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Central Asia: Economic Hardship Forces Graduates To Join Migrant Laborers

Migrant workers in Russia (RFE/RL) Mirodil dreams of going to university one day. But not yet.

This year, he graduated from a public school in Uzbekistan’s eastern province of Andijon, but didn’t even have enough time to receive his diploma. The working season for migrant laborers in Russia and Kazakhstan starts in April and May -- and Mirodil decided to join his fellow villagers going after seasonal jobs abroad to provide for their families.

So instead of going to university, Mirodil now works in Kazakhstan’s Chimkent region. He sends money to his parents and also wants to save for himself to pay for his university education:

"Education costs money," Mirodil says. "I have a plan to make money for my education. Hopefully, I will be able to enter a university, even if it is a private university."

Like Mirodil, hundreds of thousands of graduates from mostly rural areas in Uzbekistan and other countries across Central Asia are postponing or giving up their dreams of becoming doctors, teachers, or engineers. Instead, they are taking seasonal jobs in construction, vegetable markets, or agricultural plants in comparatively wealthy Russia or Kazakhstan. The reason is simple: unemployment and poverty plague the rural communities of Central Asia.

In recent years, new universities and colleges have been set up in almost every town in the region, offering a variety of subjects. Many of the subjects were available in only select schools during the Soviet era, such as international relations or law.

Yet according to official figures, the number of high-school graduates who go on to university has been dropping every year. Saidmuhammad Ahmedov, an official with the regional department for public education in Uzbekistan’s Samarqand province, tells RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service that only 12 percent of graduates in the province applied for university education last year.

Diminishing Prospects

Unlike in the Soviet era, university education is not free now. Even in some universities where education is officially free and state-funded, students have to pay for each test and exam due to widespread bribery and corruption in the education system.

Another reason why students are forgoing university is unemployment. After studying for four or five years and receiving their degrees, many young college graduates in Central Asia simply cannot find a job with a decent salary.

Indeed, there are many qualified specialists among Central Asian migrant laborers who have failed to find professional employment in their fields.

An Uzbek teacher, Shokirjon Muminov, says schoolchildren in villages see their older siblings or relatives spending years studying and then going to Russia because it’s simply impossible to find a job at home

"In happens in our schools that some pupils as young as eighth- and ninth-grade students leave for Russia and Kazakhstan, without completing their education in the 10th and 11th grades," Muminov says.

Muminov adds that many people believe university "is a waste of time and money, because many university graduates have to build houses or push carts in markets in Russia, with useless university degrees in their pockets."

Bright Spots

However, the picture is not gloomy for everyone. Unlike in Soviet times, the younger generation of Central Asians has an opportunity to study abroad.

There are many education projects funded by Central Asian states or foreign governments. A number of well-to-do families, particularly in energy-rich Kazakhstan, send their kids to study abroad.

The Kazakh government has also launched a special program called “Bolshak” (Future) to finance thousands of Kazakh students’ studies in European, U.S., and Chinese universities.

Similar state-funded programs -- albeit on a much smaller scale -- exist in other Central Asian countries. But most of them remain a dream for all but the children of elite families and government employees.

Others, for now, have simply stopped dreaming of a better future -- and headed to work abroad.

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service correspondent Barnohon Isakova contributed to this report

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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