vulnerable migrant labour from Central Asia’s poorest republic.  By Anora 
Sarkorova in Dushanbe

rounded up only weeks after a controversial campaign offering them work 
permits.  By Olga Dosybieva in Almaty

migrants in the retail sector criticised by rights activists and some in 
business community.  By Cholpon Orozobekova in Bishkek


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New legislation hits vulnerable migrant labour from Central Asia’s poorest 

By Anora Sarkorova in Dushanbe

The recent Russian ban on migrants from Central Asia working as market traders 
will have a major impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of Tajiks.

The new legislation, which came into force on January 15, will not only leave 
many people from the former Soviet states without work, but slash the 
remittances they are able to send home.

Russia’s economic development minister German Gref has said the new rules are 
designed to improve the way markets operate, but many observers suspect the 
decision reflects a groundswell of xenophobic attitudes towards people from 
Central Asia and the Caucasus. Following violence between Russians and 
Caucasians in the town of Kondopoga last year, President Vladimir Putin accused 
“ethnic” gangs of dominating markets, to the detriment of the “native Russian 

Under the new regulations, foreign nationals must account for no more than 40 
per cent of the total number of market traders and street vendors before April, 
and after that they will be banned from working in the informal retail sector 
altogether. They are specifically prohibited from selling alcohol and 

According to Russia’s Federal Migration Service, one quarter of all foreign 
nationals in the country are employed at markets. Almost all these traders, 
together with seasonal workers in other low-paid sector such as construction, 
are from the former Soviet Union, China and Vietnam.

Depending how seasonal migrants are counted, there may be around a million 
Tajikistan nationals away working in Russia, many of them in the grey economy. 
Tajik officials put the figure lower, at some 450,000, but either way the 
figure is high for a population of seven million people.

A recent World Bank study estimated that the remittances sent back by these 
workers contribute more than 10 per cent of Tajikistan’s gross domestic 
product. Economists warn that the impoverished Central Asian republic can ill 
afford to lose this regular influx of cash, and social conditions would be hit 
further if tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Tajiks reappeared on the 
domestic labour market.

Also in January, Moscow introduced legislation to streamline the process by 
which foreigners register for a legal work permit. This will benefit successful 
applicants, who will be entitled to benefits and legal protection, and reduce 
the number working in the shadow economy. 

But some confusion has been caused by Moscow’s decision to cap the total number 
of work permits issued to immigrants from the former Soviet Union – most of 
whom do not need visas to come to Russia - at six million, with individual 
quotas for each country.

“The situation is very difficult,” said Muhammad Egamzoda of Tajikistan’s 
embassy in Moscow. “Russia has not yet defined the quotas for each country, and 
every day dozens of our compatriots ring the embassy asking what they should 

The Russian and Tajik migration services have established a joint commission 
which will review the implications of the new legislation.

In the wake of the new legislation, many seasonal migrants are already leaving 

But some analysts in Tajikistan argue that the restrictions on market trading 
will not really reduce the number of Tajiks going to Russia. 

Political scientist Khojimahmad Umarov, for example, notes that between 30 and 
50 per cent of the Tajiks working in Russia could be affected by the trading 
ban, but predicts that this will not cause a large exodus. 

“The ban on retail trading will simply mean that the migrants look for work in 
other areas, particularly in the construction industry and other manual jobs 
where no qualifications are needed,” he said.

Many Tajiks are more pessimistic. “Labour migration status has caused a huge 
number of problems with the migrants’ documents,” said Gavhar Juraeva, director 
of the Tajikistan Foundation in Dushanbe. “There are no exit stamps, and there 
are many other problems. The Russian authorities are not ruling out abolishing 
the quota for visa-free countries altogether.”

At Dushanbe airport, more than half the passengers on an arriving Tajikistan 
Air plane were migrant workers returning on the four-hour flight from Moscow. 

Among the passengers was Ozod Rahimov, who had just completed a marathon eight 
hours in the air. After flying to Moscow in the morning, he was sent home the 
same evening after Russian passport officers identified him from his retina and 
fingerprints as having been deported several years ago.

Figures from the Tajik interior ministry show that Russia deported around 7,000 
Tajik migrants last year, mainly for working illegally. Russian regulations bar 
them returning for five years. 

After the Russians started deporting large numbers of Tajiks, many tried to 
circumvent the regulations by changing their passports and names. But this was 
not enough to fool the Russian computers. 

