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Central Asian Migrant Laborers Trapped In Modern-Day Slavery

'Slave routes' are emerging in Eurasia's energy-rich states
'Slave routes' are emerging in Eurasia's energy-rich states
The faces of the new slave trade are Central Asian -- Uzbek, Tajik, and Kyrgyz. But unlike in the past, when Central Asians would emigrate to the West or the Middle East, their new "masters" are former compatriots in former Soviet countries like Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan.

The latest example surfaced last month outside Moscow.

On June 10, some 50 illegal Uzbek migrant laborers were released from slavery-like conditions, Russian media reported. With neither passports nor money, they had been forced to work 14 hours a day without pay. The women reportedly were sexually abused. Police raided the site and released the prisoners after one had managed to escape.

Other examples of slave-like conditions abound, including employers caught in the act of selling laborers (for little more than $100 each). But a more common fate for Central Asian laborers is exemplified by Alisher, a laborer from the Surhandaryo region of central Uzbekistan.

Alisher and his colleagues -- many them relatives -- have been working in construction around Moscow for more than a year. While technically not slaves, Alisher says he and other laborers others often toil for months on end without pay.

"Last winter, we built three cottages, but haven't been paid yet. We worked for two months, or 78 working days," Alisher says. "We built 400 cubic meters. The payment for it is 600,000 rubles ($26,000), minus 110,000 rubles for the food we received. So we were supposed to be paid 490,000 rubles. They did not pay but promised to arrange a work permit for us and said there will be no [police] checks of this place. When we came [to Russia], we didn't sign any contracts. They simply promised to pay us every 15 days."

Alisher still hopes to get his hard-earned money and send it back to his family. Despite his hardship, he has no desire to return to his country, saying there are no jobs for him in authoritarian Uzbekistan.

Cross-Border Trade

Alisher, in fact, is comparatively fortunate.

In mid-June, a group of women appealed to the Russian Embassy in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, asking for help in freeing their husbands from slavery in the Krasnodarsky region. It's unclear whether their plea was answered.

Last year, 18 Uzbeks were released from slavery in Russia's Orel region. Russian authorities learned about the case after four of the slaves managed to escape. The stories former slaves told RFE/RL included details of shackling, beatings, and threatened drowning.

In Kazakhstan, another destination country for many Central Asian labor migrants, a meat-packing factory owner in the northern city of Kostanai was arrested last month while attempting to re-sell five Uzbeks and 10 Tajiks. He had reportedly bought them for $200 each, and according to Kazakh media was set to resell them all for $600.

Last year, several businessmen from the western Kazakh 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, Kazakh media reported. The abusers were sentenced to prison terms and put on probation.

Serik Aldashev heads the Kazakh Interior Ministry's anti-organized crime department in the West Kazakhstan region. He says illegal labor deals supplying Uzbek workers to Kazakhstan have become a highly efficient business.

"The Kazakh side says it needs a particular number of people for labor. The Uzbek side gets the people ready and brings them over," Aldashev said. "The victims say, 'We went out voluntarily, but we were deceived. We were told that we would work for eight hours a day and would get 10,000 tenge ($85) per month, but when we got here we were made to work 20 hours a day. We didn't receive our wages on time.' They complain that they've been beaten and forced to work. Two women have been raped; one of them was forced to have an abortion."

Cheap And Plentiful

All of these cases, which came to light through local media reports, appear to be simply the tip of the iceberg. And as hundreds of thousands of jobless Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz continue to flee to neighboring countries in search of work, the risks are high that they will fall into the trap of slavery.

And in the "free market" of migrant labor, life comes cheap. In Kazakhstan, a slave can cost as little as 30,000 Kazakh tenge ($250) "because supply is much higher than demand," website wrote in December.

Experts say all the links in the human trafficking chain -- from the illegal laborers themselves to the middlemen move them and employers who hire them -- are well established. The chain works well, they say, because all of its links -- including the laborers themselves -- appear willing to comply with the rules of the game.

Most migrants are unaware of dangers they might face when going abroad to work illegally. Until recently, few if any of them may have imagined ending up in slavery.

One woman, a victim of human trafficking, spoke to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on the condition of anonymity.

"[Those who hire people or middlemen] collect people through their acquaintances and take money in advance," she said. "They take their money and passports. Then the people have to wait for up to a year and a half. Then they are sent there."

The Trust Factor

Yelena Burtina of the Moscow-based human rights group Civic Assistance helps victims of human trafficking and illegal migration. She says those who end up in slavery are usually lured by someone they trusted.

"They are trapped easily," she said. "First of all, if we speak of Uzbeks, the middlemen are also citizens of Uzbekistan. In Uzbekistan, the economic situation is hard and unemployment is high. They are often hired by their compatriots who promise them good working conditions and then pass them on to other middlemen or directly to employers."

After being hired and promised wonders, illegal laborers pay for paperwork, then cross the border, reach the place of employment, start working -- and often soon find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

With no documents and no pay, they are at their employers' mercy. They are also likely to become subject of police harassment.

"There is no need to force them to stay in their workplace because they have nowhere to go with no money and no documents," said Burtina. "As soon as they step out of the door, they are going to be detained by police. So there is no need to chain them and force to stay."

Broken Promises

Many women looking for jobs abroad end up as prostitutes. It seems to have become a textbook example when a woman is lured with promises of high wages and winds up in the sex trade.

"They were promised good earnings," said Yekaterina Badikova of the International Migration Organization's office in Almaty, works with women who managed to escape from the claws of pimps. "They were brought to an apartment, locked there and forced to provide service to clients."

Badikova says every woman who managed to escape from sex slavery and sought help of aid organizations tells about how she left several other women behind. "It means we learn about one out of every six to eight cases of women forced into prostitution," she said.

She adds that with regards to men being forced to work against their will, only one out of every 20 cases becomes known to law-enforcement agencies and aid organizations.

Authorities Aware

As economic conditions continue to be difficult for many in Central Asia, migrant laborers -- legal and illegal -- are likely to continue searching for work abroad.

But experts and human rights activists say authorities should do more to safeguard their rights.

Last October at a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, CIS member states agreed to coordinate labor migration in the region, as well as the legal and social protection of the migrants.

Meanwhile, both Russian and Kazakh authorities have toughened regulations regarding the hiring of foreign workers. The changes, which went into force last month in both countries, are aimed at protecting local labor. But experts say the changes are likely simply to increase the number of illegal foreign laborers.

RFE/RL's Uzbek and Kazakh services contributed to this report

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