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By Alisher Karimov and Maks Maksudov
TASHKENT – Central Asian migrant workers are heading home from Russia, but mostly not by choice. The Russian Federal Migration Service's tighter restrictions on illegal migrants and the economic crisis are forcing migrant workers to return home.
“I’ve been without work for eight months since I returned. They don't like us there, but we were able to make money”, said Izzat Akimov, an Uzbek migrant who worked as a carpenter in Zelenograd, Moscow Oblast.
Akimov worked in Russia for six years, but his shop underwent layoffs and he returned to Tashkent.
According to the International Crisis Group (ICG) report “Central Asia: Migrants and the Economic Crisis”, between 2004 and 2008, 800,000 Kyrgyz, 1.5m Tajiks and 2.5m Uzbeks moved to Russia to work.
In 2009, Russia reduced the quota for migrant workers from 3.9m to 1.95m; more than a million migrants returned home, according to the migration service’s data.
The ICG report stated that while many migrants left, others stayed illegally, hoping the situation would improve: “Experts claim the number of migrants reaches up to 3m annually, and only about 200,000 to 300,000 of them are in the country legally”.
Some migrants in Russia started second families and have remained with them. The ICG report says the longer migrant men stay in Russia, the more likely they are to start a second family.
Akimov said he was involved with a woman in Zhukovskii, not far from Zelenograd: “I lived in a civil union with a Russian woman for two years, but I have a wife and two kids at home", he said. "When they laid me off, she said, ‘Marry me, and your problems will be solved.’ I refused: ‘What about my children?’ Though, many [of my] friends left their families and married Russian women”.
The Centre for Human Rights, a nongovernmental organisation in Dushanbe, reported that labour migration drives up divorce statistics.
Karamat Abdullayeva, the head of the Osh Oblast branch of the Congress of Women of the Kyrgyz Republic, said, “Wives of migrant workers approach us, not asking for money—they need psychological support. ... But basically, our Eastern women are patient; they can handle many of life’s hardships”.
Even if migrants return, many find relationships with their families difficult.
“I worked in a market in Moscow. ... I picked up a venereal disease ... and infected my wife. My wife barely talks to me now”, said Imran.
According to data from the Centre for the Prevention and Control of AIDS in Dushanbe, Tajik doctors have registered 197 migrants carrying HIV. Many unknowingly infect their wives.
Adding to the frustration, most of the returning migrants cannot find jobs at home. They have to live on their savings, as noted by Svetlana Siryachenko, the wife of a Kyrgyz migrant worker who had to leave Russia.
Galina Polyakova, a lawyer and consultant for the human rights organisation Spravedilivost (Justice) in Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan, said that in recent times most of the unemployed who sought guidance on labour laws returned to Russia as migrant workers.
Now, though, "Several people have requested help in getting back their Kyrgyz citizenship—something that did not happen before”, said Polyakova.
Dadojon Oripov, the director of the Sogd Oblast branch office of the State Migration Service, said that in 2009 the office found employment for 8,207 workers, only 15-17% of whom were migrants returning from Russia.
Some unemployed workers in Kyrgyzstan received governmental microloans of US$120 to $300, which is enough to open a small retail business or to purchase tools. The Kyrgyz Republic’s Department of Social Protection and Healthcare reported that more than 20% of returning migrants are employed as welders and masons.
In Tajikistan, NGOs working with migrants discuss rights and responsibilities and teach how to avoid contracting HIV. The government is trying to create jobs. In 2009, it created 10,000 jobs in Khujand, according to the city administration. Tajikistan and Saudi Arabia came to terms that Saudi Arabia will accept Tajik migrant workers this year.
The returning migrants may have made money in Moscow, but usually they have bitter memories.
According to the ICG report, Russians are intolerant of migrants: “Newspapers often accuse migrants of spreading crime and infectious diseases, in particular HIV/AIDS”. Two characters on a popular Russian TV comedy are shiftless Tajik labourers portrayed in an unflattering light.
“In Yekaterinburg, it’s like an instinct, when you see skinheads, you run at full speed”, said Jamil, a janitor from Tajikistan. “All the same, it is better there than in Dushanbe”.
An increasing number of the labourers paid with their lives for trying to work in Russia. Human Rights Watch described 2009 as the worst year for migrant workers.
A report from the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights noted: “In 2009, 218 attacks were committed against migrants in Russia. [Seventy-five] were killed, of whom 14 were Uzbeks, eight Kyrgyz, seven Tajik, five Kazakh and three Turkmen”.
The mistreatment causes returning migrants to feel "deep antipathy" toward Russians, according to the ICG. The migrants' homelands have another problem when they struggle to absorb their jobless citizens: potential political unrest. “The export of surplus labour allowed Central Asian governments to export young men - the segment of society that is the most likely source of unrest, according to the ICG report. But now that they’re returning – and unemployed – the young men are potential recruits for Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), who are trying to recruit returning migrant workers, says the IGC.
A source in law enforcement believes the recruitment scenarios are all the same: playing on the recruit's resentment of those whom he perceives to be unjustly better off, the recruits appeal: “Believe in God, and you will have everything”.
“I did not join the radical Islamists, but I started going to the mosque regularly", Akimov said. "I sometimes see embittered people; maybe they will later become radicals I cannot blame them”.