New statistics show migrant labor remittances are now equivalent to over half Tajikistan's GDP, crossing an important psychological threshold and emphasizing the Central Asian country's vulnerability to external shocks.
The impoverished country has long been the most remittance-dependent in the world, with cash transfers accounting for approximately half of the economy. Migrant transfers totaled more than $4 billion in 2013, the equivalent of 52 percent of GDP, the World Bank said in its most recent migration and development brief. That figure was 45.5 percent in 2010 and 48 percent in 2012. In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the second-most dependent on remittances globally, remittances stayed level at the equivalent of 31 percent of GDP.
Both formerly Soviet countries are believed to have sent over one million migrants abroad, mostly to Russia and, to a lesser extent, to Kazakhstan. Remittances are also critical in neighboring Uzbekistan, which receives about one-third of all Russian wire transfers sent to former Soviet republics, accounting for the equivalent of about 16 percent of GDP last year.
Officials in Tajikistan do not like to acknowledge migrants’ importance to their economy. Last year the National Bank said it would stop reporting remittance data, claiming the information could be “politicized.” (The World Bank’s numbers come partially from Russia’s Central Bank.) Other officials have downplayed the role and number of migrants, apparently attempting to deny Tajikistan’s utter dependence on Russia.
Stories of women abandoned by migrating husbands are not hard to find in Tajikistan. It seems every family has a story about a young man who left to earn a living in Russia and never returned. The remittances trickle to a stop; the letters cease. Later the family might hear he’s remarried. Or wonder, forever fearing worse.
In conservative Tajikistan, few are eager to discuss these stories. But every month the Tajik migration service gets about 15 pleas for help from women requesting that Russia deport their sons, brothers or husbands, Radio Ozodi reports, citing an official spokesman. The women have also been appealing directly to Russian authorities.
“I heard from my sister-in-law that he [my husband] got married. [He] doesn’t send money to his kids. They should deport him. Maybe this will influence him to come back to his kids,” Mokhru Kholova, who says her husband Olim left her with their three children five years ago and doesn’t write, told Radio Ozodi.
Tochinisso Khoshimova says her brother Zokirjon has been away for eight years and only once sent their mother $50: “We want him to get kicked out of Russia,” said Khoshimova, adding that her family is simply worried about him. “Mother often cries and doubts if he’s alive.”
The million-plus Tajiks working in Russia are basically the only thing keeping Tajikistan’s economy afloat. Last year, they sent home the equivalent of 47 percent of GDP, making Tajikistan the most remittance-dependent country in the world, according to the World Bank.
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!”
A group of more than 20 people, some shouting nationalist slogans, are reported to have attacked a Tajik train crossing Russia.
The attack took place at midnight on October 26, Asia-Plus news agency reported on October 29, quoting a Tajik diplomat in Moscow.
Around 20 young men of Slavic appearance attacked the train at the Ternovka railway station in southern Russia, the report quoted Mohammad Egamzod, a spokesman for the Tajik embassy in Moscow, as saying. He said the assault was “accompanied by offensive words and racist threats against the passengers,” several of whom had been “slightly injured” while train windows had also been broken. Egamzod added that Russian transport police and railway staff “did not take any measures to prevent the attack.”
The Tajik embassy in Moscow has asked Russia “to impartially investigate the xenophobic attack that occurred with the connivance of local law enforcement authorities and representatives of the Yugo-Vostochnaya Railway and to cover all expenses related to the attack,” the Asia-Plus report added.
Yet Tajik Railways disputed this version of events, saying that the incident amounted to no more than a few children throwing stones at the train, breaking six windows. “I would like to note that this happens everywhere, and even in our country children throw stones at trains,” Mamadyusuf Abdurakhmonov, the head of the Tajik Railways passenger service, told the Tajik Telegraph Agency (TajikTA) on October 29.
In a rare piece of good news for Central Asian labor migrants, Astana has announced that it is easing migration regulations to allow some of the thousands of workers from neighboring states toiling underground in Kazakhstan to come out of the shadows.
The government plans to simplify the procedure by which individual citizens of Kazakhstan can hire foreign workers by the end of this year, an official said on September 6.
The Interior Ministry has drawn up a bill that “substantially simplifies the recruitment of foreign workers by individuals,” Serik Sainov, head of the ministry’s Migration Policy Department, explained in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
Once the bill is passed by parliament, a Kazakh citizen and a foreign laborer can simply sign a contract, and the laborer can then apply to the migration police for a one-year work permit.
This measure will benefit the government by improving tax receipts, but it will also boost the rights of thousands of labor migrants currently working underground as they attempt to circumvent complicated migration procedures. It will apply to thousands of female migrants working as domestic help or nannies, for example, offering them the opportunity to acquire legal status.
Oil-rich Kazakhstan is a magnet for labor migrants from poorer neighbors such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Some work legally, some work underground, and some are trafficked against their will.
Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure and a candidate for Moscow mayor, has reached out to the city’s migrant communities, meeting with eight migrant rights activists on August 16, according to the weekly Bolshoy Gorod (“Big City”) Magazine.
