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Migrant Flow from Central Asia to Russia Will Increase

In the near future, the number of migrants from Central Asia coming to work in Russia will increase – particularly from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, countries where remittances from their citizens working in Russia stand at almost half of their respective GDPs, according to a joint study by the Eurasian Development Bank (EDB), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the HSE Laboratory for Comparative Social Research (LCSR), and the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS).

The Central Asian (CA) countries are among the leading suppliers of migrant workers to Russia. Although none of their countries has a common border with Russia, nationals of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan willingly come to Russia to work and send money back to their families.

The EDB, UNDP, HSE LCSR and RAS research teams carried out a joint project* designed to identify some of the trends, characteristics and future prospects of migration from Central Asia to Russia. One of the project's main goals was to come up with migration policy recommendations for Central Asian countries.

The study used published reports on migration and data from the Russian Federal Migration Service, the Russian Central Bank, the Central Banks of Central Asian countries, the Eurasian Integration Barometer, the Eurasian Monitor, and the World Value Survey (WVS). The HSE LCSR researchers focused on the values shared by migrants coming to work in Russia.

"Among other things, we looked at the issues through the prism of human stories," according to Mikhail Peleah, expert in 'green' economy and employment of the UNDP Regional Centre in Istanbul. The study included hundreds of qualitative interviews with migrants and their families.

Although migration from Central Asia to Russia declined in 2014, the study has found that Russia will remain a major destination for migrants from Central Asia as inequalities grow between the countries in terms of employment opportunities and income levels. There are pros and cons to this situation – balancing them effectively requires a careful migration policy, not limited to managing the movement of people, but also taking into account the wider social and economic implications of the workforce and money flows.

Back Home: Sick and Disillusioned

The research team focused mainly on Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and partially on Uzbekistan, as these countries have the highest ratios of migrant remittances to GDP – more than 40% for Tajikistan and around 30% for Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan, while less dependent on revenues from migrants, leads in terms of the remittance amounts and the number of migrants to Russia. As to Kazakhstan, it is a destination country for migrants, although to a lesser extent than Russia.

A series of qualitative interviews confirm that the majority of labour migrants from Central Asia coming to Russia do it out of necessity rather than choice and do not intend to take up permanent residence in Russia – most of these migrants are men (particularly those from Tajikistan) who have come to Russia to earn a living for their families back home.

However, according to Peleah, labour migration always comes at a cost, including the disruption of families and relationships, abandoned children, frustration and poor health. Remote divorces are also common. "Some migrants from CA countries have divorced their wives by sending them text messages on the phone," says Peleah. In addition to this, many migrants come back home with health problems, including infectious diseases.

Children's education is also a challenge; on one hand, having earned some money, migrant parents can afford to send their children to a better school, but on the other hand, many children drop out of school when left without parental supervision in the home country.

As yet another negative consequence, frustrated hopes for a better life affect migrants who come back from Russia disillusioned and in poor health.

Unemployment and Inequality as Drivers of Migration

Despite the costs, migration still offers a chance for a better life to many families in Central Asia. "Central Asian countries have a workforce surplus due to high birth rates and limited opportunities for decent employment locally, due mainly to the particular structure of the national economies," according to Peleah.

Thus, gold accounts for almost half of Kyrgyzstan’s exports, yet gold mining employs just one percent of the country's workforce. Similarly, aluminum is a major export commodity for Tajikistan, yet 75% of the country’s aluminum is produced by a single company employing some 12,000 of Tajikistan's more than 8 million population, including 5 million people of working age. According to Peleah, a similar situation is observed in Turkmenistan, but to a lesser extent in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, whose exports are more diversified.

Thus, high unemployment in Central Asia is a key factor contributing to migration. In contrast, unemployment is low in Russia compared to Central Asian countries, and migrants tend to take jobs which are unpopular with locals. