Uzbekistan: Migrants Suffer Russian Humiliation

Uzbek migrant workers are prepared to put up with rough treatment in Russia to escape the economic misery of their homeland.

Uzbekistan: Migrants Suffer Russian Humiliation

Uzbek migrant workers are prepared to put up with rough treatment in Russia to escape the economic misery of their homeland.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

A powerless and humiliating position, dirty work and harassment from the local population; this is what working migrants from Uzbekistan endure in Russian towns. "We Uzbeks can't live here," said young man from Tashkent now working in Yekaterinburg. But the Uzbeks are still coming. "It's worse at home and here we can earn some money," they say.

At the private bus station in the Kazak town of Saryagash, close to the border with Uzbekistan, two buses pull up to transport men from Uzbekistan to work in Russian towns.

A quick glance reveals there is not enough room in the bus for everyone but the Kazak drivers don't let that bother them. With the arrival of spring, the number of people from Uzbekistan wanting to work in Russia has mushroomed, and none expects a comfortable ride or an easy life when they get there. They are prepared to travel for more than five days in overcrowded buses to earn a crust by doing any kind of work.

The bus station in Saryagash is one of many assembly points for Uzbek citizens crossing into Russia. The fact that migrants have to resort to this mode of transport is another sign of the catastrophic decline in living standard in Uzbekistan. "Seasonal workers from Uzbekistan used to be able to afford plane tickets but now even the train is a luxury," said a man from Andijan who plans to work in Novosibirsk.

Uzbek workers, like workers from other Central Asian countries of the CIS, are in demand in Russia to do the hardest and most unpopular jobs. The workforce is extremely profitable for Russian employers who can pay them rock-bottom wages and not take any responsibility for work conditions and safety.

Natalya Tagiltsevaya, head of the Ural Foundation for Migrants, says the stream of migrants to Russia increased since spring, when the Russian government said the country needed more workers, partly because of the worsening demographic situation among ethnic Russians.

Tagiltsevaya says there is no precise data on the number of migrants from Central Asia. Unofficial records suggest about 2 million temporary workers came to Russia in 2001.

Most Uzbek migrants come from the Fergana valley and the provinces of Surkhandarya and Kashkadarya. They say growing despair over the Uzbek economy drove them to Russia, along with the hope of getting decently paid.

"I could find work in Andijan planting cotton but I know I would be paid very little," said Zakirjon, a man in his mid-30s from Andijan. "I don't want to be a slave. You can't feed your family that way."

Once they have agreed to take on the heaviest and dirtiest work in Russia, Central Asian migrants face other problems, police intimidation, employer exploitation and racist who call Uzbeks and Tajiks "blacks".

Sobirjon, an Uzbek from Namangan selling fruit at a market in Yekaterinburg, said, "In the past Russians respected us but now we're all 'blacks' to them."

Mukhammad, from Fergana, said most insults come from young men and pensioners. "Young guys like to harass us, while pensioners tell us straight out that we 'blacks' should go home and we have no business in Russia."

He said that when he needed an injection at a hospital, even the medical staff were hostile, "They told me people should be healthy when they come to Russia, and that there were enough sick people here already."

Fear of competition in the labour market is one factor behind the hostility of many local residents. Many Russians believe the increase in migrant workers has boosted the unemployment rate.

When they come to Russia, migrants must first purchase a temporary permit for 20 US dollars, giving them the right to stay for three months. But Mukhtar, a Tajik migrant, said that if a policeman wanted to bother them and take their money, no document or registration paper would be of any help.

The migrants have special cause for concern when the police launch one of their periodic campaigns to expel foreign nationals without registration papers, as brute force is often used against them.

But those who have worked in Russia before say it is not worth worrying about harassment and that police intimidation is something they must live with. Zakirjon, from Andijan, told IWPR he wanted to go home to his family but needed to earn money first. He said the treatment he could expect in Uzbekistan was no better.

"I am a 'black' here but who am I in Uzbekistan?" he asked. "I can't even travel from Andijan to the capital because the police will want to check my documents and take all my money. In Russia at least they leave you some of it."

For many migrants, the fact that it is impossible to earn decent wages in Uzbekistan is far scarier than Russian racism. The number of people wanting to leave for Russia seems certain to grow rather than decrease.

Malik Mansur is the pseudonym of an Uzbek journalist.

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