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Central Asia

Hell’s Conduit: Trafficking through the Caspian



Tajikistan unfortunately has all of the pre-conditions that make trafficking in persons there a perfect opportunity for the growing trade of human commodities. The state has poor governance, is rife with corruption, unemployment is high, and a large portion of the population is uneducated.

This combination of variables makes ‘acquiring’ human commodities very easy for the traffickers. The fact that the Caspian region, a major conduit and facilitator of such underworld activities, sits right on Tajikistan’s doorstep gives traffickers an easy route out of Central Asia and on to more lucrative and manipulative markets.

Madina, like thousands of other Tajik women who have been trafficked, had fallen on hard times. She was a single mother working in her local market and barely scraping by. Madina was enticed into the lurid world of the sex trade when a stranger approached her and promised that he would take her abroad and she would be able to earn large sums of money in just a few months and return home to her children. Of course, this was a lie. The man, who was a trafficker, took Madina to Turkey (through the Caspian region first, as most trafficked victims from Central Asia are) where he enslaved her at a brothel for over a year. Women, however, usually do not stay in their original destination country. Madina saw people transported on to Russia and Kazakhstan while others went to the Middle East, Iran, and even China.

Economic changes account for sexual exploitation as the number one trafficking concern in Tajikistan. The financial crisis of 2008 played an extraordinarily large role in the rise of trafficking along with the lack of border controls and complicity of the local governmental agents. As Louise Shelley states, “one-third of Tajik households now have a family member working outside of their country, most often in [the Caspian littoral states of] Russia or Kazakhstan.” (Shelley 2010) They are living in harsh conditions with many people housed in a single room. The conditions are filthy, exposing workers to dangerous jobs with little protection from the heat or cold, and employers that show little to no regard for the workers’ safety.  

An often unseen aspect to Caspian trafficking is how it leaves the families left back in Tajikistan vulnerable to internal trafficking. These children left behind in Tajikistan, now devoid of their matriarchal authority figure, are often forced to work in the cotton fields within Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Even though officially adopted legislation is in place that prohibits the use of child and forced labor, especially in rural areas, many of the schools remain closed during picking season and the children are forced to work. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) remains the top agency in Tajikistan to monitor and fight the practice of trafficking in persons. For the years of 2010 and 2011, the IOM produced lengthy reports explaining their findings on the cotton harvests. Working together with local government and law enforcement, the IOM was able to determine that while there was a drop in the number of students participating in the harvest, trafficking in child labor was still high.

There is a pernicious secondary trafficking market through the Caspian region that is also under-researched: children are not only vulnerable to the pressures of forced labor within Tajikistan once an adult figure is stolen away. They themselves are sometimes then consequently trafficked out-of-country as domestic servants. Many of the children will end up in places where children are used in the sex trade as well. Russia and Iran are some of the strongest ‘middle organizers’ of this secondary market, acting as conduits through the Caspian and onward to, for example, the Arab Gulf States. Also, because of the massive numbers of adults that are migrant workers, many children find themselves taken by parents to places like Russia and then actually abandoned when their parents find they can no longer support them. Uneducated children who know little to no Russian at all and have no papers to identify who they are or find their parents often end up extremely vulnerable. The transient homes throughout Russia that are set up as temporary places of safety more often serve as de facto recruiting grounds for organized crime groups that utilize trafficking as a major cash resource. These children become the victims of sexual exploitation, forced labor, forced begging, and even conscripted as child soldiers to conflicts all around the globe. Some children end up in places as far away as Latin America. And all of them, almost without exception, start that horrible journey by transiting through the Caspian.

The ties that human traffickers have to organized crime offer them ways to forge documents and utilize illicit trade routes. It should be no surprise that the prosperous natural resource routes of the Caspian often double as illicit trade routes for ‘Dark Net’ activities. Advertising of ‘human inventory’ is now cheap, secret, and easily accessible because of modern technology. Consumers of trafficked persons are able to shop for their perfect victims with just the click of a button on their computer, tablet, or cell phone. Traffickers can use cell phones to make and take bids on their human commodities, while buyers are able to make their purchase – documentation and travel included no less – to anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the decreased costs of transportation in the Caspian, as it has become more and more integrated into the global economy, have also made it easier to export these unfortunate souls.

Many countries, including Tajikistan, rely solely on the human-trafficking protocols set forth by the United Nations. Cooperation across many United Nations groups, academia, and private institutions are coming together to bring recognition to the problem of human-trafficking. The list of organizations that are participating in the initiatives include the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN-GIFT), the UNODC, the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). After rescuing victims of trafficking from their lives of servitude, the most difficult part is to reintegrate them back into their home societies. In Tajikistan, women who have been trafficked across the Caspian face a strong stigma related to the sexual activities they may have been involved in while being trafficked. This makes the reintegration process difficult because the community shuns the women, leaving strong feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and shame. The IOM has played the largest role in aiding victims of trafficking (VoTs) to reintegrate back into society. Unfortunately, these efforts are small in comparison to the estimated numbers of people that are actually trafficked. The complexity of retrieving victims from across international borders makes rescue near impossible in most cases. Traffickers have become experts at hiding and manipulating the victims into obedient compliance.

