“One day I went out to the market on my own and some men asked to see my documents. I’m not sure which law enforcement structure they were from. Anyway, I didn’t have the right documents, so they took me to an immigration detention center, deported me and banned me from returning to Russia for 5 years. My mother, father and 4 brothers and sisters are all still in Russia.” – Shahzoda, 19
We meet Shahzoda in an isolated dusty village in Tajikistan’s Farkhor district. Just a few kilometers from the Afghan border, many here are already preparing for the winter and huge piles of hay blossom from under corrugated iron roofs. Hidden in the shade of a persimmons tree and sat on the patio of a house built with baked mud bricks, Shahzoda tells us her story.
“My father worked in construction and wanted the family to move to Russia. When I was 11 we all migrated to Belogradski Oblast and I really liked it. I studied at school until 9th grade, then I enrolled in the technical college and studied there for one year,” says a smiling Shahzoda. She tells us a little more about her friends, hobbies and life in Russia before moving on to the day her life changed after nothing more than a regular trip to the market. Shahzoda struggled to elaborate on the specifics of her administrative violation but deportations and bans on re-entry are nowadays considered a regular risk of the migration process for Tajik migrants.
“They had passed a new law stating that people had to exit every three months but I hadn't done that. They deported me straight away and issued me with a five-year re-entry ban.” The economic downturn in Russia has forced the tightening of Russian migration legislation and the imposing of new stringent administrative procedures on migrant workers, millions of whom hail from Central Asia.
Cheaper, and far more common than deportations, are re-entry bans, which can be issued for offenses as small as a parking ticket and can be given by a wide variety of state institutions from medical agencies to financial monitoring services. The current re-entry ban system is an incredibly effective yet brutal way to regulate migration that has so far resulted in over 1,300,000 migrants workers being “blacklisted’.1
Shahzod’s story, however, is unlike many returned migrants and is as unique as it is heart breaking. “I am the middle of five children and my entire family, parents, siblings, even nieces and nephews are all in Russia. They have now been given temporary residence and are waiting to see if they can attain citizenship whilst I've been banned from returning for five years. I speak to them almost every day and it's difficult because I want to return, but I understand for now I have to wait.”
Although I have heard the constantly growing statistics of migrants with re-entry bans hundreds of times, it is only when visiting these border villages that I get an understanding of the sheer scale of these bans’ existence and the manner in which their effects reverberate throughout entire families.
IOM Tajikistan is currently running vocational training courses throughout 23 jamoats (group of villages) along the Tajik-Afghan border. The courses are aimed at vulnerable community members such as Shahzoda, men and women who are back in Tajikistan and are struggling with the negative effects of their unplanned return.
I have visited more than half of these courses to inspect their progress and meet with participants, and almost every member has been affected by these administrative bans. Perhaps 80 percent of males involved talk openly about their time working in Russia and their sadness at being banned, whilst almost every female raises their hand when asked if they have a family member or spouse who either has been or currently is working in Russia.
Having grown from an 11-year-old girl into an 18-year-old woman whilst living in a cosmopolitan area of Russia, Shahzoda had even more problems to deal with upon her return to her family’s village in Farkhor.
“When I first returned to Tajikistan I frequently stayed at different aunties’ houses because it was difficult for me and for them. During the eight years I spent in Russia I learnt to speak, act and dress a different way to other women and girls in the village and so it was very a big challenge returning.”
However, it seems that Shahzoda is beginning to settle back into her Tajik life quite well and when I first arrived to view the course she was, like all the girls, busy working away on her sewing machine, talking and laughing.
“This course is good because I'm learning a new and useful skill. It helps me to pass the time and I hope that during the ban I can work in Tajikistan as a dressmaker.”
Throughout her story Shahzoda remains stoic and unwaveringly strong. Not once does she show upset or distress but instead a maturity and acceptance of her situation that far outweighs her years.
Her resilience is compounded in her parting words to me which she says clearly and with a hopeful smile. “It's a difficult situation but every day I wake up and think the same thing: one year is already gone, so I only have another four to go.”
1Bahovadinova, M. (2016) Tajikistan’s Bureaucratic Management of Exclusion: Responses to the Russian Reentry Ban Database. Central Asian Affairs 3 p226-248