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Continuing ethnic tension speeds exodus from Kyrgyzstan

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Poverty has long been the main reason people leave, but now there's another incentive.

by Bakyt Ibraimov

3 June 2011

OSH, Kyrgyzstan | Emigration from Kyrgyzstan is nothing new. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million, of the country's residents work abroad, mostly in Russia.

Before the ethnic violence of June 2010, poverty had been the main driving force pushing people out. The average monthly wage in Kyrgyzstan is 7,700 soms ($170), according to the statistics committee of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

These days, however, many more people, particularly ethnic Uzbeks, have started leaving the country to escape harassment and persecution.

Among them is Lola T., a 30-year-old teacher and mother of two.

“Last year, four Kyrgyz security officers detained my husband, put him in a cell, and beat him up,” she said. “My husband acknowledged that they didn’t beat him badly, but they threatened to put him in jail for helping people kill Kyrgyz during the June events last year.

“It was clear they didn’t want to harm him. They wanted money, as they knew that my husband was and is innocent and was not involved in the violence at all.”

Lola said the Kyrgyz officers demanded $1,000, but they were happy to let her husband, who works as a taxi driver, go after he paid them half that sum.

“We were in shock, and scared since many ethnic Uzbeks had been jailed for life. My husband left for Russia right after he was released. Now he has a job there, and a place to live. Soon our children and I will leave to join him,” Lola said. She will leave behind her elderly mother, to whom the family will send a part of its income.

Kyrgyzstani officials say they have no reliable figures for the number of people, Uzbek or Kyrgyz, who have left the country in the past year. Various official sources offer estimates ranging from 33,000 total emigrants in 2009 to a monthly average of 35,000 Kyrgyzstani emigrants to Russia alone for the past three years.

An aide to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking at an April news conference in Osh, said about 500,000 Kyrgyz emigrated to Russia last year. He said about 80 percent of them came from the southern regions, where most of the country's ethnic Uzbeks live.

“Unfortunately, we can’t monitor migration flows,” said Mairambek Beyshenov, an official with Kyrgyzstan’s Labor, Employment, and Migration Ministry. “Many of our citizens work abroad illegally, and they don’t process proper documents.”

Officially, about 600,000 Kyrgyzstan residents work abroad, almost all in Russia, Beyshenov said. Many people think the actual number is much higher.

Irina Karamushkina, a member of the Kyrgyzstani parliament who visited Osh in the spring, said that on the eve of the anniversary of the June 2010 riots, migration among Uzbeks remains high.

Umida Khaitova, an ethnic Uzbek, washes dishes in the tent where she lived after her house was destroyed in the June 2010 violence. All of the men in her family except her father and her 6-year-old son have gone to work in Russia. She has stayed behind in the southern village of Bazar-Korgon with her mother, sister, and sister-in-law. Since this photo was taken in the fall, the family has moved into a transitional house built by the UN's refugee agency.

“Almost every family has a member or two, and sometimes more, who have left the country, mostly for Russia,” she said.

“Entrepreneurs, ethnic Uzbeks, are leaving the south and trying to preserve capital to take it abroad, since ethnic minorities fear not only for their businesses but for the safety of their relatives,” Karamushkina said. “This outflow will continue until the local authorities take special measures for stabilizing and peace-building in areas densely populated by Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks.”

The Uzbek neighborhoods, or makhallyas, have not become ghost towns. Residents feared that even their looted and burnt homes would be occupied by strangers if left unguarded, so often some family members stayed behind. But the streets and bazaars of Osh are far less crowded, and many formerly Uzbek businesses now have Kyrgyz owners.

Perhaps the most alarming exodus has been from Batken, a remote province of southern Kyrgyzstan bordering on Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Abditalip Egemberdiev, director of Batken’s Labor, Migration, and Employment department, said the province has the highest rate of emigration in the country.

The province is home to about 400,000 people. Egemberdiev said so far in 2011, 21,000 working-age people have left Kyrgyzstan from Batken, a 7 percent jump from the same period last year.

