The recent discovery of a human organ smuggling ring in the southern Uzbek city of Bukhara is focusing attention on the dangers of widespread poverty, which is driving many to resort to desperate measures in a search for economic security.
Authorities have yet to establish a final death toll, but at least 70 murders have been attributed to the human organ smuggling ring. A Bukhara surgeon and her husband, a professor at a local technological institute, stand accused of the murders. The couple allegedly operated a phantom travel agency that purported to arrange foreign work visas. Customers reportedly paid $200 for the agency's services. However, an unknown number of those seeking to emigrate ended up being killed and having their organs sold for transplants.
Revelations about the murders have left local residents bewildered. "It seems that whole families were chosen because they would not be immediately missed. It is quite common not to hear from those who go abroad for several months until they are settled, so no-one guessed what was going on," said a resident of Bukhara, this week. "It's such a normal thing for people to look for work overseas these days. People are desperate. But it is quite amazing that they put their whole faith in complete strangers who make big promises. Our people are trusting and naive and would never suspect such a thing."
As Uzbekistan's economy has remained stagnant since the country gained independence in 1991, many citizens have resorted to emigration to Europe or America as the fastest way out of poverty. Those with legal ways out are availing themselves of the opportunity. For instance, many Uzbek Jews have departed for the United States or Israel.
However, a large number of Uzbeks do not have a readily available way to emigrate. Many are willing to pay vast sums of money up-front to self-styled agents, who promise ready-made jobs in the West. These so-called visa brokers have sprung up in the last few years to offers services to those who have been displaced by the collapse of the Soviet system, and who are growing desperate as they struggle to support their families.
Russia is the principle destination for Uzbekistan's economic migrants, many of whom find seasonal work in Siberia. Women pack their bags and head off with friends, spending six months selling Uzbek cotton products on the freezing streets of Siberian cities, such as Perm. Meanwhile, many men find work in construction projects, in part because Uzbeks have a reputation for good building skills and sobriety.
"Our people will grasp at any straw to make money," said Hamira, whose husband has just left with a group to work illegally in South Korea. She has no idea how long he will be away, and is waiting anxiously for news of him, and the first pay check. She expects it to arrive by hand with someone returning from South Korea.
"I don't really know how it [the check] will come. I just live on promises of those who have been, and have returned safely. They tell me
Jennifer Balfour is a freelance writer based in Central Asia.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.