Uzbek Authorities Take First Step to Help Migrants

Uzbek Authorities Take First Step to Help Migrants

Saturday, 14 February, 2009
As Uzbekistan enacts new legislation designed to help people who work in or trade with neighbouring states, NBCentral Asia commentators say more must be done for labour migrants located further away from the country.

In February, an amended agreement on protecting migrant workers agreed by members of the Commonwealth of Independent States came into effect in Uzbekistan after being approved by President Islam Karimov.

The new regulations applied specifically to residents of border areas, who are allowed to go and work in adjacent parts of the neighbouring state as long as they return home at least once a week. The changes effectively afford legal protection for this category of cross-border workers, who have been largely ignored over many years.

Uzbekistan, with a population of 27 million, borders on Kazakstan to the north, Kyrgyzstan to the east, Tajikistan in the south, and Turkmenistan to the west. The former three are CIS members which observe the various agreements signed by the members of this post-Soviet organisation; Turkmenistan does not.

People in border areas traditionally trade in fruit, vegetables, textiles and clothes.

Uzbeks go to buy goods at wholesale markets in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan for resale at home, but until now have not had legal permission to do so in their own country. That meant they lacked legal protections and faced numerous obstacles as they pursued the cross-border trade, often the sole income source in these areas.

Some local commentators are optimistic about the arrangements, which will mean cross-border traders and casual labourers can register with the Uzbek authorities, and apply for temporary visiting rights in neighbouring states.

However, others are more sceptical and think it will take a long time before the document translates into change on the ground.

“No one knows when the legalisation procedures will be finalized,” said one Uzbek journalist. “One may assume that the procedure will be very complicated. So legalisation will remain just a noble intention.”

There are an estimated five million Uzbek migrant workers in Kazakstan and Russia, about half of whom are working there illegally. Uzbekistan has not ratified any of the United Nations conventions on labour migration, nor has it joined the International Labour Organisation.

“Most migrant workers remain unprotected,” said Surat Ikramov, head of the Initiative Group of Human Rights Activists in Uzbekistan.

Ikramov says the government would do well to adopt broader measures and effective laws to address the problems facing longer-term migrants.

“I expect the authorities to take serious steps to protect our migrant workers from abuses abroad, to formalise their legal status, and to provide social support to those who wish to return to Uzbekistan,” he said.

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)
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