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In limbo

NewEurasia’s special blogg Alex Ulko reports on the hard life of Uzbek labour migrants in Russia. “What I could not remember was whether Dante required those stuck in limbo to abandon hope or not,” he writes.

Uzbek migrants at “Kazanskiy” railway station, Moscow. Photo: drugoi.livejournal.com

‘Take off your hat, man!’ – shouts a young po-faced immigration officer at an aged passenger from Tashkent who hastily removes his black woolen cap.

It’s Pulkovo, Saint Petersburg’s main airport where I am patiently waiting for my turn in a disorderly queue, probably the only non-Uzbek among a hundred migrant workers from Uzbekistan. ‘What. Is. The. Purpose. Of. Your. Visit?’ – asks a good-looking girl in an immaculate uniform another frightened passenger at the next booth. He does not understand and only looks around as if to check his mates are still there. Yes, they are, standing a few yards behind him, all dressed in dark shabby coats and wollen caps, listless, wordless and helpless, like prisoners of some strange war.

Everywhere you walk in Petersburg you are bound to come across the immediately recognisable silhouette of a migrant worker in his woollen cap, lurking in the corner of a bus or sweeping the ground in one of Petersburg’s ‘wells’. Migrant workers from Central Asia, invariably called by a German word, gastarbeiters, are everywhere but they are hardly noticeable in the crowd and it is easy to see why. They are rarely spoken to and never smiled at, and ordinary Russian citizens usually simply ignore them pretending they do not exist. But they do; in Moscow alone there are about 2,5 million gastarbeiters, mostly from Central Asia. However, there are only five mosques in Moscow compared to 535 churches and Sobyanin, Moscow’s mayor has recently announced that he has no plans to build new ones. Many Russians are openly and unashamedly hostile to the very idea that people who build their houses, take away their waste and sell them food in supermarkets deserve any formal recognition, let alone encouragement to settle. ‘They are alien to our culture, our language, our religion and our values’, writes a classmate who moved from Samarkand to Russia about 20 years ago in a Facebook message, ‘and they must speak Russian and respect our traditions if they want to work here.’

One of the aspects of the problem is that most migrant workers come from the less educated classes often living in poor rural areas of Central Asia and deprived not only of ‘civilised’ urban environment but also of such elementary things as gas, water and electricity for many months of the year. Leaving Uzbekistan in search for work, gastarbeiters find themselves in kind of a limbo: unwanted in Russia by almost everyone but those who benefit from their hard and poorly paid labour, they have limited opportunities to integrate into the new society and are increasingly marginalised. On the other hand, most Russian authorities and people seem to be torn apart by contradictory attitudes towards the newcomers: they want migrants to be more ‘civilised’ but don’t fall over themselves to provide them opportunities to settle, to have a well-paid job and to live a comfortable life in a friendly environment.

‘Why, then, so many young people keep on moving from their motherland to the country where they are treated as second-class workforce?’ I asked a quiet elderly man who was my neighbour in a plane flying back to Tashkent. ‘They are treated like this at home as well, but by their own people starting from local authorities to the Tashkent police, so they don’t lose much’, he said, ‘at least in Russia they have a job, some food, electricity, water and gas.’ Looking at the unshaven and unhappy faces of other passengers surrounding me, I thought that although every 20 or 30 years people re-invent the hackneyed metaphor of a ‘lost generation’, this time the parenthesis has become absolutely irrelevant. What I could not remember was whether Dante required those stuck in limbo to abandon hope or not.

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