The prejudice (and sometimes violence) faced by labor migrants from Uzbekistan abroad is well-documented. But the trials and tribulations they face just leaving home is less publicized.
Most migrants heading to Russia first cross the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan at Chernyayevka, near Tashkent.
Thousands of people mass every day at Chernyayevka, which is the old Soviet name for a village now called Gisht-Kuprik on the Uzbek side and Zhibek Zholy in Kazakhstan.
On a recent November afternoon the crowds – travelers visiting relatives and taking trips as well as labor migrants – were waiting several hours just to leave Uzbekistan.
The longest line was to enter the border crossing: Hundreds of people massed outside in a disorderly queue, which patrolling border guards made no attempts to control other than to open the gates and allow around 10 people through every five minutes or so. It’s a survival-of-the-fittest exercise: Every time the gates open, the line surges forward and the strongest push the weakest back in order to fight closer to the front.
Verbal arguments frequently break out among frustrated travelers, and the occasional scuffle too. One woman fainted in the crush, but the patrolling border guard refused to allow her to bypass the line. The guard intervened only once, when, unable to bear the wait any longer, one couple gave up and climbed over the barrier to leave. “What are you doing?” he shouted at them. “Going home,” replied the man. “This is impossible!”
“Don’t walk on the grass!” the guard yelled back.
The only people exempt from the long wait are the elderly and mothers traveling with young children – and those who pay a fee to border guards to jump the line.
After waiting three hours, around 120 people per hour were passing into the border post – where they faced waits of another hour or so in two more equally disorderly lines.
The first is for customs control, where the customs declarations that all travelers have to complete in minute detail, listing all their money and valuables, are checked – a bureaucratic procedure that has given rise to a mini-business in itself.
Here all baggage is X-rayed, and customs officers frequently pull aside travelers to examine the content – and sometimes make them produce their money to count it down to the last som. (Entering Uzbekistan, shuttle traders are subject to vigorous checks on what they are bringing in and to frequent extortion attempts, which they complain throttles their trade.)
Next comes another long line for passport control – and then finally the travelers can cross to Kazakhstan. On the Kazakh side, the flow from Uzbekistan is so slow that there are often no lines, and the number of procedures is fewer – only passport control, with no obligatory customs declarations if travelers are carrying less than $3,000. Customs officers check only travelers making declarations or those they suspect of carrying undeclared goods.
Crossing borders in Central Asia is frequently a headache, but so notoriously bureaucratic are Uzbekistan’s frontiers that the country ranks dead last in the Trading Across Borders category of the World Bank’s Doing Business report.