The governments of the Caspian littoral states still do not take the issue of trafficking seriously enough in my opinion. Until these governments take a serious stance against corruption and place a higher value on fundamental human rights and basic standards of decency, trafficking will continue to be a problem for years to come. The lives of these invisible citizens will be lost in a world of darkness. It is not just a problem for the Caspian. It is a problem for all of the countries adjacent to the Caspian Five as well. Until progress is made the Caspian region will not just be a 21st century channel for a new Silk Road into Central Asia. It will quite literally for some be a conduit to Hell.

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Central Asia

ILO Reports Important Progress on Child Labour and Forced Labour in Uzbek Cotton Fields

MD Staff



A new International Labour Organization report to the World Bank finds that the systematic use of child labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest has come to an end, and that concrete measures to stop the use of forced labour have been taken.

The report Third-party monitoring of measures against child labour and forced labour during the 2017 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan is based on more than 3,000 unaccompanied and unannounced interviews with a representative sample of the country’s 2.6 million cotton pickers. It shows that the country is making significant reforms on fundamental labour rights in the cotton fields.

“The 2017 cotton harvest took place in the context of increased transparency and dialogue. This has encompassed all groups of civil society, including critical voices of individual activists. This is an encouraging sign for the future. However, there is still a lag between the sheer amount of new decrees and reforms being issued by the central government and the capacity to absorb and implement these changes at provincial and district levels,” says Beate Andrees, Chief of the ILO’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch.

The ILO has been monitoring the cotton harvest for child labour since 2013. In 2015, it began monitoring the harvest for forced labour and child labour as part of an agreement with the World Bank.

Interviews carried out by the monitors took place in all provinces of the country and included cotton pickers and other groups which are directly or indirectly involved in the harvest such as local authorities, education and medical personnel. In addition, a telephone poll of 1,000 randomly selected persons was conducted. Before the harvest, the ILO experts organized training for some 6,300 people directly involved with the recruitment of cotton pickers.

The results confirm that the large majority of the 2.6 million cotton pickers engaged voluntarily in the annual harvest in 2017 and that there is a high level of awareness in the country about the unacceptability of both child and forced labour. The report confirms earlier findings that the systematic use of child labour in the cotton harvest has ended though continued vigilance is required to ensure that children are in school.

Instructions have been given by the Uzbek national authorities to local administrations to ensure that all recruitment of cotton pickers is on a voluntary basis. In September 2017, an order was given withdrawing certain risk groups (students, education and medical personnel) from the harvest at its early stage.

Moreover, cotton pickers’ wages have been increased in line with recommendations by the ILO and the World Bank. The ILO recommends that the government continues to increase wages and also addresses working conditions more broadly to further attract voluntary pickers.

Last September, Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev spoke before the United Nations General Assembly in New York where he pledged to end forced labour in his country and underscored his government’s engagement with the ILO. In November 2017, at the Global Conference on the Sustained Eradication of Child Labour in Argentina, Uzbekistan also pledged to engage with independent civil society groups on the issue.

The ILO Third-Party Monitoring (TPM) project in Uzbekistan will now focus on the remaining challenges, particularly the need for further awareness raising and capacity building, which varies between provinces and districts. It will ensure that all those involved in recruitment will have the information and tools needed to ensure that cotton pickers are engaged in conformity with international labour standards.

The monitoring and results from a pilot project in the area of South Karkalpakstan also show that cotton picking economically empowers women in rural areas. The cotton harvest provides many women with a unique opportunity to earn an extra cash income which they control and can use to improve the situation of their families.

The ILO TPM Project is funded by a multi-donor trust fund with major contributions by the European Union, United States and Switzerland.

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Central Asia

Kazakhstan Launches Online Platform for Monitoring and Reporting Greenhouse Gases

MD Staff



An online platform for monitoring, reporting and verifying emission sources and greenhouse gases (GHG) was officially launched today by the Ministry of Energy of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the World Bank.

The platform is an essential element of the National Emissions Trading System of Kazakhstan, which was launched in 2013 as the country’s main instrument to regulate domestic CO2 emissions and to drive the development of low-carbon technologies. Today, the National Emissions Trading System of Kazakhstan covers all major companies in the energy, oil and gas sectors, mining, metallurgical, chemical and processing industries.

Since 2014, the World Bank Trust Fund Partnership for Market Readiness has provided technical assistance to Kazakhstan in supporting the implementation of the National Emissions Trading System of Kazakhstan and related climate change mitigation policies.

