Crossroads Asia | Economy | Central Asia

A Critical Lesson for Tajikistan: The State of Migrant Workers in 2020

2020 was not the first time Tajikistan experienced the sharp costs of being a remittance-dependent country, but the lesson is important to heed.

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A Critical Lesson for Tajikistan: The State of Migrant Workers in 2020
Credit: Freestock.ca

The coronavirus pandemic, beyond causing a dramatic loss of life around the world, triggered lockdowns and border closures that dealt serious damage to the global economy, leaving millions without work. Developing and emerging economies, like Tajikistan, tend to be poorer and unable to meet the needs of their populations and the pandemic exacerbated existing weaknesses. As such, 2020 was perhaps the most challenging year for Tajikistan since the country’s civil war in 1992-1997. In Tajikistan, it’s important to look to the plight of migrant workers in 2020 if any lessons are to be learned from the devastating year 2020. 

Tajikistan is one of the most remittance-dependent countries in the world and Russia is a top destination for Tajik migrant workers. Tajik migrant workers have been unable to travel to Russia since March 2020 due to a travel ban that largely remains in place. Therefore, throughout 2020 many remained in Tajikistan unemployed, as the labor market in the country is weak and cannot provide everyone with jobs, even in better economic times. In addition, thousands of Tajik labor migrants who were working in Russia at the beginning of the spring season, at the beginning of the pandemic, lost their jobs as a result of lockdowns. Following the pandemic, large Russian cities locked down and imposed quarantines, which eventually led to a reduction of activities in certain sectors of the economy. These sectors included trade, services, transportation, and construction in which many migrant workers were employed. Consequently, Tajik labor migrants were among the first victims of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 and experienced some of the most painful shocks of the year.

The many thousands of Tajik migrant workers who were put out of work in Russia, and the thousands of others who could not enter the Russian Federation’s territory due to pandemic restrictions, have caused serious damage to Tajikistan’s economic performance. Tajikistan has enjoyed remittances from migrants for more than two decades. Money orders are one of the most crucial indicators of Tajikistan’s economic performance. In late 2019, the share of migrant transfers from Russia alone was counted “to be over 30 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP, and in absolute terms it is about $2.5 billion.” In recent years, 2013-2018, official data affirms that Tajik labor migrants transferred more than $15 billion to their homeland through official means, that is, through banks, which is several times more than the volume of direct investments attracted during the same period. More than that, youth and middle-aged people in Tajikistan believe that the only way to earn money, feed their family, and prosper in life is to work in Russia. People see how their relatives, neighbors, and acquaintances are able to make sufficient income abroad, buy or build their own homes, purchase cars, and other essentials and thus view working in Russia as a viable economic path forward. Remittances are viewed as a lifeline for poor Tajik families. 

Tajikistan is economically dependent on Russia and any economic crisis in Russia continues to mean a crisis for Tajikistan, too. According to the World Bank, the value of remittances for Tajikistan in 2013 was the equivalent of almost half of the country’s GDP. The volume of migrants’ money transfers accounted for 42.2 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP, which was the largest proportion of all Central Asian states at the time. However, reflecting the slowdown and stagnation of the Russian economy in 2014, remittances to Tajikistan decreased by a cumulative 65.1 percent. This economic crisis sent thousands of Tajik nationals back to their home country as remittances plummeted and it had a negative effect on Tajikistan’s economy. 

Meanwhile, Russian authorities implemented tougher restrictions on Tajik labor migrants, as the number of migrants from Tajikistan entering Russia had been increasing every year. According to Igor Rubinov, “in 2015, in order to receive a patent to work in Russia, migrants had to demonstrate competency in an exam of Russian language, history, culture and civic education.” That same year, migrants from Tajikistan were required to enter Russia only with newly issued biometric passports, forcing them to apply for new international passports.

What is more important, the national strategy of Russia through 2025 adopted in 2018 sparked serious concern on the part of the Tajik authorities. Oynihol Bobonazarova highlighted that “It protects solely the state interests of Russia, [and] increases the pressure on the states from which immigration takes place.” She also emphasized that “only highly qualified specialists are welcomed now in Russia. Migrants from Tajikistan ‘fall into the trap.’” Tajik migration, and remittances, rebounded after the 2014 crisis despite the new restrictions, but risks remained that another economic hiccup in Russia would damage the Tajik economy, too.

The pandemic crisis in 2020 presented a similar difficult scenario for Tajikistan in light of Russia’s economic difficulties. At the end of April 2020, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon wrote a letter to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in which he mentioned that the volume of remittances from Russia had declined by 50 percent. In the letter, the economic situation of the country was described as adverse and stagnated and the president asked for financial help. Furthermore, the World Bank in July 2020 forecasted that Russia was headed toward a deep recession as a result of the pandemic, with plummeting crude oil prices (a 53 percent drop in May 2020), and growing in unemployment (6.1 percent in April), among other troubling indicators. In the same July report, the World Bank suggested that a moderate economic recovery wouldn’t kick in until 2021-2022. Consequently, Tajikistan needs to find ways to respond to the likely ongoing decline in remittances from Russia for the next two years; Dushanbe will need to seek other ways to meet the demands of the population for employment. Russia, for its part, may also choose to implement new regulations on Tajik migrants whenever the borders re-open; those discussions are ongoing.  

2020 was not the first time Tajikistan experienced sharp costs of being a remittance-dependent country, but last year stands as a repeated warning of the risks of being reliant on a foreign country for a critical mass of employment opportunities. In order to avoid further similar threats and crises, Tajik authorities need to implement necessary economic policies domestically for encouraging private sector development and maintaining a stable environment for private sector activity that requires a fair, transparent, and predictable business environment. Properly formed and undertaken, such policies can decrease Tajikistan’s economic reliance on foreign countries like Russia by building and improving the domestic labor market.

Khiradmand Sheraliev is a junior and staff writer at the American University of Central Asia’s publication The New Star. He is also a writing tutor at the Writing Academic and Resource Center.