UZBEKS PREY TO MODERN SLAVE TRADE  As poverty and unemployment drive an 
increasing number of workers abroad, many become victims of traffickers who 
sell them into virtual slavery.   By IWPR staff in Central Asia

TAJIKISTAN MOVES TO CURB PROSTITUTION  The police ministry wants to criminalise 
the sex industry, while experts insist the root cause is poverty.  By IWPR 
staff in Dushanbe

BABY TRADE WORRIES TAJIKISTAN  Poverty rather than greed drives women on 
low-incomes to sell newborn babies.  By Salimakhon Vahobzade in Dushanbe


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As poverty and unemployment drive an increasing number of workers abroad, many 
become victims of traffickers who sell them into virtual slavery. 

By IWPR staff in Central Asia

When Abror, an unemployed engineer at the locomotive depot in Urgench, in 
northwest Uzbekistan, lost all hope of getting a job at home, he left for the 
Volgograd region of Russia in search of a better life. 
But he found no job that matched his skills. Unwilling to go back to 
Uzbekistan, where his family and aged mother depended on him returning with 
money, he took a job with a local farmer. In return for weeding vegetable 
patches, feeding the poultry and cleaning the hen house, the farmer promised 
him a small wage. 

Abror’s new life as a servant rapidly turned into a form of slavery. Far from 
giving him any wages, the farmer seized Abror’s identity papers and told him he 
was not going to pay him any money as he would have “nowhere to spend it”. 

After eight months, Abror managed to get away. A fellow Uzbek who visited the 
farm warned the owner that he would tell the police he was harbouring an 
illegal immigrant. 

But this rescuer was no Samaritan. He was a trafficker working in the 
flourishing twilight world of illegal migrants. After prising Abror out of the 
hands of the farmer, he demanded 300 US dollars for services rendered. 

In spite of his grim experience in Volgograd, Abror plans to hire himself out 
again this spring to repay this debt. 

“Once it gets warm, I’ll sell myself into slavery again,” he said. “What else 
can I do? Otherwise, my family of four will be left to live off my sick 
mother’s pension.” 


Nadir Kurbanov, a senior investigator with the Interior Ministry in the Uzbek 
capital, Tashkent, told a recent meeting that far too many people were falling 
victim to traffickers and organised exploitation when they go abroad. 

He attributed the phenomenon to inadequate knowledge of the law among migrant 
workers, coupled with the high unemployment rate in Uzbekistan which drives 
many to go abroad. 

“The people who get sold into slavery are those who don’t have permanent jobs,” 
Kurbanov told a round-table in Tashkent on February 1, designed to raise public 
awareness of labour laws and migrants’ rights abroad. 

The unemployment rate in the Central Asian state is disputed. Officials claim 
only 0.6 per cent of the population are jobless, whereas the World Bank put the 
figure at six per cent in 2006 and local human rights activists believe it is 
closer to 20 per cent. 

Wages are so low that even people who have jobs in Uzbekistan commonly seek 
higher-paid work abroad, generally in Russia and increasingly Kazakstan. The 
work is mostly seasonal manual labour, although some Central Asians stay on, 
acquire Russian residence rights and lose touch with home. (IWPR reported last 
year how people from Tajikistan travelling to Russia and Kazakstan were 
similarly vulnerable to fraud and exploitation – see Tajik Migrants Fleeced by 
Shady Travel Firms,RCA No. 498, 22-June-07) 

According to the Uzbek government’s statistical agency, the average monthly 
wage was 50 dollars a month last year. This is not enough to live on – an 
official report published in late February 2008 put monthly average outgoings 
on food, utilities and transport at over 150 dollars, or 200,000 soms, per 

The chasm between low wages and the relatively high cost of living, accentuated 
by the tradition of raising large families, forces many breadwinners to go 
abroad to work. 

Surat Ikramov, leader of the Tashkent-based Initiative Group of Independent 
Human Rights Activists, estimates that up to five million of Uzbekistan’s 27 
million people are working abroad. 

“Naturally, some of this number are labour or sex slaves,” said. 

Mirzarahmat, 37, from the southern Uzbek region of Surkhandarya, spent a long 
time working illegally on a Russian building site constructing a house for a 
wealthy man. 

