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As Work Dries Up, Central Asian Migrants Return Home

Millions of migrant workers in Russia are now out of work
Upon leaving his construction job in Russia, Nazir always saw his return to northern Tajikistan as a short-term winter break to spend time with his wife and their two children.

But he saw his earnings in Russia dwindle significantly in the past year, and today the 30-year-old construction worker finds himself putting his skills to use installing satellite dishes in his native village to make ends meet.

"It's very much a short-term job," Nazir says. "I will be out of work pretty soon, once every villager gets their satellite antenna.

"When people come back from Russia, after earning some money, we had an increased demand for satellite antennas," Nazir adds. "I can't say for sure, but I earn about $130 to $150 a month."

Most years, Nazir wouldn't be so dependent on the money he makes while on break. The income he brings in building private homes in Russia's eastern Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous Okrug from early spring to late autumn is usually enough for the year.

But toward the end of summer, Nazir says, the availability of jobs became scarce and wages fell for those jobs that were available.

"There were not many people planning to build new homes for themselves, so we didn't have many job opportunities in Russia," he says.

Nazir still plans to head back to Khanty-Mansiisk in April, but he worries that he will be forced to return home early if he cannot find work.

Millions Of Unemployed

An estimated 6 million Central Asian men and women who make their livings as migrant workers at Russian construction sites, factories, vegetable markets, and agricultural farms, share Nazir's concerns.

Like the rest of the world, Russia has been hit hard by the global economic slowdown and even more so by plunging oil and other commodity prices, an important source of revenue for the country.

Layoffs have become increasingly frequent at Russian companies, leaving many migrants without work. The country's construction boom, too, has slowed significantly, lessening the demand for Central Asian labor.

Migrant workers leaving Moscow for home
The prospect of hundreds of thousands -- or even millions -- of workers returning home has led the governments of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan in particular to consider ways of circumventing a potential social crisis.

While estimates vary widely, it is believed that 4 million Uzbeks, 1 million Tajiks, and a half million Kyrgyz work as migrant laborers in Russia. Officials in the three countries provide significantly lower numbers.

More clear is that unemployment is already the most serious issue in all three countries and poverty is widespread.

Tashpulat Yuldashev, a Tashkent-based independent analyst, tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that authorities there fear that the return of migrants, combined with already falling living standards, could lead to social unrest.

But he also says that the risk of a crackdown will cause migrants to simply look for work elsewhere.

"Returned migrants, of course, are dissatisfied; they are not happy with the situation in Uzbekistan," Yuldashev says, but he adds that "their frustration will not lead to social upheavals because people are afraid -- they will think of their children and relatives. They will only try to leave the country again one way or another."

Seeking Foreign, Domestic Alternatives

Thousands of Uzbeks migrant workers have already found jobs in South Korea, Turkey, the Czech Republic, and in the Persian Gulf states. Surprisingly, some Uzbek workers have even looked to neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for jobs

The Uzbek authorities, meanwhile, have actively sought other alternative destinations for their migrants.

For example, earlier this month Uzbekistan reportedly asked authorities in Oman to provide labor quotas for Uzbek migrants to work in the oil-rich Arab country's ports, hotels, and markets.

Uzbek migrants are now even seeking work in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyz and Tajik officials, meanwhile, appear to be focusing on the creation of domestic employment.

In Kyrgyzstan, authorities are expressing hope that hydroelectric projects, including Kambarata-1, will be able to provide job opportunities for thousands of people.

In Tajikistan, the Labor Ministry sees promoting entrepreneurialism as a possible remedy, and has adopted measures to help provide short-term loans to allow people to open small and medium-sized businesses.

The country is also setting up special training courses for former migrants to learn new skills that can increase their chances of finding employment. In rural areas, people are being given more opportunities to rent plots of arable land.

Tajik Labor Minister Shukurjon Zuhurov tells RFE/RL that the ministry has made a list of jobs currently available in all sectors, and offered over 150,000 jobs to former migrants.

"We have seriously studied employment possibilities in the state sector, private sector, and all other spheres, in industry," Zuhurov says. "For instance, we studied how many more specialists the education and health-care systems need. The construction sector can already provide 20,000 jobs."

However, not everyone is satisfied with the jobs and potential incomes offered by the ministry.

Mohammad, a 35-year-old former migrant, was hired as a builder two months ago at a construction site in Dushanbe. He says he has yet to receive his full salary.

"Ten days after we started work, we were paid in advance some $40 each," he says. "The company faces a shortage of construction material, so we have work for three-four days and wait again for two weeks.”

Mohammad says that if situation doesn't change in the next few weeks, he will consider heading to Russia again.

This is because, despite the difficulties in finding work there, officials and workers alike continue to consider Russia the best bet for Central Asian migrants seeking employment abroad.

RFE/RL’s Uzbek and Kyrgyz services 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.