Should you ever find yourself venturing into the mountainous wildernesses of Central Asia, it will likely strike you how few men of working age there are to be found in the towns and villages of the Pamir mountain range, as well as in other parts of the country. Nowhere is this phenomenon more common than Tajikistan, Central Asia’s smallest country by area and likely somewhere you’ve not really thought about until just now. However, Tajikistan was at one point the world’s most remittance-dependent economy, and acts as a perfect example of how migrant labour’s undeniable economic benefits can have devastating social consequences both at home and abroad.
The history of post-independence Tajikistan is not a pretty one. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan fell immediately into a state of civil war that hamstrung the country’s independent economic development. Peace was achieved in the late 1990s, though tensions remained high. The country held its first peaceful election in 1999, but was again mired in economic instability as successive dry summers led to droughts and in 2001, an international crisis was declared due to famine across the country.
Food security remains an issue to this day. It wasn’t until 15 years after independence, that Tajikistan began to bear the fruits of independent labour. Then 2008 struck, and the Tajik emerging economy was unable to rally against international recession. In the last decade, the Tajik economy has grown faster than its Central Asian neighbors, though corruption and questionable economic policies have prevented the trickle down effects that everyday Tajik citizens so desperately need.
In Tajikistan today, more than 30 % of its population lives below the national poverty line and only about a half of the total working age population was registered employed in Tajikistan in 2017. Against this background, the fact that remittances made up 31 % of the whole country’s GDP in 2017 may not come as a surprise. The numbers have varied from 30-50 % of the country’s GDP since 2006, largely dependent on the economic performance of the Russian Federation.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of Tajiks leave their home country. Due to the historical and cultural connections from the time of the Soviet Union, Russia is the end destination for 90% of them. In Russia, Tajiks don’t need a Visa (although the restrictions keep increasing) and language barriers are low, as many of them know Russian language.
While remittances lead to economic benefits, they also have a social impact. Women and children are usually the ones left behind and the mothers have to take on huge responsibility for the family. The burden gets even heavier in cases when the Tajik men who leave for Russia stop sending money home, as often as they have started a second family in Russia. Some are forced to send their children to work or to live in institutions, and although polygamous marriages are forbidden in Tajikistan the numbers are increasing as the eligible men are declining. This is due to the gender imbalance since the internal war as well as due to the recent trend in men leaving the country for Russia.
As in Western Europe, recent migration issues have led to huge internal discussions in Russia and many Russians fear influxes of migrants, in 2017 4/5 of Russians said that Kremlin “must limit” the flow of migrants. That same survey found that more than one in four Russians feel “irritation, dislike, or fear” toward Central Asians. Russia, then, is not the easiest place to find a home.
For migrants themselves, abuse and exploitation in Russia is common, where migrants face xenophobic attacks and live and work in poor conditions. Most of the work in Russia is in construction or as taxi drivers and many report mistreatment from the Russian police, who randomly ask them for money. Racially motivated violence from Russians is also common, taking place on the street, at markets and in commuter trains, called “Russian Clean-ups”, which are organized by different nationalistic groups. There is a lack of response from the Russian justice system, which sends a clear message that perpetrators benefit from total impunity.
While the negative social effects are clear, there are not many other employment opportunities within the country. Globally, remittances reached $613 billion in 2017, far and exceeding international development aid, indicating that people themselves found ways of driving the development of their own country. Tajikistan is not an exception. While the departure for Russia comes at a high social cost and changes dynamics within families, the Tajiks don’t have many other options for now, as long as this forgotten region remains in the periphery for the west, and as long as Russia is not improving the situation and recognizing the benefits of their working migrants.
Emma Lygnerud Boberg