Human Rights

Central Asian migrants working in occupied Ukraine face legal peril

By Rustam Temirov

A Central Asian migrant worker shovels snow in Moscow December 17. The vast majority of migrant workers in Russia are from Central Asia, according to the Russian Interior Ministry. [Daniil Karimov]

A Central Asian migrant worker shovels snow in Moscow December 17. The vast majority of migrant workers in Russia are from Central Asia, according to the Russian Interior Ministry. [Daniil Karimov]

TASHKENT -- Central Asian migrants hired to work in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine face legal risks for mercenarism, say human rights' defenders and lawyers, after a video emerged showing Tajik migrants in Mariupol.

Russian troops seized the Ukrainian city in May, just under three weeks after the start of its invasion on February 24.

A video posted on December 5 by Radio Ozodi, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's (RFE/RL's) Tajik service, showed Tajik migrant workers in the city demanding promised wages from their employer.

"They told us we would make about $1,900 a month and that our wages would be paid every two weeks. But I received about $700 for two weeks of work," a migrant worker identifying himself as Sunnatulloh told Radio Ozodi.

Employers promised the workers good housing and three meals a day, he added.

But the food is awful and the living conditions are appalling, said another worker.

Tajik migrants arrived in Mariupol in early summer, after Russian authorities decided to rebuild the largely destroyed city.

Up to 90% of multi-storey apartment buildings and up to 60% of private houses were damaged or destroyed in the Russian siege of the city, then-United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in June.

As many as 350,000 residents were forced to leave the city, according to data at the time.

Empty promises

Most of the migrants contracted to rebuild the city were hired in Russia, according to Radio Ozodi.

More than 8 million migrants entered Russia for work in the first 9 months of 2022: more than 4 million from Uzbekistan, 2.714 million from Tajikistan and almost 676,000 from Kyrgyzstan, RT reported November 7, citing data from the Russian Interior Ministry (MVD).

Some companies promised that wages in Ukraine would be four times higher than in Russia, workers said.

But such promises have turned out to be false, with some employers either paying wages late or at much lower rates.

The RFE/RL video shows Tajiks warning their compatriots not to believe lying employers.

Qurbon Sharifov, 30, told RFE/RL that he and 110-120 other Tajik workers ended up in occupied Mariupol through a Russian construction firm called Restoration.

While his first paycheque was about $2,350 -- twice his income in Russia -- Sharifov said he is unsure that he will receive the same amount next time.

His relatives in Tajikistan seriously worry about his stay in a country at war, he added.

Roughly 400 workers from Tajikistan, as well as migrant workers from Uzbekistan, are labouring in Mariupol, Sasha Pechenka, a journalist with (a project of Belarusian TV channel Belsat that broadcasts from Poland), said in October.

He met with migrant workers, and phoned the intermediary companies that hire them to work in Ukraine.

Applicants are assured that "work in Mariupol will last for at least five years, and continues day and night", said Pechenka.

They are also told that they may choose any housing they like, since the city abounds in abandoned and vacant apartments whose owners either fled the city or died, he added.


Tajik workers have no right to be in Mariupol without permission from Ukrainian authorities, and they may be held liable under Ukrainian and international laws, Dushanbe human rights activist Karimjon Yorov told Radio Ozodi.

Such workers may be charged with illegally crossing Ukraine's border and complicity in war crimes, agreed Valentina Chupik, an Uzbek-born activist who provides legal support to Central Asian migrant workers in Russia.

"They will be prosecuted for mercenarism, since they are participating in the activities of armed forces in occupied territories," Chupik told Caravanserai.

Migrants should realise that martial law is in effect in Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine, said Tashkent lawyer Botirjon Shermukhammedov.

In places under martial law, anyone may be ordered to work in supporting defence needs, such as to restore vital systems that have been destroyed and to fight fires, he said.

"They should also consider that human rights organisations and Uzbekistan's consulates do not operate there."

"If wages are not paid, you have nowhere to turn for legal assistance. It must be understood that Ukraine views any such foreign citizen as the subject of criminal prosecution, for illegal border crossing at a minimum," he said.

He urged migrants working far from their homeland to refuse such offers and, if possible, to live and work in regions of Russia far from Ukraine.

'Russia isn't following any rules'

The Kremlin has previously admitted plans to attract foreign workers to restore war-torn Ukrainian cities and infrastructure under its control.

Migrant workers can help rebuild Donbas, Vadim Kozhenov, president of a pro-Kremlin organisation, the Federation of Migrants of Russia, said in July.

"If migrants are well paid, they are happy to do this work," he said. "There will be legal issues, because it is formally a different state. That said, in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, nobody cares if someone lacks some sort of permit to work in Ukraine."

Russia's recruitment of workers to dig trenches and build fortifications near the front has raised further concerns.

The VKontakte social network and popular websites Headhunter and Avito now feature many help-wanted ads for building fortifications and digging trenches in the illegally Russian-annexed Zaporizhzhia and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, as well as in Belgorod province, Russia, the Russian opposition publication Meduza reported December 15.

Belgorod province borders Ukraine.

"A war is under way. Russia isn't following any rules," said Farkhod Mirzabayev, a political scientist from Tashkent.

"It doesn't give a damn about the opinion of international organisations and other countries," he said.

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