"Yes, I won't conceal the fact - I broke the law,” said Rahimov. “I have a lot 
at stake. I earn money for my family. I have to do something, since I can’t 
earn any money in my own country.”

According to official figures, average pay in Tajikistan is 30 to 35 US dollars 
a month, whereas in Russia a skilled worker can earn 300 dollars or more.

Anvar Boboev, head of Tajikistan’s Migration Service, hopes some that a 
solution can be worked out between the two countries. 

“These people are not terrorists or murderers, and they haven’t committed 
serious crimes in Russia,” said Boboev. “So we’re hoping the Russians will show 
some understanding on this issue.”

Dushanbe has asked Moscow to “amnesty” as many as 50,000 deported migrants, but 
the Russian migration service has said each case needs to be reviewed 
individually, meaning the process is likely to take a long time.

Even when Tajiks try to register properly in Russia, they encounter many 
difficulties. Ravshan Salihov has lived in Moscow for three years without being 
able to formalise his status. He says bosses prefer to keep their gastarbeiters 
off the books so as to avoid taxes and insurance payments, and they therefore 
refuse to endorse work permit applications. 

“As a result, I’m an illegal immigrant, but I have to put up with it. I came 
here to earn money and feed my family. So I'll put up with anything,” he said.

Under the new legislation, businesses that continue to employ unregistered 
immigrants will pay heftier fines.

Human rights campaigners have criticised Moscow for the new legislation, saying 
it serves only to stir racism and xenophobia, allowing Russians to blame crime 
and social problems on the migrants from the southern republics of the former 
Soviet Union.

“It’s quite unrealistic to use quotas to regulate immigration,” Galina 
Vitkovskaya of International Organisation for Migration told the Moscow 
newspaper Novye Izvestiya. “What’s the point of it if there is a quota of 
300,000 jobs [in Moscow] but there are 400,000-450,000 people from China alone 
living here?”

Anora Sakorova is a correspondent for the BBC and a contributor to IWPR in 


Illegal immigrants are being rounded up only weeks after a controversial 
campaign offering them work permits.

By Olga Dosybieva in Almaty

Kazakstan has followed a campaign to legalise labour migrants with a large 
police operation to identify and deport those who could not or would not take 
advantage of the scheme.

Like Russia, Kazakstan is a net importer of labour from the poorer Central Asia 
republics, and for years they have lived in the grey economy, receiving no 
formal rights or benefits and paying no taxes.

Last year’s legalisation scheme was designed to clear up the ambiguity. From 
August, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were able to apply for temporary residence 
papers and work permits.

The scheme closed on December 31 with the authorities saying an impressive 
164,586 CIS citizens had received work permits. The largest number, more than 
71 per cent, were from Uzbekistan, with Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan 
comprising the rest.

However, those who didn’t register last year now face deportation. Operation 
Migrant began immediately after the legalisation campaign ended with the Almaty 
police conducting raids on city markets, train stations and building sites. 
It’s not yet clear how many have been deported but at one market police filled 
two buses with illegal immigrant in just two hours.

Political analyst Eduard Poletaev told IWPR that the Kazak government is 
cracking down on labour migrants for economic reasons. “Control over migrants 
has been increased because the Kazakstan authorities are concerned that if the 
economic situation in neighbouring countries worsens - and given the fact that 
Kazakstan's economy is developing thanks to oil dollars - an increasing number 
of migrants may come to Kazakstan, which may cause chaos on the labour market,” 
he said.

But some who failed to register and are now vulnerable to deportation insist it 
wasn’t their fault they didn’t get work permits. They say their employers 
hindered the registration process, preferring that they work illegally - a 
claim confirmed by one businessman in the building sector.

He says law enforcement and other officials in Kazakstan often demand bribes 
from businesses that employ illegal workers but says that’s cheaper than paying 

“I gladly hire illegal immigrants,” he said. “Firstly, they work better than 
the locals, and for much less money. Secondly, hiring these people allows me to 
avoid paying a certain amount of money in taxes. If I paid the full amount, I 
would have to close my firm.”

Alimbek, a Kyrgyz who works at a building site in Almaty, says the only 
migrants legalised during the recent campaign were the ones permitted to do so 
by their employers. 

