Legal options for getting to Europe, United States and South Korea are limited, not that that stops many from making the trip.
The worsening state of the Russian economy and sustained abuse from law enforcement there is pushing ever more expatriate laborers from Tajikistan to seek out alternative countries in which to find work.
The trend stands in the long term to reduce Tajikistan’s overwhelming economic reliance on remittances flowing in from Russia. For the workers themselves, the shift presents the hope of more dignified employment and, often, much better pay.
Azimjon Badalov, 35, traveled to the United Kingdom under a British government seasonal workers scheme designed to help understaffed farms. His job involved planting trees and picking fruit.
Badalov said he was happy with his pay, which he told Eurasianet was the equivalent of around $12.50 an hour, and additional $30 for every hour of overtime.
“My daily earnings are about 1,000 somoni ($91). In Russia, I used to earn that in a week,” Badalov said.
Getting the job did, however, involve jumping through some bureaucratic hoops. Initially, Badalov and his peers had to go through a series of online interviews after which they waited around one month for a British temporary work visa.
Badalov said the complications were worth it.
When he went to Russia, Badalov, like many of hundreds of thousands of his fellow Tajiks, worked on a construction site, where he could expect to get a $600 monthly salary. Out of that total, $100 was spent on spartan accommodation, another $50 had to be set aside to pay for the work permit, and food and other assorted expenses drained another $150.
“In [the UK], depending on the amount of work, overtime and bonuses, we get anywhere from [$2,700 to $3,000]. About [$300] goes toward rent, another [$200] is for food,” said Badalov. “That means you can cover your costs within four days, and the rest of your income can be set aside and sent home.”
Badalov said that another advantage of living and working in the UK is that migrants can usually expect to face less hassle as compared to Russia.
“In Russia, I was afraid to go out into the street, because policemen pestered me at every turn, demanding to see my documents in a very aggressive manner. And people in general treat migrants badly, as if we were getting wages for nothing. And the employers treated us like slaves,” says Badalov.
While critics of the current British government accuse it of pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment, polling over recent years has shown that attitudes to foreign laborers in low-skilled sectors have grown more positive. Meanwhile, resentful and hostile rhetoric aimed at migrants in Russia, particularly Tajiks, is growing increasingly mainstream.
While the Tajik government continues to struggle to do much by way of creating employment domestically, it has been active on the diplomatic front in trying to find new destinations for its migrant workers to explore.
Dushanbe’s lobbying with South Korea has produced some returns, with small numbers of Tajik laborers traveling there for seasonal work. Talks with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar could lead to similar breakthroughs.
In truth, even without labor migration agreements in place, growing numbers of Tajik migrants are clearly making it beyond Russia and Kazakhstan, traditionally the most popular destinations for work.
Valentina Chupik, a formerly Russia-based migrant rights activist now living in the United States, said she has been swamped with queries from Tajik citizens wanting to know how to migrate to the U.S. or somewhere in the European Union.
“Discrimination and a decrease in wages in Russia has led to people wanting to migrate to other countries. The trend was there before the war, but it was much less intense,” she told Eurasianet.
Nailing down the figures is complicated by the nebulous state of official Russian and Tajik statistics, though.
Tajikistan’s National Bank has since 2014 declined to publish on how many remittances are coming into the country or where they are coming from. The Russians have typically been more forthcoming, but their Central Bank also stopped publishing data on international money transfers in 2022 – likely because the figures would have illustrated in stark terms just how many Russians were fleeing the country to avoid being caught up in Moscow’s military campaign against Ukraine.
But available figures from 2021 indicate that Russia’s share in the remittance pile was already shrinking. Of the $2.9 billion sent to Tajikistan that year, around $1.8 billion came from Russia. Observers of this dynamic hypothesize that a good portion of that $1.1 billion difference comes from labor migrants working in other countries.
While the prospect of living anywhere but Russia is alluring, the realities of making it happen remain arduous and involve engaging in practices that skirt or stray deep into the territory of illegality.
Bekhruz, a Tajik national who spoke to Eurasianet on condition of anonymity, said that he got to Poland by getting middlemen to draw him up an invitation letter from a company. Upon getting there, he put in the paperwork for a work visa and started earning money by working as a taxi driver.
Applying for a work visa before leaving for Europe is usually a fruitless errand, he said.
“An embassy can just refuse to give you a visa, and there is no way to get to Europe without a visa. Once you are there already, it is easier to find a job, both legally and illegally,” he said.
As for South Korea, the migration agreement signed with Tajikistan envisions only small numbers. The bulk of Tajiks working in the country tend to be doing so unlawfully. What helps in doing that is that a large number of Tajiks also hold Russian citizenship, and Seoul grants Russians visa-free privileges for stays of up to three months.
That is how Davlater, 32, who also spoke to Eurasianet on condition of anonymity, got there. Once in the country, he found a job via social media.
“In South Korea, there is always a shortage of workers. So nobody requires you to officially register, pay fees, and so on. The main thing is to get the job done on time,” he said.
Davlater works in a car factory packing spare parts.
“The hourly salary is [$9], overtime pays twice as much. If there is work on the weekend, then the rates are also doubled,” he said.