In Mirzarahmat’s case, although the job amounted to little more than serfdom, 
he said it was “voluntary and conscious slavery”. 

“We were working illegally in grim conditions, and we were prepared to undergo 
all kinds of hardship and terrible risks in the hope of earning money,” he 

Farida Abdurahmanova, who is deputy mayor of Tashkent as well as sitting in the 
Uzbek parliament’s upper house, argues that it is never worth agreeing to 
“Neither unemployment nor poverty and need are good reasons for anyone to fall 
victim to the slave trade,” said Abdurahmanova in a recent speech. 


The gangmasters who recruit poor and unemployed Uzbeks for illegal work abroad 
know just where to find them. 

One unofficial recruitment centre is the small town of Keles, 15 kilometres 
from Tashkent, near the border with Kazakstan. 

Unemployed Uzbeks from all over the country stream into the town and sit by the 
roadside for days on end, waiting for potential employers and recruiters. 

Although these people hope to head abroad, they are an extension of the common 
practice in Uzbekistan where a casual worker or “mardikor” will hire himself 
out for a day’s work, which might consist of working in the fields or helping 
repair someone’s home. 

“You can always find a manual labourer here ready to do any job, often just for 
some food, such as a bowl of soup and some tea and bread,” said one man engaged 
in hiring labourers. 

The labourers for hire here say the risks are preferable to trying to find 
casual work as “mardikors” in Tashkent. 

“It’s better to wait in Keles for a job [abroad] than go to Tashkent in search 
of a living,” said one man, wearing a torn jacket as he squatted on the ground 
beside the road. “The police there would pick us up for not having residence 
rights in the capital and they’d pack us off to special [community service] 
centres where they’d use us as a free workforce anyway.” 

Most of the recruiters hiring labour in places like Keles are Uzbek nationals 
now living in Russia who have built up businesses there. 

One such middleman, who did not give his name, said people like him had no 
problems with the law in Uzbekistan even though much of what they did was 
illegal. He said local police colluded in “our very well-organised industry” of 
human trafficking. 

The recruiters are well aware that some Russian employers will not pay the 
illegal “gastarbeiters” a penny. 

“After we’ve assembled a group of people who want to go to Russia to earn some 
money, we take away their documents – we tell them it’s a temporary thing to 
get them through all the checkpoints we’ll meet on the way,” said the middleman 
in Keles. 

“We cover all their [travel] costs, but on reaching our destination, we sell 
them to ‘slave-owners’ for between 17,000 and 20,000 Russian roubles each [700 
or 800 dollars]. To get their documents back, the slaves needs to work for a 
year or more.” 


The latest US State Department report on human trafficking in Uzbekistan notes 
that men are trafficked to Russia, Kazakstan and also Kyrgyzstan for “domestic 
servitude and forced labour”, while women are taken illegally to work in the 
sex industry in a wider range of countries including the United Arab Emirates, 
Thailand and Turkey. 

In the report, which covered 2007, the State Department said the Uzbek 
government did not fully comply with minimum standards for eliminating human 
trafficking, adding that it “is not making significant efforts to do so”. 
Specifically, anti-trafficking legislation pending since 2003 had yet to be 
passed, and penalties under existing laws had not been increased. 

A police officer in the Khorezm region in the north of the country said poor 
legislation in Uzbekistan, weakly enforced and difficult to bring to court, was 
a major reason why the trade continued. 

As things stand, aspects of the trade in people – for example, sex trafficking 
– are punishable under various statutes, but there is no comprehensive body of 
criminal law on the subject. 

For those involved in trafficking manual workers, the most applicable piece of 
legislation is article 135 of the Uzbek criminal code, which sets out fines and 
prison sentences of up to three years for those convicted of fraudulently 
recruiting people for work abroad. In practice, though, few people are found 
guilty of this offence. 

As an observer in northern Uzbekistan put it, “This article of the criminal 
code is one of the most difficult to prove.” 

One reason for this is that the illegal trade is, almost by definition, 
conducted without any paperwork that might be used in evidence. Also, victims 
are reluctant to name and testify against their traffickers. Finally, cases may 
never get as far as prosecution due to collusion between those directly 
involved and local police officers. 


