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Why Mass Labor Exporter Kyrgyzstan Faces Migrant Worker Fear At Home

South Asian migrant workers in Kyrgyzstan
South Asian migrant workers in Kyrgyzstan

Order a pizza in Moscow and the chances that a Kyrgyz delivery worker will bring it to your door are fairly high. Do the same in Bishkek and it might be a young Pakistani trying to pay his way through medical school.

Until last week, that is.

A night of lawlessness on May 17-18 that saw students from South Asia suffer mob attacks in Bishkek has underlined the fact that migrant populations inside Kyrgyzstan can be just as vulnerable to xenophobic violence as their Central Asian counterparts in Russia.

And if Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Uzbeks have been aggressively targeted by sweeps in Russian cities since the deadly Crocus City Hall attack near Moscow in late March, then Kyrgyz authorities had been talking up their own crackdown on "illegal migration" even before the unrest in their capital.

Many locals have registered their disgust at the attacks that left several foreigners hospitalized and prompted more than 1,000 Pakistanis to abandon a country where ethnic tensions have had lethal outcomes in the past.

Some Bishkek residents even turned their hands to volunteering, bringing food to students afraid to leave their dormitories in the aftermath of the mob rampage apparently sparked by an online video of foreign citizens brawling with locals several days before.

Bangladeshis who came to work in Kyrgyzstan prepare a meal at a Bishkek apartment.
Bangladeshis who came to work in Kyrgyzstan prepare a meal at a Bishkek apartment.

But the fact that Kyrgyz authorities have been actively promoting their raids on migrants suggests they are aware of growing tensions surrounding the foreign population that has grown increasingly visible in the capital.

The question, then: Why is this happening now?

Increased Quotas For Foreign Workers

Far from explicitly condemning the assaults on dormitories housing South Asians in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's national security chief, Kamchybek Tashiev, opined the day after the violence that the demands of a Bishkek crowd that had formed to demand action against foreigners were "to some extent correct."

For the record, Tashiev is not a security veteran who earned his current post after a steady rise through the ranks of law enforcement.

Instead, he is the country's de-facto co-ruler and President Sadyr Japarov's comrade-in-arms going back to their time as populist opposition leaders.

Much like Japarov, he is mindful of what the political base wants to hear.

In his video appeal, Tashiev described the mostly young men that police tried in vain to disperse as being agitated by "increasing numbers of students and workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Egypt, and other countries."

Following an order from Japarov to target illegal migrants this spring, Tashiev said his officers had been catching "20 or 30, or around 50" such migrants every day.

Pakistanis arrested for illegally working in Kyrgyzstan are lined up by law enforcement in Bishkek on May 15.
Pakistanis arrested for illegally working in Kyrgyzstan are lined up by law enforcement in Bishkek on May 15.

By Tashiev's count, there are still 5,000 illegals unaccounted for, despite deportations of 1,000 Bangladeshis and 1,500 Pakistanis -- figures that no official had mentioned before.

This was hardly the kind of talk to tamp down xenophobia.

But what Tashiev neglected to mention was that the government has been actively seeking laborers from South Asian countries.

In October, the Labor Ministry said it would increase the quota for 2024 for foreign workers by 50 percent, from 16,600 places to around 25,000 places.

Just under two-thirds of those placements were allocated for jobs in industry, construction, and transport, while a further 13 percent were slated for mining and 14 percent to the service and trade sectors.

Of the nearly 17,000 vacancies that have found applicants as of this month, Bangladeshis accounted for nearly half, with Pakistanis accounting for a quarter, and Chinese for 16 percent.

On May 18, with Bishkek still reeling from its night of disorder, Labor Minister Gulnara Baatyrova explained this drive using some rather nonpopulist language.

"Private business owners say foreigners show up for work regularly and on time, and in some cases work beyond the established schedule. Most of our citizens have gone to work in Russia and other neighboring countries and received permanent residence there. Our offers to return and work in Kyrgyzstan always remain unanswered," claimed Baatyrova.

As for local employees, "many people do not come to work on time, disappear for two to three days after receiving their salary, and ask for time off for celebrations and birthdays," the minister ventured, noting that in May 6,500 job vacancies remained unfilled.

Garments Sector Needs More Hands

One sector that Baatyrova said is particularly short of labor is the garment industry, a vital part of the economy that traditionally employs tens of thousands of Kyrgyz.

That would explain why Bangladeshis have been in particularly high demand, with Kyrgyzstan's Deputy Foreign Minister Avazbek Atakhanov even making a visit to Dhaka in April in a bid to attract more workers.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, a Bishkek sewing shop owner said workers from "Bangladesh sew well and with high quality," while workers from India are "diligent and learn quickly."

Naturally, these labor market entrants are likely undercutting their local competitors in terms of wages, which have risen sharply in Kyrgyzstan lately.

Garment-industry workers in Kyrgyzstan
Garment-industry workers in Kyrgyzstan

Independent economist Azamat Akeneev told RFE/RL that wage growth has followed the strong expansion of Kyrgyzstan's economy in the first two years of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which threw open fresh and unusual business and trade opportunities for Kyrgyz working with the sanctions-hit Russian market.

But the war and related sanctions have also fueled inflation and economic uncertainty while "not all businesses want or can afford to pay these new rising wages," Akeneev told RFE/RL.

Garment makers, whose fortunes RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service has covered extensively since the war in Ukraine began, would seem to fit into that category.

After Russian monetary policy and capital controls allowed the ruble to soar above its pre-invasion value in the first half of 2022, Kyrgyz sewing shops found themselves lacking the labor to meet strong demand from its most important customer.

