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Tajikistan: For Migrant Workers, Misery Begins At Home And Continues In Russia

By Iskander Aliev

With the start of spring, Dushanbe's airport and central train station are filled with Tajik migrant workers looking to leave the country in search of work elsewhere -- most often, Russia. But even finding a way to get out of Tajikistan can be difficult. RFE/RL correspondent Iskander Aliyev reports on the plight of Tajikistan's migrant laborers.

Prague, 19 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For Tajikistan's migrant workers, even the first step -- finding a way out of the country -- can be difficult. Plane and train tickets are in short supply. They can usually be purchased on the black market, but at nearly twice the standard price.

"The official price for a ticket is 181 somoni but here they charge 300," one migrant explains.

"I've been waiting here for a week to purchase a ticket," says another. "Tickets are available on the black market, but they're much too expensive."

In the end, scraping together the money for a ticket usually means borrowing from an acquaintance or mortgaging property. And this is just the beginning of a long and difficult journey.

In fact, the biggest problems facing Tajik migrants -- who according to official estimates number up to one million -- begin only after they obtain their tickets out of the country.

Last week, police in the Russian city of Nefte Yugansky could be seen on television news reports proudly announcing they had forced 14 migrants into the back of a Jeep in a space meant for just two people. After hours in detention, the migrants were released -- only because the police had no funds to return them to Tajikistan. Detainees are usually forced to bribe the police as the only way to secure their own releases.

Igor Bosc heads the Dushanbe office of the International Refugee Organization. He cited the reasons why Tajik migrants face such hostility in Russia.

"The procedure for Tajik migrants in Russia is the same as for citizens from all the CIS states. This is true for unregistered workers. Unless these people pay taxes and respect the local laws, problems will continue to exist. On the other hand, Tajik migrant workers are mostly underqualified and cannot match international [working] standards. Because of that, Tajik workers are ready to accept less pay and nonessential jobs. In those cases, their rights are often abused and they have to work under hard conditions. This is true not just for Tajiks. Any worker from any CIS country in the same position would face the same kind of hardship. In the past year, under the pretext of the antiterror campaign, other ways have been found to repress these people. Law enforcement officials who want to extort money from migrant workers put additional pressure on them in the name of the campaign against terror."

After the forced deportation of Tajik refugees from the Moscow region last November, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov told Russia's ambassador to Tajikistan, Maksim Peshkov, that Russian officials were violating bilateral agreements.

RFE/RL asked Peshkov when the problems faced by Tajik migrants would be resolved.

"What problems? I don't know if there are any unsolved problems between us."

Tajik migrants themselves have reported that they are routinely subjected to rights abuses and police persecution. Few have a regular place to live and there is no guarantee of life or health. But Peshkov denied such problems were the responsibility of Russian authorities.

"Well! First of all, these problems come from the refugees themselves. Those who respect Russian laws have no problem. The laws are very simple. Anyone who comes to Russia has to register and obtain a work permit and at the end of the job take his or her wages. There is no other problem."

An annual Russian-Tajik interparliamentary commission from 17-20 April was held in the Tajik capital. Among the issues being discussed is the implementation of existing bilateral agreements.

On the eve of the meeting, Tajik parliament member Yusufjon Ahmadov said that out of 150 signed documents, only a few are being implemented even partially. Ahmadov said the Tajik government must push harder to ensure the agreements are honored.

"The problem of migrant workers is very important and the Tajik deputies should intervene in order to resolve them. For that to happen, not only the local authorities but also the central government has to take necessary measures. We want officials from our regions and provinces and also officials from Russian provinces to be involved. Tajikistan and Russia signed a joint statement on this issue in 1999. Even more documents have been completed and now we have to find out why the implementation of these documents has been so slow."

The chairman of the Russian parliamentary delegation, Aleksandr Belyakov, told Tajik leaders he supported the idea of parliamentary involvement on both sides. He added: "The parliaments of the two countries should knock on every door in the other's government to promote economic cooperation between Russia and Tajikistan."

But this, like waiting for tickets, can take time. Bosc of the International Refugee Organization said the Tajik government needs to take steps to ease the misery of its migrant workers in Russia.

"The only thing they can do is to increase cooperation between the responsible offices in order to provide accurate information to the migrants, explain Russian laws, human rights and other rights, and how to obtain work permits. It's equally important to provide them with information about factories and firms in Russia that are hiring Tajik workers. How they can legally employ Tajik citizens. And most of all, ways to look after their health, because Tajik workers seeking jobs in Russia usually work multiple shifts and have no time to go to the doctor. Providing them with that information is very important. People who are working in Russia should have a clear picture about what kind of work is available, what documents and qualifications are necessary. A Tajik worker, before leaving the country, should know if they are qualified for the job they are taking elsewhere. Otherwise they will be forced to return home. I have to mention one more point that is quite important. Tajik workers who earn money outside the country should know how to transfer their money back to the country and they should be encouraged to invest their wealth in Tajikistan itself. For that, they have to be provided with information about banking transactions. The government should minimize transaction charges so migrants are encouraged to send their earnings back to the country's economy. In my opinion, some measures are needed to make that happen. For example, those who invest their money in Tajikistan should have some kind of benefit or advantage."

According to unofficial estimates, the money brought into Tajikistan is more than the Tajik annual budget. Observers say if that money could be properly invested, more jobs could be created within Tajikistan, prompting a drop in the number of so-called "Addenas" -- a reference to a Tajik migrant worker in the early 20th century who was killed by his employer and later immortalized in a famous Tajik story.

Migrant laborers are not a new phenomenon in Tajikistan. A song from the 19th century tells of the miseries of those forced to leave their homeland in search of work. It says: "It is better to die in your fatherland than to live somewhere else."

(This story was originally broadcast on 19 April 2003.)