The failure to draft robust and comprehensive national legislation mirrors 
Tashkent’s reluctance to sign up to the corresponding international accords. 
Nor has the government seemed keen to work out agreements within a regional 
framework, even though its own legal powers end the moment the traffickers 
cross out of its territory. 

Uzbekistan has yet to sign a number of United Nations conventions relating to 
labour migrants and is not a member of the International Labour Organisation. 
Its international commitment to combating the trafficking and exploitation of 
labour comes down to one document, the UN Convention Against Transnational 
Organised Crime, which it ratified in 2003. However, the Uzbeks have yet to 
ratify a 2000 protocol to the convention covering trafficking in persons. 

A commentator in Khorezm said it was a shame the government had failed to sign 
either international or bilateral agreements on human trafficking and basic 
rights for migrants. 

In November, for example, the former Soviet states which form the Eurasian 
Economic Community approved a draft agreement that would guarantee reciprocal 
rights for nationals of one member country working temporarily in another. 
Uzbekistan, however, abstained - even though it is one of the countries that 
could stand to gain the most from guarantees extended by recipient states like 

“Uzbekistan did not approve it and confined itself merely to expressing an 
opinion,” said the observer in Khorezm. 

However, such attitudes may be changing. Last year, Uzbekistan did ratify a 
bilateral agreement with Russia outlining protections for their respective 
nationals when working in the other state. 

At national level, a migration official from the Uzbek interior ministry was 
quoted on February 28 as saying “preventive measures” were being considered as 
a way of curbing with illegal migration including forced labour. 


The migration official, Colonel Mirjalol Karimov, quoted by the official 
Press-uz.info website, added that leaflets would be published to spread the 
word among labour migrants about how to avoid exploitation. 

Efforts to provide public-service information of this kind via television and 
radio were also noted in the otherwise critical State Department report on 

The need for such information is apparent from the gulf between people’s 
desperation to leave and the extent to which they are properly prepared. A 
survey conducted by the non-government group Tong Jahonim in 2006 found that 
more than 90 per cent of young people in Uzbekistan wanted to go abroad in 
search of work, yet less than one per cent of them knew anything at all about 
the procedures for exiting their own country and living and working elsewhere. 

As well as the state, a number of non-government groups are running awareness 
campaigns and offering practical advice to people planning to work abroad. 

Istikbolli Avlod, for example, has branches in several regions of Uzbekistan 
and offers a telephone hotline on employee rights abroad, as well as giving 
legal advice to the victims of trafficking and exploitation. 

“We get calls from abroad, and we’ve managed to get people released from 
slavery a number of times. Recently we’ve been getting a lot of phone calls 
from people in Kazakstan,” said one member of the group, who did not want to be 

A longer-term objective, perhaps, would be to improve economic conditions in 
Uzbekistan enough to stem the tide of migrants. Tashkent’s deputy mayor 
Abdurahmanova, for example, has argued that the authorities must get more 
people into work using the official employment exchange offices. 

At the moment, the 30,000 or so vacancies advertised in Tashkent’s employment 
offices are mostly for low-paid, unskilled jobs. Jobs in metalwork or as 
cleaners pay only about 50,000 to 70,000 soms a month, for example, or between 
30 and 50 dollars. 

These state-run job agencies do not currently offer information or advice about 
working in Russia and Kazakstan, although they do put together teams of workers 
to go to South Korea. 

The new private firms that have sprung up are really geared towards 
professionals who are heading for pre-arranged jobs in places like Poland, and 
who can afford to pay a fee for the service. 

“You have to pay 1,500 to 2,000 dollars for these intermediary services,” said 
a local commentator. 

“Potential slaves, the kind of people who are willing to do any kind of dirty 
work, certainly don’t have that kind of money.” 

These “potential slaves” constitute the least well-informed group of migrants, 
and consequently the least able to defend their legal rights. But for the 
moment, there is little sign they are heeding warnings that they are placing 
themselves at risk by entrusting their future to the wrong people. And even if 
they are aware of the dangers, the hope of earning decent money still seems to 
outweigh any concerns. 


The police ministry wants to criminalise the sex industry, while experts insist 
the root cause is poverty.

By IWPR staff in Dushanbe

As the Tajik interior ministry announces tougher penalties for prostitution, 
analysts say the local sex industry is a product of poverty and social 
dislocation and will not be easy to eradicate . 

