Stuck in Moscow, Zaron's husband cannot afford a ticket home. "When he was working, he sent us 150 or 200 dollars every month. For three months, he hasn't sent anything," she says. A mother of five, Zaron's youngest child, now almost two, hasn't yet met her father. Unfortunately, Zaron's story is far from unique these days in Tajikistan.
It seems that just about every family in the impoverished Central Asian nation can tell a similar tale of woe. Fathers, sons and brothers are working in Russia -- at least, until recently. Now, hardship manifests itself in myriad ways. Trains arrive full, return empty; loved ones are unable to scrape together enough for the 4,000-kilometer trip home; and many of those who arrive in Tajikistan quickly realize they may have been better off unemployed in Russia.
"For seven years my son has been going to Russia and coming back. This year he came and did some work here, but he didn't get paid. So again he decided to go back to Russia five months ago. But he hasn't been working for these five months," said Ziamuddin, 84. As he spoke, he fought back tears.
"It was so hard to get the money together for his ticket, but we did it somehow, we borrowed from relatives and friends. He will earn it and send it back. But now he hasn't been working for these five months," Ziamuddin continued. His son's wages support an extended family of 15. Last year, when times were good, he sent $100 per month. In the last five months, he has sent less than $90 in total.
Tajikistan has long depended on remittances sent home from migrant workers. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But amid the global financial crisis, many families are seeing their savings rapidly evaporate. A cash crunch is threatening to unhinge both the economy and society.
Local news reports are full of grim statistics on the number of returnees and the decrease in bank transfers. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In late April, IMF Mission Chief for Tajikistan, Axel Schimmelpfennig, summarized the situation in a commentary published in the weekly newspaper Tojikiston.
"Remittance inflows are expected to shrink by 30 percent, contributing to a decline in GDP growth to 2 percent in 2009. Last year, an estimated 1 million migrants -- employed mostly in Russia --sent home $2.4 billion, close to 50 percent of Tajikistan's GDP, providing a basic income for many households. With remittances declining and growth stagnating, per capita income could fall by around 6 percent in US dollar terms this year," Schimmelpfennig wrote. The plunging ruble and somoni exchange rates are exacerbating the situation.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that many young men are trying to remain in Russia, despite the increasing difficulties, says Zohir Navjavonov of the International Organization on Migration (IOM). "The qualified and cheap Tajik labor force is still in high demand in Russia since Russians do not want to do the work that Tajiks do. Therefore, the majority of migrants are trying to stay in Russia since they do not see any prospect of finding a well-paid job in Tajikistan," Navjavonov told EurasiaNet.
According to a recent survey conducted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Tajik Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, the global financial crisis is driving large numbers of Tajiks back home. More than 70 percent of those surveyed said the crisis had been a factor in their decision to return home. But, as Zaron knows too well, not all have the luxury of being able to return.
"It's all about money. If you don't have money, you are stuck; you cannot do anything. It is getting worse. Right now, even if I call my husband to say the situation is very bad, he says, 'I'm sorry. I cannot do anything. I only eat bread.' We've borrowed too much. He cannot even come home."
Experts are concerned that the influx of returning migrant workers could destabilize Tajik society. "This is a big problem for Tajikistan," said Muzaffar Olimov, Director of the Sharq Center in Dushanbe, a think-tank. "There are no jobs here. The government promises jobs, but there will not be enough for all the migrants coming back."
The IOM is also concerned. "There is still a great outflow of Tajiks to the Russian Federation. At the moment, it is hard to say whether the situation will worsen in a few coming months," said Navjavonov. So far, "there are no direct indications of negative effects caused by the return of migrants. However, it seems that this issue should not be left unattended [because] a series of small insurgencies occurred in some of the regions of Tajikistan in the last two years. This social turmoil may definitely transfer into something larger that may have a negative impact on the social, economic and political situation in the country."
Many Tajiks are now bracing for dire times. As the funds supporting his family of 15 grind to a halt, Ziamuddin is expecting to make some tough choices. "It is very hard for my grandchildren. . . . Every month we have to pay for their school. If this continues, they will have to stop studying. There's nothing we can do about it."
David Trilling is the Central Asia Coordinator for EurasiaNet.