“We have no rights, our employers or the police can take our documents,” he 
said. “We try not to show ourselves in public places, to avoid being detained, 
or because we are simply scared of humiliation and beatings. None of us can 
complain to the authorities. We only get medical aid in extreme cases. Many 
illegal immigrants don't even know the word contract.”

Only those with permanent contracts were allowed to register for work permits, 
meaning some like Mukhitdin, who came to Almaty from Samarkand and sends money 
home to his wife and five children, failed to get one, because they only had 
temporary jobs during the registration period.

And there were other blips as authorities tried to extort bribes at a local 
level. The news agency Inforbyuro reported that in the Aktyubinsk region in the 
northwest, immigration officials colluded with notaries, telling those seeking 
permits that they must first have their employment contracts certified. This 
was untrue but netted notaries an illegal three million tenge (23,500 US 
dollars), a portion of which they are suspected of sharing with the immigration 

Red tape slowed down the registration process, according to the Aktyubinsk 
prosecutor's office, and left many who should have qualified without a work 
permit when the legalisation scheme ended.

Some, however, say they prefer their illegal status because they don’t have to 
pay any tax. Labour migrants with work permits earn about 26,700 tenge (200 
dollars) per month in Astana but up to 20 per cent of that is lost through tax.

But though they may be better off financially, illegal workers lead precarious 
lives. Conditions for them are often difficult and dangerous, as highlighted by 
a recent court case in Aktobe. Inforbyuro reported that 18 illegal workers were 
allegedly enslaved, beaten and raped at a private bathhouse in the city. The 
owner is now on trial at the Aktobe city court on charges of human trafficking, 
illegal exploitation and the mistreatment.

Meanwhile, in Mangistau, in the west, police uncovered a human trafficking ring 
from Uzbekistan and the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan. Over 150 women 
were allegedly brought to Aktau on the Caspian shore over a one-year period, 
promised work as waitresses and dishwashers. Instead, their documents were 
taken and they were put to work as prostitutes. 

For 20-year-old Yusuf Zhumanov, the price he paid for working illegally was 
high. He came from Bukhara to Shymkent and worked on a building site, living on 
the streets. He says he wasn’t paid and lost both his feet to frostbite in the 
winter, because he couldn’t afford warm clothing and footwear.

Whether further legalisation campaigns to help workers like Zhumanov will 
follow is unclear, but what is certain is that the financial benefits to the 
Kazak economy of more legal workers paying taxes is huge. The government says 
around 2 million labour migrants came to the country last year compared with 
just 200,000 two years ago. Budget revenue from taxes from the legalisation 
campaign alone will exceed one billion tenge.

“In 2007, tax revenues from the salaries of legalised foreign labour migrants 
will be over 340 million tenge a month, or over 4 billion tenge a year,” said 
the deputy ministry of internal affairs, Alik Spekbaev, at a press conference 
in Astana. 

The director of the Kazakstan Human Rights Bureau agrees that legalisation is a 
“step forward” but warns that the problem of illegal migrants is a complicated 
one to tackle - and not only in Kazakstan.

“Unfortunately, the problem of labour migrants has not yet been solved in any 
country in the world,” said Evgeny Jovtis.

“It is a long time before we can talk about solving the problem, given the 
transparency of the borders, especially the southern borders, and the 
discrepancy in legislation among Central Asian countries on this issue, and the 
lack of clear agreements between governments.

“I think that a solution to the problem is not legislation in one country - but 
legislation across the CIS. It is an issue of agreements between nations on 
regulating the flows of labour.”

Olga Dosybieva is an IWPR reporter in Almaty.


Tough new restrictions on migrants in the retail sector criticised by rights 
activists and some in business community.

By Cholpon Orozobekova in Bishkek

Traders from others countries will be out of work this spring when new 
legislation banning labour migrants from working in Kyrgyz markets comes into 

Starting April 1, only Kyrgyz nationals will be allowed to sell in the 
country’s markets, with a ten per cent quota imposed on labour migrants working 
in other retail sectors like supermarkets and shopping centres.

The decision to limit non-Kyrgyz workers comes after Russia’s January 
announcement banning market traders from other countries working there, a move 
that will have significant impact on the Kyrgyz economy and could leave up to 
100,000 of its citizens unemployed.

President Kurmanbek Bakiev has appealed to the Russian president to allocate a 
quota of 500,000 Kyrgyz who would be allowed to work in the country’s markets. 
The Russian side has yet to respond.