But when the ruble once again plunged against foreign currencies, including Kyrgyzstan's som, Kyrgyz garments suddenly seemed pricey for their predominantly Russian buyers.

As Foreign Student Exodus Continues, Officials Fear Kyrgyzstan's Reputation Is On The Line
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All the more incentive, then, for the industry to look to cheaper labor from further afield, in an effort to keep costs down.

Another industry increasingly attracting migrant labor is the expanding construction industry, with migrants from neighboring Uzbekistan outnumbering incomers from South Asia in that sector.

'Chaotic' Policy, Corruption, And De Facto Slavery

Earlier this month -- and before the May 17-18 disorder -- Labor Ministry officials said that quotas for foreign workers had been temporarily suspended due to a larger than expected influx of foreigners.

Of course, formal work quotas are only part of the equation.

More than 24,000 of the some 60,000 foreign students in Kyrgyzstan are from India and Pakistan, with most studying medicine.

This has been a long-standing situation, with Kyrgyz medical education cheaper than in many other countries, and the massive student cohort providing an important economic contribution to cities like Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second-largest city, and Kant, a provincial city an hour from Bishkek.

Like their counterparts throughout the world, some of the students seek small jobs to help them pay their way through their studies -- something the Labor Ministry says they should not do according to the terms of their student visas.

In April, Bishkek city police said they had apprehended 400 foreign students who were working as delivery workers "in connection with the increase in road accidents involving foreign students, as well as in order to prevent and solve crimes involving them."

On May 16, Tashiev's State Committee for National Security (UKMK) detained 28 Pakistani nationals a day earlier for "working illegally" at a sewing shop in Bishkek after their entry visas expired.

But earlier in the year and last year, announcements such as these were thinner on the ground.

Migration policy appears to be "chaotic," says Cholpon Djakupova, head of the nonprofit Legal Clinic Adilet and a former top migration official.

Parents Of Pakistani Students Protest After Mob Attack On Foreigners In Kyrgyzstan
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"The boom in foreign workers has become very evident over the last two years. And I think this would not be possible without vested interests among officials. That is, corruption," Djakupova said.

People trafficking is also a big business in Kyrgyzstan.

Interviews by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service earlier this month found that many South Asians had been lured to Kyrgyzstan on ordinary visas with the promise of further work visas that never materialized.

"So they move from one workshop to another, don't receive salaries, and say that they have fallen into slavery. A lot of them had their passports taken away and so cannot do anything," said Nurislam Kambarov, whose company facilitates legal migration between Bangladesh and Kyrgyzstan.

As an example, Kambarov cited a single address in Bishkek where he found around 40 Bangladeshis living in cramped conditions.

"They were brought here and abandoned by fellow citizens of Bangladesh. I arranged visas for about 25 or 30 of them. To achieve this, they had to go to Uzbekistan and then return," the entrepreneur said.

'National-Patriot Discourse' Fuels Anti-Migrant Sentiment

Tensions in a labor market where decent work is typically hard to find are being compounded by "national-patriot discourse," Djakupova said.

There was plenty of that in last week's crisis, which the authorities appeared to mismanage from the start.

Ostensibly sparked by fighting between Egyptian citizens and Kyrgyz on the night of May 12-13, police initially released no information about the incident, only showing footage of the detained Egyptians apologizing to the Kyrgyz people for their role in the event after a video of the fight began circulating online on May 17.

It wasn't until May 18 -- after dormitories housing Pakistani students had been attacked -- that the Interior Ministry released a full chronology that revealed the Egyptian men that beat up a Kyrgyz man were actually defending their hostel from that man and three other assailants who abandoned their accomplice and made off with an iPhone and several thousand dollars in cash.

While those suspects have now been arrested -- the four Egyptian citizens are under house arrest -- there has been almost no news of arrests of the dormitory attackers filmed punching and kicking cowering Pakistani students five days later.

Police said on May 21 that one citizen suspected of attacking a foreigner at his place of residence was detained, but that incident appears to have taken place several kilometers from the dormitories.

By contrast, on May 21, the UKMK gave news that it had detained six Pakistanis that it said were trying to illegally cross Kazakhstan's border with Kyrgyzstan.

Members of the student wing of Islamic political party Jamaat-e Islami protest against the mob attacks on foreign students in Kyrgyzstan, in Karachi, Pakistan, on May 18.
Members of the student wing of Islamic political party Jamaat-e Islami protest against the mob attacks on foreign students in Kyrgyzstan, in Karachi, Pakistan, on May 18.

The only official to directly apologize to the Pakistani students affected by the violence was Deputy Prime Minister Edil Baisalov, who visited the International University of Kyrgyzstan dormitory that was the worst-affected.

There Baisalov called for the attackers of the dormitory to be "demonstratively imprisoned."

"They didn't only break through doors, but [into] spaces leading to the toilets. Girls were hiding there…. They took money, gadgets, and jewelry for themselves."

President Sadyr Japarov, for his part, kept his silence until May 20, when he said in an address published on his website that "the demands of our patriotic youth to stop the illegal migration of foreign citizens and to take strict measures against those who allow such activities are certainly correct."

But Japarov blamed "provocative" messaging coordinated by jailed political opponents for the mobilization and appeared to ignore evidence that the foreign students had been attacked in their dormitories -- albeit nobody fatally.

"If there had been looting, attacks on the police, or attacks on students in the [dormitories], we would have taken harsh measures. Fortunately, this did not happen," he said, before cautioning his citizens against xenophobia.

"More than 1 million of our people work and study abroad. Just like our citizens, there are those who come from abroad to study and work with us. We should be glad about this," Japarov said.

RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Kubatbek Aibashov contributed to this report.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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