Human Trafficking and Migration in Central Asia: Two Tales of Ordeal

Ergashev Dominjon, 64, has tear-filled eyes recalling how he was trafficked from his native Tajikistan.

After a heart attack while working in construction in Russia left him disabled  --  the left side of his body is now paralyzed  --  Ergashev returned to Tajikistan and lived in a home for the elderly. While there, a couple approached him and promised to take him to a doctor in neighboring Kazakhstan, then reunite him with his wife and five children  --  whom he hadn’t seen in 20 years. His family was among some 700,000 Tajiks displaced to surrounding countries during the civil war in the mid 1990s.
“I believed them, and thought they genuinely wanted to help me,” said Ergashev of the couple.

After stripping him of his documents, the couple held him against his will in their small apartment with poor sanitation and, for four months during the cold fall and winter season, they forced him to beg on the streets of Almaty, Kazakhstan, without an umbrella or jacket. Despite the average $33 he collected each day, they fed him once daily and would beat him if he refused to go out on the street.

Despite the odds, Ergashev developed a relationship with a taxi driver who believed his story and called the media and police. After the local television station aired an interview with Ergashev, the police detained the couple, freed Ergashev, and returned his documents.

The police then referred Ergashev to a USAID-funded International Organization for Migration (IOM) program, and he was provided clothing, shoes and a plane ticket back to Tajikistan. On his return, he spent a month in a shelter and now resides in a new home for the elderly, where IOM social workers monitor his progress.

Increasing Vulnerability in Region

Labor trafficking stories like Ergashev’s, unfortunately, are all too common in Central Asia  --  Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Several factors are contributing to an uptick in labor and sex trafficking.

There are growing levels of poverty and unemployment in the region’s rural and landlocked economy, which is strategically located between two continents.

Increasingly, underage girls and boys are also becoming victims of sexual exploitation. Street children as young as 11–12 years old may get engaged in prostitution. Women are also increasingly vulnerable to trafficking after they are informally divorced from their absent migrant husbands and need to provide for their families.

Recent economic stagnation in some Central Asian nations, combined with low-skill workforce demand in the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan, has also led to an increase of seasonal or permanent labor migration. In Tajikistan, the world’s most remittance-dependent country, labor remittances equal over half the reported gross domestic product.

Providing Trafficking Victims Support

As part of its prevention efforts, IOM provides human rights trainings for law enforcement, government, religious leaders, and journalists on how to identify, investigate and prosecute human traffickers and protect victims. The program has also developed a series of radio and television programs that are raising local awareness on trafficking.

IOM provides reintegration services to victims like Ergashev. Sponsored shelters accept referrals from relevant state agencies and NGOs in Tajikistan and abroad and provide services that include secure accommodations, food, medicine, voluntary testing for STIs and TB, hygienic supplies, and seasonal clothes.

Reintegrating Migrants

IOM is also working to improve the livelihoods of returned migrant men and women who have been banned from returning to Russia. In 2015, Russia tightened its migrant re-entry rules, decreasing the number of Tajik migrants living and working in the country by 13 percent.

Asiya* was put on the Russian ban list in early 2016 after returning to Tajikistan when her son attempted suicide. Asiya’s son, who was deported from Russia as an illegal migrant on a horse farm, suffered from depression and hallucinations as a result of not being able to financially provide for his family.

Asiya, who was a nanny and elderly care specialist in Russia, now provides for her son’s two children through her small embroidery business she started with help from her local USAID-funded IOM migrant center in Tajikistan.

IOM’s migration hotline helps migrants determine their status on Russia’s three-year work ban list, rather than be barred from entering the country upon arrival. Disputing the ban is very difficult. The two hotline operators  --  Saidmuhammad Davlastov and Safarova Shamigul  -- have provided legal advice and consultations to over 11,800 individuals since 2015. They also advise on how to pass the difficult required permit exam which covers Russian history, law and language.

In January 2015, Saidmuhammad, a lawyer, traveled the same route as migrants from Tajikistan to Russia via Uzbekistan to gain a more in-depth understanding of the abuses his clients face along the way and in Russia  --  including standing in line for weeks for a permit.

While Central Asia migrants like Asiya and victims of trafficking like Ergashev will continue to be vulnerable to exploitation, USAID is committed to fighting this global human rights challenge. Since 2001, USAID has programmed over $200 million to counter human trafficking.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

About the Author: Jessica Benton Cooney is the Communications Specialist for USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance.

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on USAID's 2030: Ending Extreme Poverty in this Generation publication on Medium.com.

For more information:

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