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Focus on illegal labour migration in southern border regions

[Kyrgyzstan] One of the spontaneous labour exchanges in Osh.
An illegal, informal labour exchange on the Uzbek border with Kyrgyzstan (IRIN)

Experts and some government officials have expressed concern over illegal labour migration in the south of Kyrgyzstan. They say that a growing number of illegal labour migrants from neighbouring Uzbekistan cause social tensions, drive down wages and could spark unrest. But local NGOs argue labour has moved across the region for generations and new agreements need to be reached to regularise the practice.

"We do everything that our masters order us to do," 30-year-old Mahrifat from the neighbouring Bulak-Bashi district across the border in Uzbekistan told IRIN in Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second largest town. "We weed cotton, tobacco fields in summer and harvest in autumn, while in winter we mainly do the housekeeping. We work hard, but we are happy for even that."

There are more than a dozen informal labour exchanges along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border facilitating Uzbek citizens who are looking to work in Kyrgyzstan. They disappear when they see representatives of law enforcement authorities as hiring illegal migrants is forbidden in Kyrgyzstan.

According to the local authorities, some four to five thousand Uzbek nationals work in seasonal or temporary jobs in the border districts of Kyrgyzstan. Generally, they are poor people from densely populated villages of the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley that covers territory in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. They are said to be paid less than US $1 a day by their employers.

"Two years ago our government adopted a document, which regulates hiring workers from abroad," Salima Ismailova, head of the southern regional directorate of the migration service department, told IRIN in Osh. The issue was to protect the domestic labour market, she added.

Extremely cheap labour force from neighbouring Uzbekistan had been flooding Kyrgyzstan's southern districts, which were suffering from very high unemployment rates themselves, Ismailova added. The result had been growing tension between local unemployed people and illegal migrants who were driving wages down.

Some measures to protect the domestic labour market have been instigated, in particular quotas are imposed on hiring workers from abroad. An employer should obtain the necessary permission issued by the authorities, pay a fee for hiring the worker and make payments to the social security fund. The process is exceedingly bureacratic, said a local NGO, requiring up to 15 separate pieces of paper.

"Very few people abide by the law, our farmers are primarily interested in the cheap labour of the Uzbek illegal workers," said officials at the Aravan district of the Osh province. "That's why illegal labour exchanges flourish," they explained.

Meanwhile, some local NGOs have expressed concern over the status of illegal labour migrants as they are vulnerable to exploitation and human rights abuses. Often illegal workers maintain a low profile in order to escape detection by the authorities. "Migrants from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan fear police persecution or various racketeers," Abdimalik Sharipov of the 'Spravedlivost' or Justice NGO, based in the southern Kyrgyz town of Jalal-Abad, told IRIN. NGO activists said incidents of cheating - not paying workers - and abusing migrants were common.

"We are ready to work here on a legal basis. Why don't the employment and migration agencies of our countries make an agreement on more simple conditions of hiring people?" Gairat Abdullaev, a resident of the Uzbek Andijan province, asked IRIN. "Sometimes, it so happens that you are hired for a week, but they ask for loads of papers for that."

"The barriers against the traditional exchange of labour should be minimised," commented Toktogul Toktomatov, a well-known agriculture expert in the region. "There is a chain, our people go to more prosperous Kazakhstan and Russia to work, while the surplus of work force in neighbouring countries heads up to our region," he added, emphasising the importance of formalising the issue.

Officials in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, have recently signed an agreement with Kazakhstan on the protection of labour migrants, working in agriculture in border regions. A prominent private employment agency is dealing with the problems of the Kyrgyz labour migrants in Kazakhstan. However, there are no such agreements with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

"We would like to regulate the process of border labour migration with Uzbekistan, but due to some reasons not depending on us we can't push the issue," Kaniza Iyazalieva, head of the external labour migration section at the Kyrgyz migration service agency told IRIN. According to local observers, Uzbekistan's lack of openness on the issue of labour migration exacerbates the situation. One-way labour migration causes tension and sometimes even conflict situations, they say.

Tahskent argued it is tackling the problem by preventing its citizens from passing the border illegally in search of daily bread in Kyrgystan by tightening controls at border crossing points. "But it is not a way out of the situation," said Adyljan Abidov, deputy head of the "Centre Supporting Civic Initiatives", a local NGO in Osh. He advocated establishing an official labour exchange on the border. A person could come up from the other side of the border, pay a certain fee to be found a job and assisted in submitting the necessary documents, while any employer could do the same.

Kyrgyz authorities think the idea is reasonable. "But we need money, for example, for expanding personnel of the migration agencies," said officials, emphasising the importance of raising both labour migrants' and employers' awareness of legal issues.

In an effort to tackle the issue, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) mission in Kyrgyzstan is trying raise local people's awareness. "We provide assistance to various NGOs and state agencies working on labour migration," Kudrat Karimov, working on one of the IOM's projects, told IRIN in Osh. "For example, a local NGO "Tuiu-Moiun Aiymdary" is conducting training of local community representatives on the issues of migration," he said.

An information resource centre has just started operating at the regional department of migration within the framework of the IOM's project on enhancing the potential of NGOs, dealing with migration problems. "We need to bring closer the positions and approaches of the government agencies of the neighbour countries, namely Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan," commented Sadykjan Mahmudov, head of the local NGO 'Luch Solomona'. The assistance of the IOM and other international organisations in this direction was of crucial importance, he added.

Bermet Moldobaeva, a coordinator for IOM projects in Kyrgyzstan, told IRIN that her organisation was launching research programmes on the issue. "We used to study and implement projects on external migration previously. Hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz citizens are going to Russia and Kazakhstan looking for employment opportunities, but now the question is who is replacing them?"

Local experts think that it is important to challenge the stereotype of labour migrants as people taking jobs from locals. Prejudices against labour migrants are often fed by the press and other media, said Mahamajan Urinbaev, a journalist in the southern Kyrgyz town of Kara-Su near the Uzbek border. The press should pursue the roots of the problem, and document ways of developing a tolerant approach to those involved in the migration process, he added.

In the absence of inter-state agreement on labour migration, there have been a series of meetings between local community leaders in Kyrgyz border regions of Batken, and Jalal-Abad provinces and their counterparts from the eastern Uzbek provinces of Ferghana and Namangan. These meetings have been initiated by several NGOs in the two countries. Such inititiatives may provide workable solutions in a region that for thousands of years experienced the free flow of labour when the economy of the Ferghana region was much more integrated.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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