The Experiences of Central Asian Migrants in Russia and Turkey

Two authors from Uzbekistan, Rustamjon Urinboyev and Sherzod Eraliev recently published a book titled: The Political Economy of Non-Western Migration Regimes: Central Asian Migrant Workers in Russia and Turkey. The book is freely available to the public. While the book mainly focuses on the experiences of Uzbek migrants, it is relevant in understanding experiences of Turkmen migrants, some of whom the authors have interviewed in Turkey. In Istanbul, authors conducted 10 focus group discussions and 85 semi-structured interviews with Kyrgyz, Turkmen and Uzbek migrants. The book also provides a useful comparison of migrant adaptation and experiences in Russia and Turkey.

Authors describe differences between Russia and Turkey through the experiences of Central Asian migrants. Interviewed Uzbek migrants, who have worked both in Russia and Turkey describe the difference between these two countries as follows: “Turkde imam bar, ynsap yok. Orysda imam yok, ynsap bar” which translates as “Turks have faith in Islam but they are not just/fair, Russians are non-faithful but they are just/fair”.

Central Asian migrants in Russia work in the shadow economy, experience corruption, lack of rule of law and human right violations. Nevertheless, migrants still have some agency to negotiate their rights. Migrants use informal channels to access opportunities that are hard to access through official channels. If migrants are stopped by the police without official documents, they can get away by paying a bribe.

Central Asian migrants in Turkey complained about long hours, bad working conditions, and a lack of safety. Meanwhile, migrants in Russia have relatively more rights, work fewer hours, enjoy better working conditions and work protection, which might be a legacy of the social system. In Russia in instances when migrants did not receive their salary it was the fault of migrant intermediaries, who often were fellow Central Asians, other migrants or non-ethnic Russians. While in Turkey it was mainly Turkish employers who did not pay the salaries. According to the Central Asian migrants, Russians do not lie and cheat.

Moreover, Uzbek female migrants, who also worked in Russia, complained about sexual harassment in Turkey. Turkish employers were offering jobs in exchange for sexual services whereas in Russia this was rarely the case. Recently, Uzbekistan’s Human Rights Center, sponsored by the Uzbek government, started providing shelter to women experiencing sexual harassment and exploitation in Turkey.

Turkmens and Uzbeks comprise the largest Central Asian migrant groups in Turkey. According to Turkish authorities there are close to 250,000 Turkmen citizens with short- or long-term student and family visas. However, the real number is much larger given that many migrants are undocumented and they work in the informal economy, which makes it difficult to know the number, age or gender composition of migrants. There are also irregular or transit migrants entering Turkey to reach European countries. For example, of 24,578 irregular migrants apprehended from January through March 2021, 637 were from Turkmenistan.

In Turkey the police conduct raids to catch illegal migrants and threaten to deport them. However, as 32-year-old Berdy from Turkmenistan indicated, the actual deportation rarely happens. Police are likely to stop people who stand out from the crowd due to their outfit. There was a case when a Turkmen woman dressed in a national outfit was stopped while an Uzbek woman dressed in a modern outfit was not.

Moreover, Turkmen migrants in Turkey face precarious situations and violations of their rights. As 45-year-old Bakhar from Turkmenistan shared, “most migrants do not have the money to prepare the documents when they come to Istanbul, so 90% of migrants work without documents”. Given the difficult and hazardous working conditions some migrants experience occupational hazards. As Babahan, a 55-year-old male migrant from Turkmenistan in Turkey, shared:

“You shouldn’t get sick here. Because of my work, I got hemorrhoids. I went to the doctor and had surgery, for which I paid 4000 Turkish liras (roughly $600)… Doctors here think only about money. Within two hours after the surgery, when even the anesthesia had not yet warned off, they said I could leave…I hadn’t even fully regained consciousness. You don’t have any values, and you can die if you get sick…”

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