Representatives of local nongovernmental organizations say the exodus has been heavier, estimating that 100,000 people have left Batken in the past few years.

Berdibek Sadikov, director of an adult education center in Batken, said the province has few jobs, an underdeveloped private sector, and no sizeable companies. The alternative, farming, rarely pays enough to support a family, he said.

Unemployment has touched every family in Batken, according to Toktokan Mambetova, who directs a conflict-resolution organization.

“People are leaving from the public sector, teachers and doctors are leaving. In Batken, we need 300 more teachers. The government needs to take urgent measures. Otherwise the consequences could be dire,” Mambetova said.


Cholpon Jakupova, a prominent Kyrgyz human rights activist and director of the Adilet Legal Clinic in Bishkek, said that nationalism has increased since the the April 2010 overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiev. She maintains the new government is not providing security to ethnic Uzbeks.

“The male population of the Uzbek minority is leaving due not only to the authorities abdicating their duties on the ground but also due to the absence of access to basic social services,” Jakupova said. “The Kyrgyz government is still delaying the process of issuing identification and property documents for those ethnic Uzbeks whose papers were lost or burnt last year.”

About 4,000 people lost their identity papers in last year’s violence.

Rustam Israilov, deputy director of the Osh city office that issues those documents, refused to comment.

Kyrgyz human rights activists say harassment and widespread economic decline have made the situation in southern Kyrgyzstan untenable for ethnic Uzbeks in particular.

“They’re most vulnerable because they can’t rely on support and assistance from the government or have access to professional legal assistance,” activist Ilya Lukash said. “They also migrate because of everyday nationalism, the inaction of the authorities, and basic violations of their rights based on ethnicity.”

Lukash asserted that some police officers won’t take crime reports from ethnic Uzbeks and that Uzbek defendants and their lawyers are pressured in court. A recent report by an international commission on the June 2010 violence noted that lawyers representing Uzbeks have been intimidated by members of the security services and assaulted by “sympathizers of the alleged victim.”

The commission also said judges in some of those trials have moved to strip Uzbeks’ lawyers of their right to practice.

“What professional ethics do Kyrgyz judges have when they don’t observe the most basic rights of defendants?” said Gulshayir Abdirasulova, a local human rights activist and an ethnic Kyrgyz.

The ethnic rancor and nationalism, inflamed in part by sensationalistic Kyrgyz-language media, is pushing out not only Uzbeks, but also Slavs, said Jakupova, the legal clinic director. Russians and Ukrainians together make up about 14 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s 5.6 million population, and Uzbeks constitute another 14 percent.

Others point out that Kyrgyz are leaving, too, seeking better opportunities elsewhere.

Samat Tonoev, a 23-year-old from the village of Kolduk in Osh province, has been working in Russia for two years.

“This spring I came back home to build a house for myself, and this coming autumn I’ll go back to Russia again,” he said. “We are seven in our family, my brothers are cattlemen, but I decided, like many of my peers, to go abroad to make more money.”

“People have to leave and work where they get decent wages,” said Karamushkina, the lawmaker. “The revolutions in 2005 and 2010 have shown that unresolved social problems, unemployment, high utility prices, and food are the issues that our government has to address.”

Some officials admit that they have not been able to provide a stable life and decent living for Kyrgyzstan’s 5.3 million people.

“Labor migration helps the citizens of Kyrgyzstan make a living. The country cannot provide people with jobs, therefore they are forced to look for jobs on their own working in other countries,” the independent news agency quoted Prime Minister Almazbek

Atambaev as saying on 29 April.

“In Russia, there are lots of jobs, though the matter is about low-skilled labor,” said Tonoev, the migrant worker. “Everywhere, they need workers, builders, street cleaners, drivers. I don’t know what the [Kyrgyz] authorities are doing in this regard. When there’s no employment and no bread, hunger makes people evil and socially dangerous.”

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