Special report on labour migrants

United Nations, IRIN Report, 18 December 2003

DUSHANBE, 18 Dec 2003 (IRIN)—As snow gently blankets her village, Saida Rasulova peers through the cracked window of her simple four-room home and wonders. Clutching a photo of her beloved son to her chest, she asks the same questions that mothers everywhere who yearn the return of a lost child would ask. Is he warm? Is he hungry? Is he safe?

In 2001, 21-year-old Abdullo Rasulov, the youngest of five children, left Rossiya, a former Soviet collective farm on the outskirts of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, to work as a day labourer in Moscow, joining the ranks of thousands of other Tajik labour migrants eager to work in Russia's burgeoning construction sector.

That journey came to an abrupt end on 6 July when, just as he was leaving a Moscow underground station, he was arrested for failing to possess proper documentation—a critical factor for labour migrants in Russia. Imprisoned and facing deportation as he is, little has been heard from him since. The Russian authorities lack the money to deport him and the family lack the means to pay for his return journey, so Rasulov is now caught up in a limbo.

Saida inconsolable. I want my son back. Please send my son back to me, the 62-year-old told IRIN.


According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), over 600,000 Tajik seasonal labour migrants travel to Russia each year, rendering migration a key issue for this impoverished nation of 6.5 million. Moreover, for the migrant, just getting there to perform the basic task of putting bread on his family's table entails a harrowing and sometimes risky journey.

IOM programme assistant, Muzaffar Zaripov

Despite the small size of the country's population, Tajikistan is the largest source of labour migrants in Central Asia today, Muzafar Zaripov, a programme officer and focal point for labour migration for IOM, told IRIN in Dushanbe. Although officially there were 350,000 Tajik labour migrants working in Russia today, he estimated the real number to be some 620,000.

Zaripov cited, low salaries, unemployment, crippling poverty and increasing numbers of people entering the job market as the main factors prompting migration. According to the World Bank, over 83 percent of the Tajik population now lives below the poverty line, while a full 17 percent are considered destitute.

Ninety percent of all Tajik migrants go to Russia, while the rest go Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, as well as Belarus, Zaripov said. There were also a few in Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, but no more than 20,000. These individuals are mainly those who escaped the civil war in the 1990s.


According to a recent comprehensive study by the IOM on labour migration, Tajikistan has seen a rapid rise in cross-border seasonal migration over the past decade. Whereas migration had always existed, Tajikistan, like all the other former Soviet republics in Central Asia, had not experienced large-scale migratory outflows until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Subsequently, the volume of the outflow increased in 1994 and 1995 as the result of hardship stemming from the Tajik civil war and the collapse of previous employment sectors during the transition to a market economy. Production fell sharply in virtually every area of the economy, accompanied by a dramatic decline in living standards—driving people to look elsewhere for opportunity and reprieve.


Most migrants traveling to Russia closely resemble Abdullo Rasulov. They are generally unskilled men aged between 18 to 35. Fifty-seven percent of respondents say they left the country without having a profession or skills. Young people who had never worked before make up the overwhelming majority of this group, the IOM report said. Once they reach Russia, they generally find manual work in the construction sector, followed by jobs in oil and gas production, motor vehicle and machinery manufacturing, or become sellers of fruit and vegetables and the like.

The vast majority of Tajik labour migrants originate from the country's rural areas, where the economy and infrastructure are less developed. Yet it is also easy to find city dwellers eager to join their rural counterparts thousands of kilometres away in Russia. Tojiddin Rahimov is ready to go to Russia immediately

Of course I would go to Russia, 22-year-old Tojiddin Rahimov, whom IRIN found selling lemons in Dushanbe's Shohmonsuz market. So would my friends. The stocky young man maintained that once there, he could earn upwards of US $300 a month, while in Dushanbe he would be lucky to earn $50.


But the process of securing the necessary documentation and permits to work legally in Russia is fraught with difficulties and often entails bribing officials. About 80 percent of labourers now entering Russia do so illegally, thereby running the risk of ending up as Abdullo Rasulov did. But even those who survive running this gauntlet and manage to find work soon discover that life is far from easy.

The vast majority of Tajik labour migrants work irregularly in Russia and other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States [CIS], where they're vulnerable to exploitation and suffer considerable hardship, Igor Bosc, the IOM chief of mission in Dushanbe, told IRIN.

The primary problem areas for Tajiks are social and legal protection, areas their government can do little about in Moscow, given Tajikistan' s dependency on the much-needed remittances from its workers abroad.

Aleksandr Karimov, the chairman of Inson, a Moscow-based NGO working to gain protection of the rights of Tajik labour migrants in Russia, told IRIN that Tajiks faced a number of major challenges. These were posed primarily by the legalisation of their presence; infringement of their rights to move freely; access to free medical care; criminal proceedings on trumped-up charges; unjustified detention; nonpayment by employers; incidences of beatings and torture; and widespread xenophobia.

Other recent TAJIKISTAN reports

Journalists still face violations of their rights, 7/Jan/04

Chronology of key humanitarian developments in Central Asia in 2003, 6/Jan/04

Yearender: Tajikistan at the crossroads, 5/Jan/04

Work on US-built Tajik-Afghan bridge to start in spring, 5/Jan/04

Food security is fragile says WFP, 23/Dec/03