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Central Asian Labor Migrants Facing Uncertain Year

A ban on trading and drastically reduced immigration quotas put migrants in a tough spot. From EurasiaNet.

by Edward Lemon 11 January 2011

Fardin Saidulayev manages a newspaper kiosk in the Russian city of Novosibirsk, where he is one of the few Tajik laborers to hold a coveted work permit. Yet he faces an uncertain new year. As of 1 January, new Russian legislation bans foreigners from working in trade. Saidulayev says he now lives in constant fear he will be fired, or even deported.


“I’m not sure what I’ll do,” Saidulayev, 26, told recently. Originally from the town of Ishkashim in the Pamir Mountains, Saidulayev has been in Russia for three years. “I may try to keep working here or I may have to start working on a building site, but competition for jobs there is fierce and the pay is lower,” he added.


Though its economy is rebounding from the 2008 global financial crisis, Moscow, the scene of recent ethnic rioting, is tightening immigration procedures. Russian officials now say the country only needs skilled, Russian-speaking laborers. The changes could have a drastic effect in Tajikistan, where migrant-worker remittances account for up to half of the country’s GDP.


Around 98 percent of Tajik migrants in Russia work as unskilled laborers, Viktor Sebelev, the head of the Russian Federal Migration Service’s office in Tajikistan, said recently in Dushanbe. Many fail to integrate into Russian society. The Moscow-based Center for Migration Studies says that only 50 percent of labor migrants are literate enough in Russian to complete official documents; 20 percent have no command of the language at all.


In November, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signed the decree banning foreign laborers from working as traders in outdoor kiosks and markets and from selling alcohol or pharmaceuticals. Foreigners still have the right to work in markets as loaders, cleaners, wholesalers, or managers.


Since Putin signed the legislation, official rhetoric justifying the measure has intensified.


In early December, newly appointed Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced new restrictions on migration to Moscow. The mayor called for “firm control” over immigration and declared the quota of foreign workers in the city would be decreased to 200,000, an almost 50 percent drop in 2011 from the previous year’s total. "I have nothing against migrants, the city needs them. I just want to understand what kind of specialists are needed and in what areas," he said in comments carried by the state news agency, RIA Novosti.


Similarly, the government has cut its migrant work permit quota again this year to 1.5 million, a significantly smaller number than in 2007 when 6 million migrants obtained work permits, RIA Novosti reported.


The Federal Migration Service also announced in early December that it would compile a list of all migrants from the CIS in Russia, a process expected to take two years. Proponents claim that legalizing a migrant’s status guarantees more rights, including access to health care. But the number of unregistered migrants far exceeds the number of permits. Some estimates place the number of migrant workers in Russia at 12 million.


A reduction in unskilled labor migration could have serious repercussions for Tajikistan’s feeble economy. In 2009, according to the International Organization for Migration, 18 percent of the working-age population migrated abroad; their remittances accounted for 49.6 percent of GDP. Tajik government officials estimate that 900,000 Tajiks work in Russia, 30 percent in trade like Saidulayev.


There is skepticism, however, whether Putin’s new decree is enforceable. In Dushanbe, the IOM’s Malika Yarbabaeva predicted that it "won’t result in the mass return of migrants from Russia." A similar law from 2007 was never effectively implemented, she said, noting that only 17 percent of all migrants live legally in Russia, highlighting Moscow’s weak control over the state bureaucracy.


Nevertheless, the new law could augment the black market for foreign labor, pushing more migrants into unsafe conditions, said an official from Tajikistan’s migration service. “I don’t think we will see many Tajiks return. The migrants will find loopholes in the law and continue to work in Russia. For instance, they will register their stalls in the names of Russian citizens,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern for vexing his Russian counterparts. The Tajik official argued that many Tajiks will continue to work illegally in the trade sector.


That is bad news for Saidulayev, who feels that, because he is legally registered, he has a higher profile than many migrants and could be singled out and made an example of. “I’m being punished for living here legally when many people from my country live here illegally. I think this new policy will compel many Tajiks to continue living outside the Russian laws,” he said by telephone from Novosibirsk.


“At the moment I’m waiting,” Saidulayev said, calling the distinction between skilled and unskilled laborers arbitrary. “I expect “At the moment I’m waiting,” Saidulayev said, calling the distinction between skilled and unskilled laborers arbitrary. “I expect the police will come to close me down soon. If this happens, I don’t know what I will do.”

Edward Lemon is a freelance journalist in Dushanbe. This is a partner post from EurasiaNet.

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