As part of their efforts to increase security in the aftermath of the recent wave of terrorist attacks in Russia, Kazakhstan’s law enforcement and border authorities have cracked down on immigration from neighboring countries. The new measures may primarily affect day laborers who cross Kazakhstan’s borders from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, often illegally, to earn their living on cotton and tobacco plantations. Not long ago, the immigration police in Almaty fined a group of Uzbeks 18,000 tenge ($134) each for illegally entering the country. The Uzbeks, who get only four tenge for each kilo of cotton they pick, could not hope to pay that astronomical sum, and the immigration police confiscated their passports before deporting them back to Uzbekistan.
Such harsh measures are being criticized. Speaking at a session of the Parliamentary Commission on Human Rights, chairman Zhabaikhan Abdildin declared that Uzbeks and Kyrgyz “are not merely our neighbors but also our ethnic brothers,” and it would be unwise to turn a blind eye to our neighbors’ plight (Khabar TV, September 27). Indeed, if it were not for informal jobs in Kazakhstan, many Uzbek families would be in dire straits. The same holds true for Kyrgyz laborers in Kazakhstan, whose number, according to the director of the Kyrgyz Department of Migration, Zafar Khakimov, exceeds 100,000 (Aikyn, July 24).
It is difficult to ascertain how many migrants from Central Asian countries get stuck in Kazakhstan en route to Russia. Until recently, Kazakhstan believed that using illegal immigrants for cheap labor posed an economic and social threat to the country. But in view of the explosive situation in neighboring Russia, Kazakh border authorities have become overwhelmed by new fears about border security, particularly in the oil-rich western parts of the country. To make the case for strict control along the border with Russia, official media have published articles and disturbing reports about the growing threat of armed gangs fleeing into Kazakhstan from war-torn regions of Russia.
The human rights commission meeting coincided with a summit of customs authorities from ten countries of Europe and Asia. A few days before these gatherings, the leading government newspaper, Kazakhstanskaya pravda, reported that Russian security services in the Volodar district of Russia’s Astrakhan region — closely bordering the Caspian part of Kazakhstan — had discovered a cache of weapons and extremist literature. The paper cited the head of the Astrakhan Interior Department, Viktor Potapov, as saying that 41% of labor migrants arriving in his region come from Tajikistan and 36% from Uzbekistan. But he pointed to motley crowds of refugees from Chechnya as the greater headache. According to Potapov, Tajik drug traffickers were recently caught with 34 kilos of heroin. The group also had links to armed rebels in the North Caucasus (Kazakhstanskaya pravda, September 23).
For the government of Kazakhstan, tighter border control is a double-edged sword. Any Western-oriented country committed to closer relations with the OSCE and European Union, would be wise to respect freedom of movement in border areas, especially as WTO accession nears. However, the government loathes the grim prospect of turning the country into a transit zone for international criminal elements. Observers note that since Kyrgyzstan became a member of the World Trade Organization, the open border between the two countries has become a source of deep concern. Statistics indicate that in the first half of this year 19,000 individuals from Kyrgyzstan came to Kazakhstan in search of jobs and remained in the country as temporary residents.
So far, there is no reason to suspect these people are linked to terrorist organizations. More apparent is the economic dangers that the uncontrolled stream of illegal workers could pose to Kazakhstan’s labor market. Despite rosy reports of rapid economic growth, analysts suggest that 25% of Kazakhstan’s population ekes out a miserable existence on a meager income of $31 a month. Unemployment is particularly high among young people. Under these circumstances, authorities cannot ignore public anxiety over the continuing influx of migrants from neighboring countries. But the recent terror warnings from Kazakhstan’s top leaders cast border control in a different light. Calling on law enforcement agencies to tighten visa control at border crossings, Deputy Prosecutor General Abdrashit Zhukenov stated that the Baky mountain pass on the Kyrgyz side of the border was one of the trouble-spots for Kazakhstan, as intelligence reports suggest the area is likely to be used for training terrorists (Khabar, September 27).
Long stretches of Kazakhstan’s 4,900-kilometer border remain unguarded. The country has neither sufficient funding to increase the number of its border troops nor adequate facilities to train them. While Kazakhstan does not have a cross-border terrorist threat at the moment, the unchecked labor migration, drugs, and goods smugglers represent are far greater threats.