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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spring Brings Exodus of Job Seekers

MTMigrant workers painting curbs in Moscow. Abysheva says workers at construction sites are often brutally exploited.
ZHIBEK ZHOLY, Kazakhstan -- Dressed in ratty sport coats and dirty T-shirts, Uzbek men clutching yellow job contracts squeezed recently into packed buses heading for cities to the north in fast-urbanizing Kazakhstan and on up to Russia.

Kazakh officials say approximately 4,000 Uzbek migrants cross each day to the Kazakh side of this tiny frontier town. In recent weeks, the number of migrants has spiked sharply, border guards say, in response to the economic vitality in Kazakhstan and Russia and the worsening economic and political conditions in the rest of Central Asia.

The Federal Migration Service estimates that up to 2.5 million Uzbeks, 1 million Tajiks and 800,000 Kyrgyz nationals are working legally or semi-legally in the country. Those numbers include seasonal workers.

The surge of workers to the north this spring has surprised many Central Asian analysts, who say the increase in migrants in Zhibek Zholy is just one stream in a broader flood of immigration that is emptying whole swaths of Central Asia of young men.

"This is a new problem for Kazakhstan and to a lesser extent for Russia, and so they have been unsure how to deal with it," said Khadicha Abysheva, the director of a private agency in Shymkent, a sprawling city on Kazakhstan's southern border, dedicated to campaigning on behalf of migrant workers and victims of human trafficking.

"When you have such a large group of migrants, the question is: Do you treat them as refugees, permanent immigrants or something in between, like forced migrants?" said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at the New York University School of Law, who worked with Russian legislators in 1992 to draft legislation on refugees. "Then it becomes a matter of what kind of rights do these people have."

The migrant workers are often brutally exploited, Abysheva said, describing some construction sites in Kazakhstan and Russia as "a kind of slavery." She said workers are stripped of their identification documents, shipped from construction project to construction project without regular compensation, and locked up for the night, deprived of their freedom to walk off the job.

Baltabay Muratov, an ethnic Uzbek living in Zhibek Zholy who was out walking near the border crossing recently, echoed Abysheva. "It's like real slavery," he said, gesturing in an agitated manner. "They were selling people at the market here."

A mustachioed man near the parked buses, who described himself as a border broker connecting workers with distant employers, said of the migrants, "They keep coming no matter what, and more and more of them." The man, who declined to give his name, was one of dozens of men in business attire who seemed to monitor carefully the mostly young migrants who go here.

Whether exploited or not, thousands of workers are abandoning southern Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan every week for jobs on building sites, road paving crews and churning factory lines, and in market stalls across Kazakhstan and Russia.

The migrant workers make a significant economic contribution to the region's stability by sending money back home, yet the thickening flow of migrants in a region of ethnic tensions has contributed to a general unease.

In April, ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Chechens clashed in towns in southeastern Kazakhstan, and the region had braced for possible violence this month, the two-year anniversary of a deadly anti-government demonstration in Andijan, Uzbekistan. In Russia, anti-immigrant sentiment resulted in ugly street confrontations this spring, while President Vladimir Putin has warned in speeches against rising ethnic chauvinism and xenophobia.

On the Kazakh side of the towering baroque archway that straddles the Zhibek Zholy border crossing -- a reflection of the street's medieval role as an artery on the old Silk Road -- Kazakh officials recently installed a tall brick fence on each side of the crossing in an attempt to carve an orderly space for passing migrants. Chipped sidewalks outside the fences swarm with people in various stages of transit: vegetable sellers, child beggars and a constant flow of travelers carrying bulging suitcases.

The hundreds of cars traveling from Uzbekistan into Kazakhstan must submit to a thorough, 20-minute inspection from border guards, who poke seats and send a dog trained to detect drugs and explosives into every cranny of the car interiors.

Until January 2003, the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan was open, with checkpoints only on major routes. But the increasing disparity between the oil-fueled Kazakh and Russian economies and the stagnating economies in the rest of Central Asia, has produced a booming smuggling business in towns like Zhibek Zholy, government officials say. Local newspapers report a thriving illicit trade in smuggled farm produce and electronics originating from China.

But most of all, "smugglers here smuggle people," Abysheva said.