“Kazakhstan’s emissions trading system is the first of its kind in the Central Asia region,” said Ato Brown, World Bank Country Manager for Kazakhstan. “With support from the Partnership for Market Readiness, the country has made a great effort to develop policy options for mid- and long-term emissions pathways and to develop an action plan on GHG emissions reductions by 2030. The World Bank will continue to support the Government during the crucial stages of policy implementation.”

The platform enables Kazakhstan’s major emitters to transmit and record data on GHGs emissions, as well as trade online. The National Allocation Plan, adopted in January 2018, sets an emission cap for 129 companies for the period 2018-2020. Per the national allocation plan, quotas have been allocated until 2020.

“The electronic platform undoubtedly proves the evolution of the Kazakhstan emission control system, which will allow the monitoring, reporting and verification system to be upgraded to a much higher level,” said Sergei Tsoy, Deputy General Director of JSC Zhasyl Damu.

GHG data is confirmed by accredited bodies for verification and validation and transferred to the Cadastre using an electronic digital signature. To date, there are seven verification companies accredited in Kazakhstan, with five more in the process of accreditation.

The platform was developed by JSC Zhasyl Damu with the support of France’s Technical Center on Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases. The system is administered by JSC Zhasyl-Damu, while the beneficiaries are the Climate Change Department and the Committee for Environmental Regulation and Control of the Ministry of Energy of the Republic of Kazakhstan.


Kazakhstan is one of the largest emitters of GHG in Europe and Central Asia with total annual national emissions of 300.9 MtCO2e in 2015. The energy sector accounts for 82% of total GHG emissions, followed by agriculture (9.6%) and industrial processes (6.4%). More than 80% of produced electricity in Kazakhstan is coal-fired, followed by natural gas (7%) and hydro power (8%).

Kazakhstan proposed as its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) an economy-wide reduction of GHG emissions of 15% from 1990 emissions levels by 2030. Kazakhstan ratified the Paris Agreement in November 2016 and committed itself to the fulfilment of the proposed target as its first INDC. The objective will contribute to sustainable economic development as well as to the achievement of the long-term global goal of keeping global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius. 

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Central Asia

Religious buildings in Kazakhstan to be labeled 16+



New restrictions on religious activities are emerging in Kazakhstan. Will they help to fight extremism?

According to the Government bill introducing amendments to the laws on religious activities and associations, adolescents should be forbidden from attending mosques, churches and synagogues if they are not accompanied by one of the parents and don’t have written consent of another parent.

Schools and the media are going to be forbidden from talking about the belief systems of various religions as well.

By implementing these and other measures, Astana intends to combat religious extremism. However, the crackdown on religion has already set the country four years back: in 2017 the Republic of Kazakhstan returned on the list of countries where the religious situation arouses concern of the US State Department Commission on International Religious Freedom. Kazakhstan last appeared on the list along with Afghanistan, India, Indonesia and Laos in 2013.

Is the proposed bill really going to help to contain the spread of radical Islam, and to what extent does it conform with international human rights standards?

The Concept of State Policy towards Religion, adopted in 2017, shows that the authorities strive to expel religion from public space altogether and promote an ideology of “secularism”. Their thinking is understandable: with no contact between members of differentreligions, there will be no inter-religious conflicts.

However, according to the European experience, prohibitive policy does not bring the expected results. In a multicultural society, the lack of information about the beliefs of other religions only increases tensions. Silencing the matter of religion and obstructing religious education reduces the ability to critically evaluate the extremist ideologies,while increasing the opportunityto spread false information aimed to promote inter-religious discord.

In addition, various summer camps, excursion and pilgrimage activities organized by religious communities are going to be banned if the bill is adopted. It includes those traditional religious confessions that the Government routinely thanks for promoting the inter-civilizational dialogue, youth development and the maintenance of stability, peace and prosperity in the society. A large number of children and teenagers will be deprived of their usual social circles and leisure activities.

As a result of such unconstitutional state interference and bureaucratic obstacles, children and teenagers will be denied the right to practice the religion of their family even when outside educational, medical and other state institutions. Not to mention that parents will be entitledby law to restrict the right of their children under the age of 16 to choose their faith.

Moreover, according to the proposed legislation, if a minor is found in a prayer room“illegally”, the responsibility will fall on the religious organization in question. Consequently, the clergy will need to alienate and discourage the younger generations from attending their own churches, so as not to get fined and fall within the scope of the restrictions on the religious activities!

At the same time, actual extremist organizations will go underground and get more freedom than their peaceful competitors. Obviously, the unruly youth will turn not to those imams, priests or rabbis unable to go beyond the restrictive framework of formal prohibitions. They will go to the “real” preachers who offer communion, new religious experience, something to devote yourself to, a sense of self-worth (even if as suicide bombers).

It is in the interests of all religious leaders, and indeed the whole world, to prevent such a terrible scenario from happening and to return Kazakhstan on the path of civilizational dialogue and inter-confessional cooperation. Otherwise, any participation in the VI Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in the Astana Palace of Peace and Reconciliation can be seen as not only dishonorable and hypocritical, but also unsafe.

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