In late January, Interior Minister Mahmadnazar Salihov said his staff were 
drafting a special bill that would soon be sent to parliament.

Sex workers currently face relatively mild penalties under “administrative” or 
civil law, which rarely go beyond police warnings and rebukes.

The minister said this approach had failed to solve the problem. “We must make 
those engaged in prostitution answerable under criminal law,” he said.

According to official figures, there are at least 500 women working as 
prostitutes in the Tajik capital Dushanbe. 

It is unclear whether the number of sex workers is growing, but observers agree 
that these days, the capital’s prostitutes are more open about their activities 
than before. 

Lieutenant-Colonel Khudonazar Asozoda, head of information at the Interior 
Ministry, told IWPR that a police sweep conducted in December netted more than 
150 working women aged 14 to 45. Twenty-five of them were minors.

Some offered sexual services in bars, restaurants, nightclubs and saunas; 
others were streetwalkers.

“Medical examinations revealed 50 of these girls had venereal diseases,” said 
Lt-Col Asozoda, adding that most cases involved syphilis, followed by gonorrhea 
and other diseases. 

Rahim Boboev, a police captain in Dushanbe’s Sino-1 district, believes 
criminalising prostitution may deter at least some women from pursuing this 
kind of work.

But while police and government officials appear to be putting their faith in 
harsher laws, sociologists interviewed by IWPR cast doubt over whether these 
measures were the right way to address the problem.

They listed other factors, including poverty, social change and lack of 
education as key contributory factors in the sex industry.

Umeda’s story is typical of those of many women trying to cope with the severe 
economic hardship that has dogged Tajikistan since independence in 1991. 

She told IWPR she was forced into marriage at the age of 15, before she had 
finished secondary school. Only six months later, her husband left for Russia 
in search of a job - and she never heard from him again. 

In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Tajiks have gone off to Russia 
annually in search of seasonal work as manual labourers, which pays far more 
than they could earn at home.

Umeda waited for him for two years, but when her husband’s parents decided he 
must be dead, they sent her back to live with her parents. 

By then, her three older sisters and their children were also living with the 
parents. Their husbands, too, had failed to return from Russia.

The entire family of 15 survived on the earnings sent home by Umeda’s brother, 
who was also working in Russia.

Then disaster struck. “To our misfortune, skinheads killed our brother last 
year,” said Umeda. “His body was sent back from Russia.”

Umeda then began sliding towards prostitution after first taking up with a man 
who dropped her after he found “another silly girl”, in her words. “Then I 
dated his friend for a while, and after that things began to take off,” she 

She says she has no option but to carry on working as a prostitute.

“Find me a job that will feed 15 people and I’ll quit this profession,” she 
said. “I’m tired of being raped every night.”

At the other end of the income scale in the sex industry, some Tajiks have 
joined women from other parts of the former Soviet Union who go abroad to work 
as prostitutes. Some go willingly; others are duped by traffickers and held by 

Lt-Col Qaromat Mirzoeva, a female officer with the prosecution service, 
recalled a case two years ago where the police in Dubai sent 45 women home to 

“They aren’t ashamed of being part of the oldest profession and they just want 
to return to Dubai,” said Mirzoeva. “I doubt that harsh laws introduced by the 
interior ministry will stop such girls.” 

Some experts believe the culture of sexual permissiveness beamed into people’s 
homes via satellite television, films and the internet since the fall of the 
Soviet Union has played a part in changing attitudes in what remains mostly a 
traditional Muslim society. 

“The sexual revolution reached our country later than in the West,” complained 
a Dushanbe university lecturer, who did not want to be named. “It has led to a 
situation in which women and girls engage in prostitution unconcernedly and 
don’t feel ashamed.” 

What is beyond doubt, though, is that the 1992-97 Tajik civil war and 
accompanying economic decline had a hugely disruptive effect on traditional 
values and social structures – and particularly on women’s lives and prospects. 

Gulchekhra Mirzoeva, who heads a women’s group called Modar (“Mother”), said 
that in those turbulent years women often agreed to become second or third 
wives of nouveau-riche businessmen or paramilitary commanders. 

Such second wives commonly left school early without getting an education or a 
trade, as they were expected to look after the home. 