News of the meeting so far appears limited to comments by one participant, since the Navalny campaign asked participants not to disclose the contents of the discussion, promising to release a video of the event. (Those comments by Bella Shakhmirza, founder of the Face to Face lecture series on ethnic relations in Russia, give little away. She describes Navalny’s position as “frightening” and “nationalist,” while calling him “charismatic” and characterizing the atmosphere of the meeting as “very good.”)
But given Navalny’s penchant for outright ethnic slurs against people of the Caucasus and Central Asia in the past, the fact that the meeting took place at all appears to be a nod toward the potential influence of Moscow’s migrants – and their sympathizers – in the September 8 vote, which includes regional elections in eight federal entities of Russia and several mayoral races in major cities.
Thousands of men from Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and Russia’s Muslim republics gathered in central Moscow on August 8 to mark the closing of Ramadan.
The Eid al-Fitr prayers, which celebrate the end of the month-long fast, gave Moscow’s estimated million-plus population of Muslims, many of them migrant laborers, a chance to put aside, for a few minutes, growing concerns about the nationalist rhetoric, police roundups, and migrant detention centers that have become a feature of the city’s ongoing mayoral campaign and Russian politics in general.
Some knelt on carpets, some on newspapers. Radio Ekho Moskvy said more than 3,000 police and tens of thousands of worshipers gathered outside Moscow’s four mosques for the 8:00 a.m. prayer. Others estimated well over 100,000 faithful.
Outside the Sobornaya Mechet, Russia’s Chief Mufti, Ravil Gainutdin, relayed messages of peace from President Vladimir Putin, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, among others. Blessings in several languages including Uzbek and Tajik were broadcast to the men kneeling in the streets before the main prayer.
A circling police helicopter often drowned out the announcements. For several construction workers from Tajikistan, however, that didn’t matter. As the mufti spoke and they waited for the moment to pray in silence, they were absorbed with a mobile phone video of a tracksuited woman in black leather boots dancing on top of a car.
Tajikistan, the country more dependent than any other on labor migrant remittances, will no longer release cash transfer data because the information could be “politicized,” the head of the National Bank says.
The government stopped publishing information on the volume of remittances sent to Tajikistan in May, the Asia-Plus news agency reported this week, citing the head of the National Bank of Tajikistan. "I'd rather not talk about migrants' funds because this issue may be politicized," Abdujabbor Shirinov said.
Tajikistan boasts the world’s most remittance-dependent economy. According to the World Bank, labor migrants abroad, mostly in Russia, transferred the equivalent of 47 percent of GDP back to Tajikistan last year. The Bank expects the amount to rise again this year. And the transfers the Bank measures do not include cash that individuals carry home, so the number in reality is likely higher.
Shirinov insisted that not all cash transfers from individuals are labor migrant remittances, noting that some of the money could be returns from small businesses. Certainly that is also possible, but it doesn’t change the fact that Tajikistan is utterly dependent on Russia.
Over a third of Russians believe an influx of “other ethnicities” poses a “very real” threat to Russia’s national security, a poll released July 22 says. Fewer Russians fear terrorism or environmental disaster, the poll found.
According to the state-run All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), 35 percent of Russians feel migrants from abroad are a top threat to Russia’s security. Thirty-three percent believes the “degradation of culture, science and education” poses a grave threat. Twenty-eight percent names terrorism and the same proportion cites ecological catastrophe as “very real” threats.
A VTsIOM spokeswoman told RIA Novosti that the question about “other ethnicities” referred to “migration from abroad.” Migration is seen as less of a threat than it was eight years ago, however; in 2005, 58 percent of Russians named it a top threat facing the country.
VTsIOM interviewed 1,600 people across the country in June for the poll, asking them to rate the likelihood of 20 potential security threats.
The influx of foreign laborers has climbed considerably over the last decade as Russia has experienced an oil-fueled economic boom and its own population continues to decline. Russia’s Federal Migration Service estimates the number of migrant workers in Russia is around 5 million, of which 60 percent are illegals. The number is growing quickly, too. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Russia is more dependent on illegal migrants than any other country. They account for approximately 7 percent of the workforce.
Never known for compassion, the strongman president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, has lashed out at Uzbek migrant workers in Russia, calling them “lazy people” who “disgrace all of us” by looking for work abroad.
"I call lazy people those who go to Moscow and sweep its streets and squares. One feels disgusted with the fact that Uzbeks have to travel there for a piece of bread. Nobody is starving to death in Uzbekistan,” state-run television quoted Karimov as saying on June 20.
“The Uzbek nation's honor makes us different from others. Is not it better to die [than scrounge]? Therefore, I call lazy those people who disgrace all of us by wanting to make a lot of money faster there,” Karimov added (transcript from BBC Monitoring).
Easy for him to say. In Karimov’s breathtakingly corrupt dictatorship, major industries are allegedly controlled by a coterie of senior government officials and their families. Unemployment and underemployment are rife and Karimov has done little to foster a more transparent system that might attract investors and create jobs.