Tajikistan: New Hurdles for Tajik Migrants

Itinerant workers desperate for jobs in Russia find it hard to get past Uzbek border guards.

Tajikistan: New Hurdles for Tajik Migrants

Itinerant workers desperate for jobs in Russia find it hard to get past Uzbek border guards.

Seasonal workers from poverty-stricken Tajikistan are facing harsh new travel curbs as they set out on the annual mass exodus across Uzbekistan to find desperately needed jobs in Russia.

In violation of a 2000 agreement on facilitating mutual travel, Uzbek border guards are stepping up physical harassment of Tajik migrants and demanding international-style passports which most of them don't have and could not afford.

Up to now, Uzbeks have accepted the old Tajik domestic passports. But the Uzbek ambassador, Bakhtior Urdashev, recently said these are no good because there's no room in them for stamps.

An estimated million or more Tajiks leave home in February and March and return in November. At this time of year their only feasible routes go across Uzbekistan. Even domestic travellers between northern and central Tajikistan face demands for passports because mountain passes at this time of year are blocked by snow and they must take trains that cross a chunk of Uzbek territory.

The ruling would require more than two million residents of Tajikistan's northern Sogd Province to have international passports to travel to the capital, Dushanbe.

Consular officials at the Tajik foreign ministry told IWPR they had not been officially notified by Tashkent of this requirement. But Amonkhoji Khojibekov, deputy chief of Tajik railways, said his company had received an official notice from his Uzbek counterparts requesting that, from now on, all Tajik citizens travelling through Uzbek territory by train carry international passports.

Political analyst Abduholik Juraev told IWPR, "From the legal point of view the Uzbeks are right as there is a visa regime between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. On the other hand, Tajik trains are legally the territory of Tajikistan and if passengers are just passing through the country without leaving the train there should be no need for these procedures."

The blocking of migrant workers would be economically disastrous for Tajikistan. More than 80 per cent of its families live below subsistence level and the statutory minimum wage is 1.3 US dollars. Few could afford an international passport that costs 30 dollars.

The Sharq research centre estimated that 900,000 Tajiks went abroad in 2002 to find seasonal work. Russian and unofficial estimates put the figure at between one and 1.5 million. The Sharq figures showed that nearly all came from impoverished rural areas where many have to sell property and cattle or borrow money to buy train tickets.

Air travel is far too expensive, around three or four times higher than the train. Tajik railways told IWPR that more than 450,000 Tajiks left the country by rail last year. This year, a twofold increase is expected.

Sabir Rakhimov of Dushanbe will be joining his brother who moved to Moscow two years ago. "I'll have to borrow money. Travelling is more expensive now after Russia introduced its 'migrant ID cards', which you have to pay for," he said.

"Rumour has it we are going to need international passports as well. Our Uzbek neighbours come up with new schemes all the time. They probably think we have loads of money and are travelling to Russia for fun."

Outside the ticket office at Dushanbe railway station migrant worker Rustam Ergashev told IWPR, "It was a lot easier to travel to Russia three years ago. You just bought your ticket and got on the train. I can't afford an international passport. It's cheaper to bribe an Uzbek border guard."

Many Tajiks complain of constant extortion and humiliation during the arduous five-day trip to Russia. They all agree that Uzbek officials and soldiers are the worst, insulting passengers and demanding money every time they search luggage.

"Uzbeks, who are supposed to be our brothers, are extremely hostile to Tajiks for some reason," said Sulton Khaitov, who has recently returned from Russia. "Uzbek customs officials and border guards insult and humiliate us all the time. My friend told me he saw them take some Tajik travellers off the train to make them work cotton fields in Uzbekistan."

Gulnora Mamadshoeva of the Rushan area in the Gorny Badakhshan autonomous district, who has been doing seasonal work in Russia for five years, told IWPR that Uzbek soldiers tend to treat Tajik men much more harshly than Tajik women. "They dump all the luggage out on the floor and interrogate Tajik men in a really aggressive way. Those who refuse to pay are taken off to a space between train cars and beaten up," she said.

Why is Uzbekistan doing all this? "I think that there are some politicians in Tashkent who are not interested in improving Tajik-Uzbek relations," Abduholik Juraev said. "The Uzbeks used to say they stopped Tajik transit trains to look for drug traffickers. Now they just seem to object to migrant workers."

The deputy chief of Tajik railways, Amonkhoji Khojibekov, told IWPR that Tajik travellers are screened by customs and border guards 22 times on the train from Dushanbe to Astrakhan in southern Russia. Customs screening and border checks in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakstan and Russia make the journey nearly 24 hours longer.

Khojibekov said the Tajik railway authority is currently considering switching to a new route through Uzbekistan. The new section, launched by Tashkent last year, goes directly to Kazakstan bypassing Turkmen territory.

Until now Tajik trains have had to re-cross Uzbek territory four times and Turkmenistan three times, before they get to Kazakstan. Passengers are screened and their passports stamped at every national border.

"The new route would reduce the number of checks and cut the distance by about 750 km, making the trip nearly a day shorter," Khojibekov said.

Analysts note that the difficulties faced by Tajik travellers resemble the situation in Russia's Kaliningrad exclave, where Russian citizens find it increasingly harder to travel to the mainland via Lithuania. They think Tajik president Imomali Rakhmonov should intervene the way Russian president Putin did.

Nargis Zakirova is a correspondent with Vecherny Dushanbe newspaper

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