The October 21 incident is a tragic but commonplace story, one that highlights the risks facing Central Asia's many labor migrants.
Poverty and unemployment have led millions of men and women from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan to seek jobs elsewhere in Central Asia or farther abroad. Sending money back home, the migrants support their families and, it could be argued, their national economies.
An October 18 report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) highlights the dependence of two economies on remittances sent back by migrants in particular: Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. IFAD says that money received from labor emigrants and other nationals abroad is equal to roughly one-third of the Tajik and Kyrgyz gross domestic products (GDP) -- 36.7 and 31.4 percent, respectively, in 2006. The IFAD also notes that Uzbeks abroad inject about $2.9 billion into their country's economy -- representing about 17 percent of GDP in 2006.
Migrants Face Abuse, Even Slavery
But the labor emigrants themselves can endure terrible hardship as "guest workers." Hardly a week passes without a story in Russia and Kazakhstan of their mistreatment in those countries, both preferred destinations for Central Asians.
Manzura Karimova, a lawyer for the Moscow-based Migration and Law center, which assists Central Asian refugees and migrant workers, says that her center gets about 200 complaints every month from Uzbeks or Tajiks alleging mistreatment. Karimova says they frequently complain of abuse at the hands of employers, nationalist groups, even the Russian police.
"When hiring migrant laborers, an employer thinks, first of all, about paying them as little as possible," Karimova says. "Migrant laborers are ready to take any job and make very little money, because in comparison with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, wages [in Russia] are much higher."
Some of those who go to Russia and Kazakhstan in search of jobs -- legally and, more frequently, illegally -- end up as slaves. In June, 18 Uzbeks were released from slavery in Russia's Orel Oblast. Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) spokeswoman Marina Kostikova said their documents had been taken from them and they were being forced to work "practically 24 hours a day, with no days off." Those who tried to escape were beaten, and the case came to the authorities' attention only after four of them managed to flee.
Earlier this year in Kazakhstan, several businessmen from the city of Aktobe stood trial for abusing 15 Uzbeks. The illegal laborers, including a teenage girl, had been subjected to rape, beatings, and constant humiliation, Kazakhstan's "Megapolis" daily reported. The abusers were sentenced to prison terms and probation.
Increasing Racism, Xenophobia
The Central Asia political refugee program director for the Moscow-based Civic Assistance Committee, Yelena Ryabinina, says that xenophobia remains strong in Russia -- and Central Asians often face harsher discrimination than migrants from countries like Ukraine and Belarus simply because they "do not look Slavic."
A June report by the New York-based NGO Human Rights First notes that Central Asians are frequently the victims of hate crimes in Russia.
The media and local human rights groups have dubbed St. Petersburg a "foreigners' cemetery" in the wake of killings in which the victims were of Central Asian and African descent. There were 120 race-related attacks, and 31 people killed, throughout Russia in the first five months of 2007.
In one of the most prominent hate-crime cases in recent years, a teenager was acquitted last year of killing a 9-year-old Tajik girl, Khursheda Sultonova, in February 2004. The verdict shocked the public and highlighted the plight of immigrants.
Ryabinina says an October 16 commentary in a state-owned newspaper by Moscow's powerful mayor, Yury Luzhkov, epitomized the dilemma. She calls Luzhkov's piece "pharisaic," or hypocritically self-righteous. In it, the long-serving mayor voices concern over Russian sovereignty and argues that unchecked migration could threaten national security. He writes that current migration legislation is "intolerably ultraliberal" and needs to be changed.
Ryabinina says the piece is likely to fuel xenophobia. "What fight against outrageous violations of the rights of labor migrants and others can we expect if none other than the mayor of the city of Moscow, the capital of the Russian Federation, Yury Mikhaylovich Luzhkov, [publishes] an article titled 'Moscow Is No Back Alley' in 'Rossiiskaya gazeta'? So I can by no means say the Russian government is seriously tackling the use of labor migrants as slaves."
Migrants' Contribution 'Not Appreciated'
The head of the International Bureau for Human Rights and Law Enforcement in the Kazakh commercial capital of Almaty, Viktoria Tyuleneva, says that just like in Russia, migrant laborers in Kazakhstan find themselves between a rock and a hard place. She says Kazakh authorities frequently apply "double standards" -- official rhetoric praises migrants and how they benefit the economy, "but in reality authorities have done nothing to provide for immigrants' rights."
Ryabinina says there is a lack of understanding of the need to attract migrants to support the national economy amid what she describes as a "catastrophic demographic situation" in Russia.
With the Russian and Kazakh economies thriving in recent years, the demand for labor has also increased. Kazakhstan's relatively low population of 15 million and a declining Russian population arguably do not offer a sufficient workforce to support such growth. Kazakhstan's Labor Ministry says the demand for labor is expected to grow in the next few years by 60,000 employees a year.
Meanwhile, as Kazakhs and Russians get richer, the need for cheap, low-skilled labor increases. Transitions Online recently quoted the Russian daily "Novyye izvestia" as saying that there were nearly 103,000 officially registered guest workers and about 1.5 million illegal immigrants from Uzbekistan in Russia last year.
In Kazakhstan, the Labor Ministry's Migration Committee say Kyrgyz "guest workers" represent the largest section of labor immigrants from the CIS. Meanwhile, Uzbeks make up the single largest group of permanent immigrants to Kazakhstan from CIS countries -- composing 57.6 percent of the total. Kazakh authorities also predict an increased flow of immigrants from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan due to the struggling economic situation in those neighboring countries.