Uzbek Migrants' Russian Dreams Shattered

A life of squalor, exploitation and violence awaits many seasonal workers in Russia.

Uzbek Migrants' Russian Dreams Shattered

A life of squalor, exploitation and violence awaits many seasonal workers in Russia.

The small, crumpled notebook, which had been tucked inside its owner's pocket, looked as if it had travelled a long way.

It is the diary of a young man, Timur Toshpulatov, and last summer, it accompanied him on the well-trodden migrants' route from Uzbekistan's Jizak province to Moscow.

IWPR saw the diary in the Jizak office of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, HRSU. Toshpulatov's words graphically the dangers and squalor awaiting the countless Uzbeks who journey illegally to Russia in search of work.

In the June 27 entry, Toshpulatov describes his concerns over the fate of friends who have set off to join him, and mourns the loss of one of his number.

"It's a month since we left home. They say that [the trafficker] has sent another thirty people from Jizak here," he wrote.

"I pray to God that Oibek is not amongst them, the journey will be very difficult for him. Sanya died today in hospital". Everyone went to say farewell to him. This is the sixth death in our Jizak group. Five died from vodka and the sixth was beaten up by the locals."

Barely a fortnight later, Toshpulatov was also dead. His family in Jizak received a death certificate confirming their son was found drowned on July 11, 2002, in a small pond outside Moscow. They also received a parcel of his personal belongings, amongst which was the diary.

According to HRSU figures, of the 200 people that left Jizak province to work abroad in 2002, 17 died in Russian cities. The causes of death vary from illness and alcoholism to workplace accidents and increasingly, racist attacks.

Human rights observers suspect that some reports of death by accident or misadventure may hide an altogether more violent end at the hands of Russian skinheads, who have been stepping up their attacks on minorities from Central Asia.

However, the deceased's impoverished families rarely get an independent verification of the cause of death, for which they would first have to raise approximately 2600 US dollars - well beyond the means of most Uzbeks - to have the body returned from Russia. According to other seasonal workers, only 4 of the 17 bodies of Jizak migrants in Russian morgues have been sent back home.

Despite the startling mortality rate amongst its migrants, Jizak continues to supply a steady stream of young men going to Russia in search of seasonal, ill-paid jobs on construction sites. This is partly because of the success stories of other seasonal workers which, albeit rare, exert a powerful pull over impoverished, able-bodied Uzbeks who have long given up hope of finding employment in their own country.

Unemployment is rife throughout Uzbekistan, where agriculture, which traditionally provided most of the employment in the country, has been hit hard in recent years, and the new private enterprises, that some had hoped would offer job opportunities, are finding it hard to survive.

Hardly surprising then that, in the period 1999 to 2002, around one million Uzbeks are estimated by HRSU to have left to work in Russia.

The economic stagnation afflicting Uzbekistan is particularly bad in the eastern province of Jizak, where farmers have always had to contend with an extremely arid climate. Canals built to irrigate new settlements during the communist era have all but dried up and the old Soviet slogan of "making the desert bloom" rings hollow for the inhabitants of Jizak's grey and dusty provincial capital, 100 miles from Tashkent.

Several migrant workers from Jizak told IWPR they are happy to risk their lives in order to earn a living for themselves and their families by taking on labouring work in Russia. For these young Uzbeks, prolonged poverty and unemployment is a fate far worse than death.

They are buoyed by the stories of men such as Zafar and Murad, who recently returned to Jizak after six months working on the construction sites of Samara and Tolyatti districts. Each one brought back 1,500 dollars in wages and will soon return to Russia to make more money.

"If you get a decent boss, you can earn 200 dollars for a month's work, and we wouldn't dream of anything better," they told IWPR. However, they admit that many others are not as lucky, "It often happens that the construction site bosses underpay the workers, and only give them enough for a return ticket, knowing that we won't do anything because we are here without registration."

While the illegal status of the migrants leaves them exposed to exploitation and violence, it also allows the Uzbek authorities to wash their hands of responsibility for them, according to some migrants' families.

When Jizak resident Khairi Narkuzieva's husband, Tuigun, was killed by Russian skinheads last year, she turned to local government officials, hoping they would help bring his body back for burial - but to no avail.

"The officials of Jizak province refused to give me any financial aid and threw me out, saying my husband had no business going to Russia for work," she told IWPR.

Having sold the family's cattle and borrowed money from relatives, Narkuzieva finally retrieved Tuigun's battered body from Russia. However, despite evidence that he had died violently, she claims the Jizak prosecutor's office refused to recognise her husband's death as a crime.

So far, the Uzbek authorities' efforts to tackle the problem of migration have tended to target the unscrupulous intermediaries who make their money from arranging passage abroad. The rising death toll amongst migrants is unlikely to change this approach.

The latest victim, 22-year-old Bekzod Saifullaev, died of stab wounds after being attacked by a gang of neo-fascist hooligans. His body arrived in Jizak on February 6.

Jamol Ishonkulov, a Jizak resident accustomed to working illegally in Russia, admits there are grave risks for Uzbek migrants. "All of us usually stay in the same dormitory, and often we hear that someone in the next room has been killed or beaten. There have been times when skinheads have broken into our rooms at night and started beating us."

However, Ishonkulov insists that walking the gauntlet of racist violence remains preferable to life in Uzbekistan. "Even the death of a friend doesn't make us want to go back home," he told IWPR. "Nothing is waiting for us there, whereas over here, at least we're making money."

Ulugbek Khaidarov is a freelance Uzbek journalist.

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