While thousands of Tajik labourers migrate to Russia for work each year, Kazakhstan provides a second and closer alternative, enjoying the highest level of economic growth in the region.
"There is no work in Tajikistan," Ayubou Rahmonali, a 23-year-old fruit seller arriving three months earlier from a village outside the Tajik capital Dushanbe, told IRIN. "Life conditions are difficult there - that's why we come," he said, unloading another crate of oranges outside his roadside stand in the Kazakh commercial capital Almaty.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 600,000 Tajik citizens a year seasonally migrate abroad for work. The vast majority go to Russia, although many travel to neighbouring Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in search of jobs.
How many actually come to oil-rich Kazakhstan, however, remains unclear. During a December 2004 press conference in Dushanbe, Kazakh Ambassador to Tajikistan, Erlan Abildayev, placed the figure at 200,000, while Tajik officials downplayed that figure significantly.
"There are currently 17,000 Tajiks in Kazakhstan today, the vast majority - around 16,000 - are seasonal labour migrants," Azamsho Sharipov, Tajik Deputy Ambassador to Kazakhstan told IRIN in Almaty.
Meanwhile, Mahmoud Naderi, IOM chief of mission in Tajikistan, told IRIN from Dushanbe that their numbers were around 20,000 and increasing, but slowly.
Whatever their real numbers, their presence or the challenges they face as labour migrants, including legal status and protection, cannot be denied. Most work as seasonal agricultural workers, street venders or day labourers in Kazakhstan's burgeoning construction sector, according to Sharipov.
"Their problems are similar to those [Tajiks] in Russia, mainly [regarding] registration, legal employment [work permission], and health insurance," Naderi added.
Although the presence of Tajik labour migrants was largely accepted during Tajikistan's five-year civil war, that position soon changed with the cessation of violence in the impoverished state in 1997.
"Thereafter, the government considered them only as illegal labour migrants," Zhovtis Eugeniy, human rights activist for Kazakhstan's International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, told IRIN in Almaty. "They are usually doing the hardest work with no legal status."
Often the target of the migration police, many Tajiks had been detained and deported, the activist said, adding that anyone who wished to employ a foreigner or non-Kazakh was obliged to pay for a licence, with most not complying.
"Without legal status they face abuse and extortion. Without legal status, you have no legal protection," Eugeniy charged.
At present there is no ratified agreement on the issue of migration between the two countries. "The Kazakh government is not doing much for (the) facilitation of Tajik labour migrants," IOM's Naderi claimed, noting that only in Almaty had Dushanbe succeeded in reaching an agreement with the authorities in procuring a type of work permission lasting for one year.
However, the legal status of Tajik migrants in Russia and Kazakhstan was not dissimilar, Sharipov said, a sentiment echoed by Naderi.
Indeed, seasonal migrants lacking formal education and specific qualifications faced similar forms of abuse at the hands of the authorities, including discrimination and bribery by the police, confiscation of passports and documents, registration, and difficulties in securing work permits.
"We're working on strengthening the legal framework for Tajik labour migrants in both countries," Sharipov said, noting their success had been stronger with Moscow than with Astana.
"We have succeeded in concluding several bilateral agreements with Russia on the rights of Tajik labour migrants," he said, adding in some regions of Russia the Tajik Ministry of Labour even maintained representative presence to help deal with support issues.
Despite that, he believed Tajik labour migrants in Kazakhstan enjoyed a more favourable attitude towards them.
"Our labour migrants find it easier to adapt here than Russia. The reason is that the existing system of labour migration rules is much simpler and more liberal than Russia," the Tajik official said.
But for Ayubou Rahmonali back at his fruit stand, the advantages of working in Kazakhstan far outweigh the risks of possible problems he might incur. "Now I can send US $150 a month to my family in Tajikistan," the recent engineering graduate explained, noting he hoped to save enough money to return his country and marry.