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Uzbekistan: Migrating To Make Ends Meet

The violence that rocked the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon on 12-13 May riveted the world's attention for one simple reason -- virtually all accounts of the event that were not filtered through Uzbek officialdom indicated that government forces had perpetrated a massacre. But for those who are attempting to puzzle out the implications of the bloodshed both for Uzbekistan and Central Asia, the event's significance is at once broader and more ominous.

Beyond the mystery of the men who started the violence and beyond the questions about 13 May that the Uzbek government's refusal to allow an independent investigation renders temporarily unanswerable, the event raised the frightening prospect that even as social and economic discontents in Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley have created conditions ripe for instability, the government's arsenal for dealing with potential unrest is limited and deadly. Put bluntly, many fear that the elements of a catastrophic breakdown are coalescing.

One of the frustrations that confront analysts is that Uzbekistan is not a sufficiently open society for anyone to know whether this danger is imminent or overblown. At best, we get glimpses. Recent reporting by RFE/RL's Tajik and Uzbek services provides a telling glimpse of one crucial problem in Uzbekistan today -- the economic hardships that are a grueling fact of life for many of the country's citizens. (See also, "Daily Life Continues In The Shadow Of Andijon".)

Labor migration is by now a seemingly permanent feature of the Central Asian landscape. Hundreds of thousands of Tajiks, for example, brave legal uncertainties and myriad dangers to earn in Russia what they cannot earn at home. And as RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 17 August, hundreds of Uzbeks travel to Tajikistan for exactly the same reason.

Market Of Day-Laborers

In Konibodom, 70 kilometers to the east of Khujand, Uzbeks gather on the Tajik side of the barbed wire that marks the border at a place the locals have come to call the "market of Uzbek day-laborers." Ranging in age from 20 to 50, they told RFE/RL that they come from the Beshariq District of Uzbekistan's Ferghana Province.

A bilateral agreement allows Uzbek citizens to cross the border without a visa and spend up to five days in Tajikistan. "Where we live, there's no work and salaries are low," one Uzbek laborer told RFE/RL. "Under these conditions, how am I supposed to feed my children?" The man explained that he is 32 years old, a carpenter by trade, with three young children and no job at home.

Some of the migrant workers told RFE/RL that they have an education in technical fields or teaching, but said that salaries around $30 a month are not enough to make ends meet. An RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent asked them why they come to Konibodom, where so many residents, men and women, have themselves left to look for work in Russia and Kazakhstan. "This place is close and it's easy to get to," one Uzbek said. "That's why we chose it. We're mainly involved in construction here, things like roofing and carpentry. In general, whatever they ask us to do, we do."

The Uzbek workers said that in Konibodom, and sometimes in Isfara, they can make 15-20 somonis ($4.75-$6.32) a day. They also explained that they lacked the money to travel to more distant locations, although many Uzbeks from the Ferghana Valley do make the trek elsewhere, particularly to Russia.
"Our children also go out to make money picking up caterpillars. This is a big relief for us since there's no other place to make money." -- Uzbek migrant worker

Zayniddin Orifi, a specialist in labor issues, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service about some of the problems the Uzbeks face in Tajikistan. "Today, in many personal dwellings where construction is under way, Uzbeks do the work," Orifi said. "Compared to 2004, their numbers have increased in Konibodom. They're mainly from Beshariq District, but some of them are from the cities of Andijon and Kokand. In the past, police in Konibodom would usually register the migrant workers who were in Tajikistan illegally, such as those who overstayed their permits, and deport them. There was nothing political about this. Now, once the Uzbek migrant workers have spent the five days they're allowed, they try to go back home and come back to Tajikistan the next morning for another five days. Sometimes the Tajik police kick them out for illegal employment or nonpayment of taxes, since most of the Uzbek migrant workers work in private homes without an official contract."

Not all cases involving Uzbek migrants are so simple, however. In one recent incident, Tajik border guards and police detained 10 Uzbek citizens from Ferghana and Andijon while they were allegedly illegally crossing into Tajikistan. The Prosecutor-General's Office in Konibodom said that criminal cases were opened against eight of the alleged trespassers, while two were released because they were under age. A source in the Prosecutor-General's Office charged, however, that the Uzbeks had not come to Tajikistan looking for work. In light of the hundreds of Uzbek refugees who arrived in Kyrgyzstan in the wake of the Andijon violence, RFE/RL's Tajik Service asked whether these Uzbeks, including four from Andijon, might also be seeking asylum or refuge. Prosecutors in Konibodom cited the ongoing investigation and declined to answer.

Caterpillar Pickers

Another of Uzbekistan's neighbors, Kazakhstan, also draws migrant workers. As RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on 17 August, Uzbek citizens from the country's Sirdaryo Province cross into Kazakhstan to work in the cotton fields, where in August they were busy gathering up the caterpillars that attack the plants. For each caterpillar, Kazakh farmers pay them six soms (1,000 soms is about $1, so six soms comes to 1/6 of a cent).

A young man who told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that he and 10 other Uzbeks had already spent a week in the Kazakh cotton fields explained why it's worth working from morning until night. "The farmers meet us themselves," he said. "We come to an agreement on pay with them. They also take care of lunch. In one day, we collect 650 caterpillars, on a good day, up to 2,000." At six soms per caterpillar, 650 caterpillars yield $3.90; 2,000 yield $12.

A woman from Sirdaryo Province told RFE/RL that the money she earns in Kazakhstan helps to buy school supplies for her children and clothes for the family. "Our children also go out to make money picking up caterpillars," she said. "This is a big relief for us since there's no other place to make money."

Other women from Sirdaryo Province said they have no difficulties crossing the border, adding that the border guards simply ignore them. They said they are grateful for the opportunity to benefit from the relative prosperity of Kazakh farmers. "We go to Kazakhstan to work starting in early spring," one woman said. "This continues until the cotton harvest is over. We work first to hoe the ground, then to trim the plants, and finally to harvest the cotton."