Kyrgyzstan-]Kazakstan border. When we arrived at the appointed place, he had vanished with the money,” said. Latipov.



It soon transpired that the man was a known fraudster. “At the bus station, they [the travel agency] told us that no such employee worked for them, but that they knew the man and would hand him over to the authorities if he returned to the country,” he said.



Shukhrat Ahmedov, the head of the migration service in Soghd’s regional police department, said dishonest agents and those who tried to cut corners by breaking the rules were the major source of problems for migrants going by bus.



Workers can end up being arrested for crossing the border illegally in neighbouring states when the travel operators take them over international borders along back roads, simply to avoid customs procedures, he explained.



The migrants are forced to trust their drivers and guides, who encourage them to keep quiet when they approach the border.



“When they cross the border, the bus conductors forbid passengers from talking about the real aims of their visit. The passengers have absolutely no rights. How should they know where to get immigration cards and how to tell fake cards from real ones? They are given the cards and they fill them out,” said Ahmedov.



Bus drivers argue in their defence that submitting to border controls can be a tortuous process. Frontier guards go over their vehicles, looking under the upholstery and even in the fuel tank, adding long delays to the journey.



“It is especially difficult to get past Uzbek customs at Oibek checkpoint,”said one driver, Askarali, referring to a crossing point on the Tajik-Uzbek border. “Last time when we were going to Moscow we waited there for 12 hours.”



One reason for these checks is to stop trafficking of illegal narcotics - Central Asia is a major export route for Afghan heroin, whose production is rising year by year.



LACK OF AWARENESS MAKES MIGRANTS EASY PREY



At the end of April, the Soghd regional police ordered local media not to carry advertisements from organisations offering to arrange work trips to Russia.



“These [agents] do not have appropriate licenses,” a source at the police department told IWPR. “For this reason, from now on it will be prohibited to publish such advertisements without the prior permission of the police migration service.”



Some counselling services are available to inform prospective migrants of their rights and the pitfalls that may await them. Zainura Kakharova works as a lawyer at the Regional Information Resource Centre, which provides information on Russia’s immigration and residents regulations in Russian, Tajik and Uzbek and English.



“The migrant workers don’t even know Russian, let alone the country’s laws,” she said



Some workers complain that advice centres fail to provide information in Tajik – or at least that is what the travel agents tell them.



“I’have heard about these centres that provide assistance. But the bus trip organisors said these centres were set up by foreign organisations and provide information only in Russian and English, which I don’t understand,” said Nosirjon Ahmadov from the northern town of Zafarabad.



With little knowledge of their rights, very few people try to prosecute bogus travel organisations. However, one man did seek and win compensation in a case.



The case was filed in Khujand last year by a man who said he had been promised a job in Russia. When he got there, he found Russian citizenship was a requirement for the position. On his journey, he was also robbed and beaten.



According to judge Anvarjon Temurov who presided over the case, “He ended up wandering around Russian villages. The same [travel] organisation eventually brought him home. But he got frostbite in Russia and his legs had to be amputated when he returned to Khujand,” he said.



The court upheld the plaintiff’s case and in January 2007 awarded him damages of 8,000 somoni, or 2,326 dollars.



There are, however, many middlemen and travel agencies that do provide a good – and legal - service. Several representatives of such firms said they guaranteed a safe journey and assistance with arranging travel and immigration documents.



Azizmamad Ashurov, who lives in Khujand, organises transport to Moscow, and says he even allows travellers to pay for the trip later.



“A lot of people who come to me don’t have the money for the trip. I give them a loan, and when they earn some money they pay me back,” he said.



OTHER MEANS OF TRANSPORT CAN PROVE CHEAPER IN THE END



The potential for things to go wrong has put some travellers off taking the bus altogether.



Rustam Qadyrov of Khujand has decided that this method of travel is a false economy.



“Initially it did seem cheaper, but it can actually end up more expensive than travelling by plane. It’s costly and dispiriting. You sit in the bus for eight or ten days instead of the three days they promised it would take,” he said.



Akram, a resident of Bobojongafur district, also in Soghd, has been travelling to Russia for ten years, but gave up taking the bus a long time ago.



“At the beginning I thought the cheapest way to get to Russia was by bus,” he said. “Once, because of delays on the border, the journey took eight days. My legs swelled up during this time. After that nightmare, I started travelling by plane.”



But with so many Tajiks desperate to reach Russia, shady companies are likely to stay in business for some time to come, even if they are no longer allowed to advertise.



Migrant workers in Soghd told IWPR that the individual responsible for the fiasco in which 300 workers were sent back from Kazakstan continues to arrange travel to Russia. He is said to have repaid the group’s travel expenses and none of them ever reported him to the police.



At the bus station in Khujand, Lutfiddin Boboev waited with the others hoping to make it to Perm – even though he was only too aware of what might befall them.



“I’ve seen with my own eyes the way that Tajik migrants crossing the border are treated, and I was dismayed at my own lack of rights. No one can protect us,” he said.



“I am still defenceless, but there’s no other choice.”



Bakhtior Valiev, Rano Babajanova and Akmali Kadam are IWPR contributors in Khujand.



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