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International Migrants Day (18 December)

Migrants in times of economic crisis: ILO/UNDP join forces to make Tajik migration safe

Tajikistan is the poorest of the Central Asian republics and a huge supplier of migrants: 800 000 of its 7 million inhabitants, most of them men, are working abroad. While many migrants are already at risk of all kinds of abuse, they may also become the first victims of the current financial and economic crisis. ILO and UNDP have joined forces to empower migrant communities and make migration safe. Olga Bogdanova from the ILO Moscow office reports from the Tajik capital Dushanbe.

Article | 16 December 2008

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan (ILO Online) – Last summer Alisher, an unskilled Tajik worker, went to Russia for the first time. Relatives had given him an address but with his little Russian he got lost. Somewhere in the Moscow region he was badly beaten by local youngsters whom he described as “drunk bold young men”.

Later, he found a team of Tajik construction workers who gave him a temporary job replacing a sick worker. But when this worker returned, Alisher had to go. Within five months he changed jobs six times doing casual low-paid unskilled work.

The last employer did not pay him at all and the money Alisher had earned was just enough to pay for a return ticket. Alisher says he was lucky not to have lost his documents and to be able at least to return home.

“This is the typical story of an uninformed and unskilled labour migrant, the story of people leaving the country without training in professions that are in demand abroad, and without information on the host country, labour rights and basic language skills”, says Sobir Aminov, National Coordinator of the ILO project Community Development through Employment Creation and Improved Migration Management in Tajikistan.

According to Mr. Aminov, national and in particular local institutions lack much capacity to assist migrant workers in pre-departure and return matters.

“Our project is designed to improve security of people on the move and those left behind through income-generating activities, training, and awareness raising. The project also helps to protect Tajik migrant workers and their families through better migration management”, he says.

Among the planned project activities are pre-migration counseling and vocational training; seminars for government officials, judges, prosecutors, and private employment agencies; labour market studies; and empowerment of local communities and migrants.

The Tajik economy heavily depends on migrants’ remittances representing 36 per cent of the country’s GDP. While remittances represent a major source of income for the population, many Tajik migrants face serious human rights abuses and insecurities abroad.

A recent ILO study on forced labour in Russia (Note 1) – the main receiving country of migrant workers in the region – revealed that migrant workers face an extremely low level of social and personal security. Less than 20 per cent have signed a contract with an employer. A common practice is to withhold the migrant’s documents which makes it easier for an employer to illegally exploit and control the worker. 12 per cent of migrants have debts and are under the constant threat of deportation or violence.

Many migrants fall victim to racism and xenophobia. At least one third of labour migrants are considered to be at high risk for trafficking and forced labour.

The project concentrates on the Rasht valley in Tajikistan. “This eastern region of the country was one of the most war torn areas, although the main fighting during the 1992-1997 civil war took place in the south of Tajikistan”, explains Beate Andrees from the ILO Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour.

The region saw massive displacements of persons during the war and depends largely on remittances and agriculture. This makes it vulnerable to external shocks and socio-economic insecurity. Most of the labour force is paid extremely low wages; and about a third of the active labour force, primarily women and young persons, are unemployed.

Another target of the ILO project are the families left behind by international labour migrants. While migration can be seen as a survival strategy, it also increases human insecurity. The prolonged absence of the male head of the household often leaves the rest of the family in a destitute situation. The ILO project aims to empower single female-headed households to cope with the prolonged impact of war and migration.

The ILO’s Start and Improve Your Business (SIYB) programme, an ILO training model now widely used by national and international organizations to boost self-employment, provides income and jobs not only for Tajik families left behind but for returning migrants as well.

“My dream is that my sons do not have to work abroad”, says 50 year-old Khadiya, one of the beneficiaries of the programme.

Such programmes for returning migrant workers are particularly important as the current economic and financial crisis deepens.

“Although the global financial and economic crisis will not affect Tajikistan’s underdeveloped financial market directly, experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of Tajik migrant workers in Kazakhstan and in the Russian Federation may be laid off and forced to return home. This may cause social tensions. And remittances, a big source of foreign-exchange revenue in the region, could fall steeply in a prolonged slowdown”, explains Elaine Fultz, ILO Subregional Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The programme is jointly implemented by the ILO and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). “The ILO with its tripartite structure and competence on labour market issues is ideally placed to implement a labour market based strategy against discrimination and poverty in close cooperation with national and international partners, while UNDP’s expertise on local governance will greatly contribute to the empowerment of communities and people”, says Elaine Fultz.

Meanwhile the two international agencies and organizations that represent government, workers and employers in Tajikistan are working together to ensure safe migration and, at the same time, provide decent employment opportunities in the country. So maybe one day Khadiya’s dream will come true.

Note 1Forced labour in the Russian Federation today: irregular migration and trafficking in human beings, by Elena Tjurjukanova, 2nd edition, Geneva, International Labour Office, 2006. ISBN 92-2-117840-4 (print); 92-2-117841-2 (web pdf).