Tajiks Caught In Russian Crossfire Over Pilot Jailings

Zulfiya Bobojonova and her two teenage sons haven’t left their rented Moscow apartment for nearly a week.

“There are rumors about Russian police detaining Tajiks in the streets and deporting them back to Tajikistan,” says the shopkeeper, who hails from a small city in northern Tajikistan but has worked legally in the Russian capital for the past nine years. “Russian television channels talk about Tajik-migrant issues every night, and it’s just adding to our fears.”

In fact, the reports of migrant sweeps in Russia targeting Tajik nationals are more than rumors. In the week since a Tajik court sentenced a Russian and an Estonian pilot to prison sentences for their unauthorized refueling stops en route from Kabul, Russian officials have rounded up hundreds of Tajik immigrants for possible expulsion.

“Tajiks don’t dare go outside or freely walk in streets right now,” Bobojonova tells RFE/RL. “Everybody is in hiding inside their homes. I didn’t even allow my 13-year-old son to go to school. What if the police detain him, find us too, and deport all of us? People are afraid. Nobody’s going to work.”

The pilots, working for a Russian air-transport company, were handed jail sentences on November 8 of 10 1/2 years each for arms trafficking, among other charges. Their aircraft were also seized.

Afghan authorities impound another airplane with ties to the company at the center of the Tajik-Russian row

The Tajik ruling prompted outrage among Russian politicians and commentators, and put the some 1 million Tajiks living in Russia — many of them migrant laborers who depend on seasonal work there to make a living — in the line of fire.

‘Humiliation’ At Hands Of Authorities

Hundreds of Tajiks have been arrested in Moscow alone, at least 12 have been deported, and many others are awaiting rulings on their possible deportation. Russia’s top public-health inspector, Gennady Onishchenko, has suggested that a full ban on Tajik migrants should be considered because many have been diagnosed with HIV or tuberculosis.

Twelve Tajik migrants arrived in Dushanbe after being deported from Moscow on November 13.
“I work here legally, I have a work and residency permit,” says Usmon Numonov, a Tajik construction engineer in St. Petersburg. “But none of this matters for Russian police now; they are targeting Tajiks regardless of their papers.”

Numonov, too, is too frightened to leave home.

He says that even if police find your documents are in order, “they extort any money you have and then let you go.” He calls the treatment “humiliating.”

“I told my employers that if your government really wants Tajiks to leave, they should tell us openly and officially, ‘We don’t need you anymore, you have to leave Russia.’ They should give us some timeframe — let’s say six months or a year, so we could all return home — without insulting people like they’re doing now.”

Lost Income

Like so many other Central Asian migrant laborers, Tajiks in Moscow are mostly engaged in menial work, loading goods or selling vegetables in bazaars or washing cars.

Dzanish, a Kyrgyz migrant worker at a Moscow automobile factory, says his Tajik colleagues have gone into hiding in because they were being singled out by police for document checks.

“They are picking them all up and deporting them,” Dzanish says. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes. They pick them up at metro stations and bang, they’re deported.”

Russia’s top public-health inspector, Gennady Onishchenko, suggested Tajik migrants were bringing tuberculosis and HIV with them.
Tajikistan’s migration chief, Safiullo Devonaev, has said that some 2,000 Tajiks have been deported from Russia since January, a number he says is “much lower than last year.” But he acknowledges that the “detention of Tajik nationals in Russia has increased recently.”

Waiting It Out

The Tajik Embassy in Moscow has set up a hot line for migrants seeking help or information.

Bobojonova and other Tajik migrants recognize that staying indoors to avoid the police is just a temporary solution. They want the crisis to be resolved between Moscow and Dushanbe as soon as possible.

For her eldest son, who loads goods and pushes carts at a Moscow bazaar, not going to work means no income. And that means no money to buy food, pay the rent, or send home to Bobojonova’s elderly mother, who lives in the northern Tajik town of Konibodom.

Like many families in Tajikistan, she is almost entirely dependent on remittances sent from Russia.

“Our eyes are glued to the television to hear any developments,” Bobojonova says. “I’ve never been interested in politics; now, I’m following news programs. We’ve all become like hostages.”

RFE/RL correspondent Tom Balmforth contributed to this report from Moscow

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