Labour migrants in Central Asia deserve our attention


steelworkersCentral Asian migrant steelworkers.

Nurlan came to Moscow a few years ago to work at a construction site. He works 12-hour shifts including weekends.

He has a wife and five children to feed in native Tajikistan. In order to save and send more money to his family, he shares a one-room apartment with seven other people.

Nurlan’s work is physically exhausting, with barely any free time to spare. Last month, Nurlan’s compatriot fell from the sixth floor of the construction they were building. He didn’t have a safety belt, nor a safety helmet. Nurlan felt really upset about the accident, but having no alternative job prospects, continues to work at the same place.

Being far away from his wife, once in a while he buys sexual services. When asked if he knows his HIV status, Nurlan falls silent. He is afraid to get a test, since he knows he could be deported if he tests positive. As an illegal migrant worker, he has no access to the healthcare system. He has actually not been to a doctor even once for the last two years he has lived in Moscow.

Thousands of migrants each year face similar challenges faced by Nurlan.

We often talk about the economic dimension of migration, but here are some of the less publicized facts:

  • Central Asian labour migrants often live in poor housing conditions with bad hygiene, poorer occupational safety and tend to have riskier sexual behaviours whilst away from their families.
  • Hence, they tend to be more vulnerable than native-born residents to respiratory illnesses, including tuberculosis, HIV and mental conditions.
  • In Tajikistan, for instance, almost 10% of new HIV cases reported in 2014 were among returning migrants, according to UNAIDS.
  • At the same time, roughly one third of registered HIV cases in Almaty region in Kazakhstan are among foreigners.
  • In many countries of the region, migrants who are identified as living with HIV are subject to deportation as they’re considered to “pose a real threat to public health”. This means many people work under clandestine conditions without HIV treatment.

Irregular migrants are at higher risk of health problems

Across the region, it has become critically difficult for newly arriving migrants to work legally.

While regular migrants have access to a range of social and health care services, irregular migrants can only access emergency medical care.

The lack of a required legal status creates a vicious circle for irregular migrants, where tightened migration regimes push them into informal economic activities that don’t provide them with health insurance and lead to poor life-long health outcomes.

It’s important to know one’s rights

Migrants are often unaware of the host country’s employment regulations, leaving them unable to advocate for their rights.

They are also unable to adequately benefit from the health care system. Not speaking the local language and lack of social networks add to the informal barriers preventing labour migrants from accessing the health care system.

What’s the solution?

Knowledge is key. Labour migrants need to be made aware of their legal rights, opportunities and obligations in order to make evidence-based decisions when leaving for work abroad, to know their rights once employed and to advocate for the fulfilment of their rights during their stay.

A number of information and resource centres have been created in home countries in order to help labour migrants to know their rights. Diaspora organizations and NGOs also provide legal advice and counselling in the receiving countries.

However, many migrants still have their rights violated; they face significant threats to their health. We need to scale up our efforts, paying special attention to migrants’ health.

It’s up to governments, international organizations and civil society to unite their efforts in order to strengthen legal and regulatory frameworks and ensure that people are fully informed and prepared to leave for work abroad.

Do you want to learn more on the topic? Read our report on Labour Migration, Remittances, and Human Development in Central Asia (2015) from Central Asia Human Development Series!

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