Also key to the new legislation was lobbying on the part of local market 
traders who complain they can’t compete with the labour migrants. They say the 
number of Chinese, Uighurs, Turks, Koreans, Iranians and Uzbeks has increased 
dramatically in recent years, particularly at large markets in Bishkek and Osh. 
Some had even threatened to take to the streets and demonstrate if the 
government failed to crack down.

Aigul Ryskulova, the chairwoman of the state committee for immigration and 
employment, says the government imposed the restrictions in response to those 
complaints and to create more favourable conditions for Kyrgyz businessmen.
“The impetus came from appeals and complaints by our local street traders,” she 
“They have appealed to us several times. It’s no secret that every year the 
number of foreign traders increases. And unemployment in the country is 
growing, so they should be replaced by local people. All the work which was 
previously done by foreigners will be done by Kyrgyzstan citizens.”

Even before Russia’s ban on labour migrants, unemployment was a serious problem 
in Kyrgyzstan with official statistics suggesting about 17 per cent of the 
population is out of work. However, the actual figure is much higher, meaning 
local traders welcomed the new rules, although there has been criticism from 
some human rights advocates and businessmen.

“Every month someone I know loses his job. And there’s nowhere else to go. 
There isn’t any other work. I have three children,” said Karim, a market trader 
in Bishkek who supports the new legislation.

Juman Mederaliev, who has been working at Osh’s Karasuu market for five years, 
said traders had planned a demonstration for February had the government failed 
to responds to their concerns.

“The people would have risen up,” he said. “We demand lawfulness and justice.”

Lyubov Ivanova, a businesswoman from Bishkek, says the labour migrants get tax 
breaks in their own countries and have close connections with the factories 
that produce the inexpensive goods they sell. She also questions the quality of 
some of the products they bring in.

“There is no benefit to the country. The money is taken out of the country,” 
said Ivanova.

Sharapat Majitova, the chair of the trade union at Karasuu, says the number of 
traders from other countries began to increase when Kazakstan and Uzbekistan 
toughened their own labour laws. “The Chinese and Uighurs who were deported 
from these countries came to us,” she said, adding she fears violence between 
the local and migrant workers. “We need to stop this expansion now, because 
local traders are angry and sometimes even threaten to use violence.”

Juman Mederaliev agrees that tensions are rising. “Many of them work illegally. 
We need to regulate the system and introduce some rules. No one can guarantee 
that local residents will not resort to methods of force. They may burn their 
goods and drive them out,” he said.

Some, however, oppose the government decision to ban non-Kyrgyz traders from 
the country’s markets and kiosks.

The chairman of the presidential human rights commission, Tursunbek Akun, sees 
the move as a violation of the migrant’s human rights, “[They] also have 
rights. I am against this decree.”

Some in the business community have also spoken out against the changes. 
Company president Emil Umetaliev believes the ban will hinder the development 
of the small businesses that have sprung up to service the migrant workers and 
suggests a system allocating a certain number of traders’ visas would be more 
appropriate than banning them altogether.

Businessman Omurbek Abdrakhmanov also proposes allowing a restricted number of 
migrants in. “I consider the invasion of citizens from [other] countries to be 
a dangerous signal. A quota for each country individually should have been 
introduced long ago,” he said.

There is concern in Kyrgyzstan that the recent debate will harm the country’s 
relations with its neighbours - a fear the government dismisses. 

“At a diplomatic level, there should not be a negative reaction to the 
government decree,” said Aigul Ryskulova. “If the decision is passed, then this 
means it was required by the internal situation in the country.” 

Ryskulova says any complaints will ultimately be resolved between governments.

Meanwhile, migrant workers like Yan from China are worried. She’s been working 
at Bishkek’s Dordoi market for two years and is concerned she’ll lose her job. 
“Yes, I earn good money here, but it is not easy work. I don’t want to leave. I 
want to stay,” she said.

Rozmukhamet, an Uighur from the Xinjiang-Uighur autonomous region who also 
trades at Dordoi, is more optimistic. He doubts the new law will be 
implemented. “Kyrgyzstan is a poor country. We help people by providing them 
with cheap goods. Who are we hindering? The police? We give them money everyday 
for lunch and dinner. I think that the legislation will provide another excuse 
to take money from us. But we will stay here and continue to work,” he said.

Cholpon Orozobekova is an IWPR reporter in Bishkek.

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