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Page last updated at 16:16 GMT, Tuesday, 21 April 2009 17:16 UK

Economic slump hits Tajikistan

By Khayrullo Fayz
BBC Central Asian Service

returning migrants
Thousands of migrants are returning home from Russia

"We have never had anything like this in Tajikistan since Soviet times," a shopkeeper in the capital Dushanbe told me, neatly summing up the sense of crisis felt by many in Tajikistan.

The landlocked country is one of the poorest states in the region.

It was plunged into a five-year civil war after the break-up of the Soviet Union.

More than half its population is aged under 14.

Corruption is the norm, starting in the schools and reaching the highest levels of the government, according to Western diplomats in Dushanbe

And with the global crisis still unfolding, Tajikistan finds itself especially vulnerable.

One reason is the huge numbers of Tajik migrant workers who have left for Russia and Kazakhstan in search for a job.

Officially there are around 500,000, but many NGOs believe that the figure is much higher.

3D jobs

As jobs in Russia are rapidly becoming scarce, many Tajik migrants are finding themselves on the streets.

Tajik woman with grandchild
This woman has had no money from her husband in Russia since December

Tajiks mainly work in low paid '3D' jobs; jobs that are dirty, dangerous and difficult.

Sabohat Abdullaeva, one of the hundreds of thousands of Tajik mothers who have migrant sons working in Russia, says that since January she has not received any money from her son in St Petersburg.

"We all depend on his salary, I don't earn enough as a teacher here and I myself wanted to go to Russia. I am ready to do anything, but my son says that I should wait for the economic crisis to pass," she said.

Another woman said she had received no money from her husband since last December.

These stories illustrate a wider problem.

The Tajik economy relies for over a third of its GDP on remittances, the money sent home by working migrants. The depreciation of the Russian rouble has made things worse.

The term migrant worker is itself a new phenomenon for Tajikistan - just 15 years ago few had heard of it.

The country has strong traditional family values, where men did not often leave their families for long periods of time.

Now many women are in charge of everything - and much more independent - according to the director of the Association of Women Lawyers, Zebo Sharipova.

The majority, especially in villages, are struggling to cope with new responsibilities that were considered to belong to men, such as arranging marriages and organising funerals.

Crime fear

But the return of the migrants could have more far reaching effects.

Tajikistan is in the front line in the fight against drug trafficking from Afghanistan, the world's largest producer of opium.

The fear is that many returning migrants could try their luck in drug trafficking because there are no other options in Tajikistan if you are to survive.

map

And the temptations of criminality are there for all to see.

The streets of Dushanbe can compete with any European city when it comes to the number of its flashy cars, and there are already several neighbourhoods that are considered to be "millionaire's rows".

Tajikistan has few jobs that could pay enough to get an average car, let alone a 4X4 or an up-market German vehicle.

Burn the sinners

Returning migrants also pose another danger.

According to Sevara Kamilova, head of an NGO that deals with HIV/Aids issues in Tajikistan, the number of new cases of sexually transmitted diseases among migrant workers' families is increasing rapidly.

"At the moment we can't do much," said a doctor in Qumsangir district, on the border with Afghanistan.

"I went to deliver a lecture on HIV awareness to a local mosque, and some people approached me saying that I should release the names of the infected families and they will deal with them. I said 'Why?' He said without any emotion 'We should burn the sinners'."

I was taken to a remote village in this district where I met Nafisa, who is a 35-year-old HIV positive mother of five kids.

Her two younger children are also HIV positive and her husband died two years ago of Aids.

She contracted virus from him and now her health is deteriorating.

"I don't know what's going to happen to my children, who is going to look after them if people realise that they have HIV. No one knows about my illness," she said.

The next few years will be difficult for Tajikistan, which for all its relative isolation from the United States and Europe has found that it cannot insulate itself from a recession which is affecting all parts of the world.



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