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Tajikistan: Conference Tackles Sticky Issue Of Labor Migration

At a conference held in the Tajik capital earlier this week, local authorities discussed the issue of labor migration with representatives of the country's civil-society groups and Russian officials. Given the growing number of Tajik citizens seeking better working conditions in CIS countries, notably Russia, regulating the phenomenon has become one of the priorities of the Tajik administration.

Prague, 21 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- An intergovernmental conference was held on 19 June in Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe, to discuss the issue of labor migration. Representatives from Tajik civic groups and media, as well as Russian officials, participated in the meeting.

The lack of jobs in Tajikistan, where the unemployment rate runs around 30 percent, has forced a growing number of Tajiks in recent years to seek employment elsewhere in the Commonwealth of Independent States. More than 500,000 of Tajikistan's 6.1 million citizens are believed to leave their homes every year in search of seasonal employment abroad.

More than 80 percent of these migrants go to Russia, where their status is neither defined nor protected by any bilateral agreements. Reaching a labor deal with Russia has thus become a top priority for Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov's administration.

Igor Bosc, head of the Dushanbe office of the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, left the conference in an optimistic mood. He told RFE/RL that a bilateral agreement should be signed in September or October of this year. "The Tajik government is about to sign a bilateral agreement with the Russian Federation in order to facilitate labor migration. And this is remarkable because the Tajik government has been seeking such an agreement for several years. And apparently they are about to finalize this agreement," Bosc said.

The lack of a visa regime makes Russia an attractive destination for labor migration from Tajikistan. To obtain the right to work there legally, Bosc said, Tajik citizens need a contract from their prospective employer in Russia. But he emphasized that the lack of a visa regime makes it difficult to keep track of Tajiks who may have entered the country to work without such a contract.

Georgii Popov, head of the department of labor migration at Russia's Interior Ministry, was also at the conference in Dushanbe. He explained to RFE/RL that Tajikistan and Russia must harmonize their respective labor-migration laws before both countries can reach an agreement. "I am not saying the Tajik [labor-migration] law is not proper or comprehensive. It is just different from Russia's. And given that a lot of Tajiks are traveling to Russia to find a job, our two laws should be harmonized. When this is accomplished, then labor migration from Tajikistan to Russia will become legal," Popov said.

Tajik migrants also try their luck at getting jobs in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, given the implementation of visa regimes in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. But to date, Dushanbe has signed a bilateral agreement on the protection of labor migrants' rights only with Kyrgyzstan. The Tajik government is negotiating similar agreements with Russia, and also Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Bosc emphasized that it is fundamental for landlocked Tajikistan to reach a visa agreement with Uzbekistan. Commenting on the issue, he said he remains "quite optimistic," adding that both parties have the willingness to regulate migration and establish regular movements between both countries.

Regulating labor migration inside Tajikistan has also emerged as one of the most important issues confronting the Tajik government. Timur Tabarov, head of Tajikistan's migration services at the Labor Ministry of Labor, told RFE/RL: "The government is working on the regulation of labor migration, which means to put in order this migration, to control it, and to open representative offices in Russia. But the issue will have no solution until the interministerial agreement works."

That interministerial agreement, on regulating labor-migration influxes into CIS countries, was one of the issues discussed by participants at the conference. The plan, which has already been ratified by the Tajik parliament, has now entered its "practical phase" and is expected to be adopted by the end of the month.

Bosc said the plan seeks to establish a "normative and legislative" base to improve the rights of migrant workers. He called the move "unusual" for Tajikistan, in the sense that it shows that Tajik ministries are starting to take specific measures to give workers some legality and protection. "One should put that [political will] in the frame of the labor migration in the direction of the north, notably the Russian Federation, which is enormous. According to estimates, between half a million and 1 million people go working seasonably, especially to Russia, from summer to autumn," Bosc said.

According to Bosc, the great majority of these migrant workers are undocumented, and their lack of legal status leaves many vulnerable to abuse. There is a growing concern that trafficking in migrants is developing. According to an IOM study, many Tajik women are lured into drug trafficking or prostitution under false promises of gainful employment.

Another important issue concerns the repatriation of the funds the labor migrants earn abroad. "Almost every family has someone who has left to work abroad. And they send back money generally in informal ways. This was also an issue discussed [by the Tajik government]: how to formalize this through banks," Bosc said.

Bosc said the income generated by migrant workers is critical to the economic survival of many Tajik families. According to some estimates, the total earnings of migrant workers exceed the annual state budget of Tajikistan.

Some observers point out seasonal migration has become a source of political friction between Tajikistan and these destination countries, but Bosc tempered that notion. "I would not say it is a source of political conflict. It is a source of problems. Normally, Tajiks who go to Russia, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere, except Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, do not need visas. So the travel could be legal. Since influxes increase, several countries have taken extraordinary measures in order to control these movements more strictly," Bosc said.

Last September, Kazakh authorities prevented a train from crossing its territory on the Dushanbe-Astrakhan railway because of concern over the unregulated movement of Tajik migrants.

Bosc noted that some of the problems created by labor migration are linked to transportation facilities. The number of trains are not sufficient, and the equipment is not adapted to several days of long travel under difficult climatic conditions, he said.

The latest example concerns Moscow's two-month suspension in March of passenger traffic between Russia and Tajikistan on hygiene and sanitary grounds. Tajik Railways responded by modernizing the trains it operates on the line.

(RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)