Russia Loses Credibility as Central Asian Migrant Destination
The Central Asian republics are among the most remittance-dependent countries in the world, sending roughly two million people to Russia annually in search of employment. According to Russia’s Federal Security Service, 265,000 people entered Russia from Kyrgyzstan (4.20 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population), 524,000 people entered from Tajikistan (5.76 percent of its population), and 918,000 people entered from Uzbekistan (2.79 percent of the population) from January-June 2019. With such substantial numbers of their populations embarking on annual trips to find work, the Central Asian republics have struggled to support their diaspora communities abroad. Central Asians in Russia, China, South Korea, and elsewhere often report discrimination from their employers and authorities, poor living conditions, and cultural barriers that impede their ability to find suitable work. Furthermore, the COVID-19 related shutdowns additionally stressed the already struggling migrants. The Central Asian republics have brokered deals with host countries to safeguard the rights of their diaspora communities, but migrants still face significant hardships abroad.
Although most Central Asians speak Russian, many report discrimination from Russian citizens and authorities upon arriving for work. One Kyrgyz woman working in Russia said that migrant workers are often subject to bribery and extortion from Russian authorities. Discrimination against migrant workers can also turn violent. During 2004-2012, 220 out of 556 people (39% of victims) who were murdered in far-right attacks in Russia hailed from Central Asian countries. Likewise, 568 people out of 3,507 (16% of victims) who were injured in such attacks were Central Asian. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated their situation, with most migrants forced to live on the fringes of society with little assistance from Moscow.
The situation for Central Asian migrants has gradually worsened. According to a study conducted by the Levada Center in Moscow, about 71 percent of respondents support the slogan “Russia for Russians” and 54 percent admitted to sympathizing with xenophobic sentiments. However, the rise in anti-migration attitudes in Russia is of little concern for Moscow because it is unlikely to degrade the Kremlin’s legitimacy.
Kyrgyzstan is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), a multilateral institution designed to remove barriers on the movement of goods and people among member states. Membership in the union has granted Kyrgyz migrants certain privileges, including exempting migrants and their families from registering upon arrival and providing access to social security benefits and medical care. However, it has not shielded Kyrgyz migrants from falling victim to xenophobic attacks by Russian citizens and authorities. On the other hand, Uzbekistan, which is not a member of the EAEU, signed three bilateral agreements with Russia in 2007 to ensure the rights of Uzbek migrants working abroad. Nevertheless, many of the agreements were never implemented or became obsolete without a renewal over the past 14 years.
Rising xenophobia and shoddy deals with Russia are attracting many Central Asians to other destinations. The Russian economy’s plummet in 2014 and Kazakhstan’s growing importance on the geopolitical stage has made it a more plausible destination for migrant workers from neighboring countries. In 2017, Kazakhstan estimated that more than two million migrants were living in the country, although the number is believed to be much higher when accounting for undocumented workers. Kazakhstan has also implemented new permits to attract skilled workers into the country. In the first nine months of 2017, Nur-Sultan issued 19,000 paid permits for foreign workers. In addition, Kazakhstan welcomes ethnic Kazakhs, known officially as qandas, to repatriate back to the country. A majority of qandas immigrate from Uzbekistan (61.5%), followed by China (14.3%), Mongolia (9.3%), Turkmenistan (6.8%), and Russia (4.6%). There are more than one million qandas residing in Kazakhstan.
Countries outside of the post-Soviet sphere have become bastions for Central Asian migrants. South Korea’s cultural link with Central Asia due to the considerable ethnic Korean population residing in the region, known as the Koryo-Saram, has pushed South Korea closer to the region. South Korea’s liberalizing economy and Seoul’s desire to attract migrant workers have led to an increase in migration from Central Asia, as evidenced by the pop-up of predominantly Central Asian neighborhoods around the country. China, Turkey, and European countries have also welcomed increasing numbers of Central Asian migrant workers.
Central Asian governments have attempted and struggled to deal with Moscow in ensuring protections for their diaspora communities. Rising xenophobia and cultural barriers are turning many migrant workers away from Russia and to other destinations. Russia’s failure to develop a consensus for migrants originating in Central Asia and its indifference to rising xenophobia in the country are detrimental to its migrant-dependent economy, because Russia depends on a steady stream of migrants from Central Asia to supplement its declining working population. A sudden shift in migration patterns to East Asia, Turkey, and Western Europe will negatively impact Russia, which could result in future dealings between Central Asian countries and Russia to maintain open channels of migration. On the other hand, an influx of Central Asian migrants to other regions has the potential to foster improved relations with these host countries and elevate the status of Central Asia on the geopolitical stage.
Image Source: Eurasianet/Yan Matusevich.