Polygamy, permitted by Islam but banned by Tajikistan’s Soviet-derived secular 
laws, has reappeared since 1991, often as women seek financial security in 
uncertain times.

“Now their so-called husbands have left them, or they have gone off to Russia, 
or else they have no more money to feed their families,” said Mirzoeva. “These 
women have now joined the ranks of the unemployed, the poor and the 

Qurbongul Qosimova, who heads a local charity called Najoti Kudakon (“Save the 
Children”), says tightening up the laws on prostitution will not address the 
plight of vulnerable women.

She has noted a recent increase in the number of divorced young women in rural 
areas. They are former second or third wives, a category who can easily be 
divorced and turned out of the home since a polygamous marriage enjoys no legal 

“It’s fine if the woman has relatives and they’re prepared to take her back,” 
said Qosimova. “But some of them don’t, and they may become streetwalkers. 
That’s why prostitution is thriving.”

In Qosimova’s opinion, it is not prostitutes who should be punished, but the 
men who go to them. 

She would like these clients to face hefty fines and to be named and shamed on 
television and in the newspapers. 

Qosimova thinks jobs should created especially for women. “When there’s a job, 
there is bread, and the need to sell oneself disappears,” she said.

Meanwhile, some sex workers in the capital said they had no fear of stricter 

“Those who use our services usually hold senior positions or have lots of 
money, so of course they’ll be able to come to an arrangement with 
law-enforcement officials,” says Tahmina, originally from the south of the 
country and working as a prostitute in Dushanbe for the last six years.

Mohira, who works with Tahmina, was equally confident, saying the police had 
caught her several times but took no action as her clients simply bribed them 
to go away. 

“The only thing is that our services then cost them a bit more,” she explained.

Many women said if there were a crackdown on the streets, they would merely 
work more discreetly out of apartments controlled by pimps, who in Tajikistan 
are usually women. They added that these “mamas”, as they are known, have good 
connections in the police force.


Poverty rather than greed drives women on low-incomes to sell newborn babies.

By Salimakhon Vahobzade in Dushanbe

A growing number of single mothers in Tajikistan are selling their newborn 
children because they are unable to get by in the poverty-stricken Central 
Asian state.

Gulchekhra, 34, recently found herself detained at a police station in the 
capital Dushanbe after trying to sell her baby.

The divorced mother-of-two says she was driven to this extreme step after 
giving birth to a child she could not support.

“I got divorced a long time ago and my husband doesn’t help me,” she explained.

Gulchekhra lives in a small shanty with a worn-out roof on the outskirts of 

“We have electricity only for an hour a day and have no money for firewood or 
coal,” she said. “When it rained in the autumn, my girls collected trash and we 
burned it for heating. But when the snows came and it got colder, we just 
stayed at home without electricity and heat.” 

People living on the margins of society like Gulchekhra have had a particularly 
hard time of this winter, as almost continual snowfalls and unusually severe 
frosts dealt a knock-out blow to the country’s run-down and under-resourced 
water and electricity networks. 

As isolated villages were left without utilities for weeks on end, the 
government had to appeal to the international community for help. 

Single mothers like Gulchekhra and others such as elderly people who have no 
earning power, have shivered through the winter, often going short of food and 

Gulchekhra’s troubles worsened a year ago when she left her job as a cleaner at 
a village school to work in a café in the capital’s bustling Korvon market. 

The money she earned just about covered food, second-hand clothes and school 
materials for her two girls. 

Then she met a vegetable trader at the bazaar who started courting her. She 
thought marriage was in the offing and became pregnant. 

“When he found out I was five months gone, he left,” she recalled. 

Gulchekhra says she did not want the child but it was too late to get an 
abortion, so she gave birth at home with the help of a midwife. 

When she told the midwife she did not want to keep the child, the woman told 
her she could sell the baby for 300 somoni, worth about 90 US dollars. 

The plan got nowhere. The police found out about it and swooped. Gulchekhra is 
sure her neighbours informed on her.

Now she faces a potential jail sentence of between five and eight years if she 
is found guilt of trafficking in minors. 

Released pending trial, she said, “they told me not to go anywhere but would I 
go without money?”

According to Colonel Azimjon Ibrohimov, head of the Tajik interior ministry 
department that deals with human trafficking, says the number of women selling 
their children appears to be on the increase. 

Last year, the police recorded 13 cases of human trafficking involving minors. 
Only two months into 2008, there have already been six cases.

The colonel said another disturbing trend was that in contrast to previous 
years, when only very young mothers tried selling their babies, older women 
were now getting involved. 

Supreme Court judge Larisa Kabilova agreed, saying, “One gets the impression 
that selling under-age children has become a kind of business for some 

The judge cited one especially disturbing case last year in which a baby was 
sold twice before the affair reached the attention of the authorities.

In the first instance, an 18-year-old mother from the Bobojongafur district of 
Tajikistan’s northern Sogd region sold her baby boy for 100 dollars to a 
middleman from Kayrakum, who then sold the child to a family. 

Sociologists believe that for the mothers, the main impetus is not greed but 

They say the mass emigration of young men from the country to work abroad as 
labour migrants is a crucial factor. 

Every year, about half a million men leave Tajikistan in search of seasonal 
work abroad, mainly in Russia. While many send money home and return 
periodically themselves, others stay on indefinitely and lose touch with their 
families. As a result, households are left without breadwinners. 

A member of a women’s group in Dushanbe, who did not want to be identified, 
said many mothers were left to raise their children on their own. 

Sometimes they take up with a new man who offers some hope of stability but, as 
the women’s group worker said, if they get pregnant “the man does not want the 

Society is far from kind towards these mothers. Traditional mores are strong in 
Tajikistan and illegitimate children are seen as a disgrace. 

Out of fear of being shamed by relatives, friends and neighbours, the women 
resort to abortions or try to give their babies up quickly after the birth. 
This can mean secretly selling the children to childless couples or leaving the 
baby on the doorstep of an orphanage.

Saodat Nabieva, the head doctor at an orphanage in Dushanbe that cares for 60 
under-fives, believes vulnerable women are increasingly repudiating their 
children because there is no longer any social safety-net.

“I can remember back in Soviet times when the state supported single mothers,” 
she said. “It found them jobs, paid them an allowance and even gave them 
apartments ahead of the queue. Now they can only dream about that.”

Dr Nabieva says heartbreaking stories of abandoned babies are increasingly 

This January, when temperatures dipped below minus 18, the police brought in 
one five-day-old baby girl who had been abandoned and who had turned blue with 

Such cases are now commonplace, the doctor continued.

“Last autumn, one of our housemothers was going to work early one morning when 
she spotted a bundle containing a sleeping month-old baby boy was sleeping,” 
she recalled. “God knows how long he had been lying there; it’s a good thing 
the weather was still warm back then.”

Ravila, 17, is typical of the women without incomes and family support networks 
for whom the birth of a child out of wedlock presents difficult choices.

After her parents died in 1993, she sank into poverty, sharing a one-room hut 
with her sister, who has three children.

Ravila says she became pregnant because she had no money to buy contraceptives 
or later to pay for an abortion.

The baby was born prematurely with numerous health problems, and was kept in 
hospital in an incubator. However, a power cut in January led to temperatures 
in the wards plunging below zero, and the baby died.

Ravila admits to a sense of relief as well as grief when her newborn daughter 

“We buried her in the cemetery. I wept but my sister reminded me that it would 
have been difficult to feed an additional mouth when are so poorly off,” she 
told IWPR. 

Many families would be happy to adopt unwanted children but the bureaucratic 
obstacles are formidable. 

Would-be parents have to obtain a pile of permits, documents and certificates 
before they can proceed.

Many are turned down, like Rajab and Istad, who remain childless after 21 years 
of marriage. 

The couple applied to adopt a child, but the childcare authorities in Dushanbe 
turned them down, saying their living conditions were too poor.

The couple live in one room in a worker’s hostel and have to share a communal 
bathroom, kitchen and outside lavatory.

They point out that several of their neighbours in the hostel are bringing up 
two or three children under similar conditions – and they are planning to 
improve their own situation.

“We have our own small business, selling food at the market, and we’re saving 
up for our own apartment,” Istad said. 

“If we could adopt a boy, I would stay at home and look after him and he would 
receive all our love and care.”

She added, “If somebody suggested we could buy a baby, we probably wouldn’t say 

Salimakhon Vahobzade is a correspondent for Narodnaya Gazeta in Dushanbe.

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