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World: Labor Migration Conference Opens In Dushanbe

A two-day international conference on labor migration starts today in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. It's an appropriate choice of venue, as roughly one out of every 10 residents of Tajikistan is a migrant worker. Representatives from Russia, Mexico, the Philippines, and other countries are due to attend.

Prague, 29 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A two-day conference entitled "The Problems of Labor Migration: Realities, Tendencies, and Forecasts" opened today in the Tajik capital Dushanbe.

The conference is being attended by representatives from countries the world over. But it has special significance for the Central Asian states which, by some estimates, are home to nearly 2 million migrant workers who travel abroad seeking employment.

But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, controls on freedom of movement have weakened at the same time jobs have grown scarce in much of Central Asia.
Zuhra Halimova is the executive director of the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation in Tajikistan. The foundation is co-sponsoring the conference along with the League of Women Lawyers, an independent Tajik organization. Halimova explained the reason for organizing the conference.

"The purpose [of the conference] is a good one. We want to gather people together who have done work on the problem of migration all over the world and therefore, the conference has an international character. People will discuss the realities of migration, of migration of labor, that exist in all areas of the world. What needs to be done, what kind of experience is available in the world, and can these experiences be adapted to the conditions of Central Asia, the conditions on the territory of the former Soviet Union. It's not just an exchange of information, but an exchange of experiences," Halimova says.

Migrant labor was not a problem in the former Soviet Union, where the movement of people and labor questions were strictly controlled by the state.

But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, controls on freedom of movement have weakened at the same time jobs have grown scarce in much of Central Asia.

According to some estimates, this situation has hundreds of thousands of Central Asians to seek work in Kazakhstan, Russia, or even further abroad.

Migrant laborers make up an estimated 600,000 residents of Tajikistan; 500,000 residents of Kyrgyzstan; and as many as 700,000 residents of Uzbekistan.

Many now arrive at their temporary places of work unaware of the labor laws in the country they have traveled to. Fredrick Shenne, the acting chief of the Tajikistan branch of the International Organization for Migration, tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service his office has set up an information center to help those considering traveling abroad to seek work.

"I think that the main problem is that most migrants are not in a normal situation because they don't know about legal requirements. And we opened an information and resource center in Dushanbe in order to raise legal awareness of migrants. And all migrants planning to go abroad for work can come to this center and will be received by a legal advisor and they will get full information before departure. This service is free of charge," Shenne says.

According to many accounts, the money Tajik migrant workers bring back home is equivalent to one-third or even one-half of the country's GDP. But many Tajik migrant workers have faced problems working abroad, particularly in Russia. Last year several Russian officials complained about Tajik migrant workers and several hundred Tajiks, whose documents were not in order, were deported back home. The deportations strained relations between Tajikistan and Russia.

Viktor Uvichov is the director for Russia's Center for Activities in Asia and he said Russian lawmakers have revised laws on migrant labor to help them conform to international legislation:

"The tensions that were there earlier are gone. The legislation in Russia has been changed to come into line with international legislation," Uvichov says.

Mahmadsho Ilolov, the Tajik minister of labor and social protection, said agreements with other countries about the status of and conditions for migrant laborers are also ready to be signed.

"We intend to sign an agreement on defending the rights of migrant laborers with Belarus and Kazakhstan. These agreements are essentially ready to be signed. Also we are preparing an agreement with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the problem on migrant labor," Ilolov says.

No major breakthroughs are expected from the conference -- only a better understanding of the causes of the migrant labor and some solutions to the problems faced by those seeking better fortune abroad. A statement is expected to be made following the conclusion of the conference on 30 April.

(Abduqaiyum Qaiyumov and Salimjon Aioub of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)