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Idle Hands

A sense of desperation sets in as work abroad dries up and Central Asian migrant laborers return home. From EurasiaNet. 16 March 2009 A serious social problem is brewing in Uzbekistan, where hundreds of thousands of labor migrants are estimated to be returning home due to the lack of employment prospects in Russia and Kazakhstan.

Russia and Kazakhstan have long been the primary destinations for Central Asian migrant laborers. But the two countries have been hit hard by the global financial crisis. The precipitous decline of key economic sectors, including industrial production, construction, and agriculture, has caused domestic unemployment rates to shoot upward. That, in turn, has prompted the Russian and Kazakh governments to drastically cut back immigration quotas for migrant laborers. To make things worse for guest workers, in January the Russian government also banned them from employment in the retail trade, one of the largest traditional labor-migrant sectors.

"There is no work," says Tahir, an Uzbek migrant worker from Namangan who recently returned from his second trip in eight months to Kazakhstan in search of a job. He had spent three successful seasons in 2005 to 2007 working at construction sites in Almaty. "All the construction [in Almaty] has been frozen –[because construction contractors have] no money – and I couldn’t find any work at all. I had had to borrow money [to go to Kazakhstan to look for a job] and I spent it, too; I don’t know what I’m going to do."

Tahir is trying to find a job in Tashkent. Other migrant workers and their family members who spoke to EurasiaNet tell similar tales. "We’re desperate," says Nadira, a housewife and a mother of two who lives in Tashkent, but whose husband works on construction sites in Moscow. "My husband left in January, earlier than usual – construction is slow in the winter – but he has only been able to find occasional short-term jobs; there are no big, long-term projects because of the crisis. We’re hoping he will find something very soon, because I don’t even know what we’ll do if he doesn’t. We’re running out of money."

Prior to the onset of the financial crisis, the usual pattern for migrant laborers was to leave to find work in the early spring and return toward the end of the year. This year the rhythm has accelerated. "Guest workers that normally returned home in November-December and then went back to Russia and Kazakhstan in March-April had to return [to Central Asia] in September-October in 2008 due to lack of employment," says a Tashkent-based political analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Having spent their savings, many of them had to leave Uzbekistan in search of jobs several weeks earlier than usual this year, in January."

KARIMOV FOR BREAKFAST

Pushed out by unemployment and host country law-enforcement, many Uzbek migrant workers are returning home to an uncertain existence. There are no reliable statistics in Uzbekistan as to how many migrant workers have had to return so far. However, given that the number of Uzbeks leaving their country every year looking for jobs is in the millions, the number of returnees is likely to number in the hundreds of thousands.

"A significant number of those who left earlier this year are now returning home," continues the Tashkent-based analyst. "It’s going to be a big headache for [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov. Stable remittances have been a key reason why Uzbekistan has not seen hunger revolts in the past several years."

"Now that hundreds of thousands [of seasonal workers] are returning, penniless, it’s going to be serious," the expert continued. "It’s noticeable to the naked eye: many of my friends returned, even those who had white-color jobs and thought their employment was safe. Many of them still have savings, but when that runs out, and if the situations in Russia and Kazakhstan don’t improve, I don’t know what Karimov will do – if it goes on too long like that, [the unemployed] will [want to] eat him for breakfast."

Russia’s Federal Migration Service reports that it has registered twice as many foreign citizens in January 2009 than it did in January 2008. It had also reported an outflow of foreign nationals earlier than usual at the end of 2008, compared with the end of 2007.

Many Uzbeks who departed for Russia at the outset of 2009 have already confirmed what the economic data suggest – jobs are growing scarce. According to Federal Migration Service chief Konstantin Poltoranin, half of the 246,000 foreign nationals who had been registered by the service this year have already left the Russian Federation.

The employment outlook in Russia and Kazakhstan is not expected to improve anytime soon.

In Russia, the number of unemployed citizens officially registered with government employment agencies reached 2 million on 25 February. According to Tatiana Golikova, Russia’s Minister of Health Care and Social Development, the figure may reach 2.8 million in 2009. Official figures are believed to drastically undercount the number of individuals who are out of work.

Kazakhstan, where almost every sector of the economy has been deeply affected by the crisis, has also announced a nationwide job-creation and preservation programs for its citizens. In connection with these initiatives, authorities are cracking down on illegal migrants and are imposing a moratorium on unskilled guest workers. The moratorium is schedule to go into effect on 1 April.

The scarcity of jobs for migrant laborers is causing ancillary problems, such as rising crime rates.

The official Russian news agency RIA Novosti, quoted Russian Deputy Interior Minister Mikhail Sukhodolsky as saying on 12 February that "in January of the present year the number of crimes committed by foreigners has increased by 25 percent." Despite the rise, migrant workers still commit a relatively small number of crimes, relative to their estimated percentage of Russia’s overall population, Sukhodolsky admitted. Even so, the crime rate rise appears to be bolstering the Kremlin’s protectionist tendencies.

Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry also has voiced concern about unemployed guest workers. In his interview for Radio Azattyk (Radio Liberty’s Kazakh service), Bagdat Kozhakhmetov, the ministry’s press secretary, suggested that guest workers who are not employed should immediately return home. "Why do we need them here?" Kozhakhmetov asked. "To survive, they start committing illegal acts. We have legal grounds to deport back to their homeland."
This is a partner post from EurasiaNet.
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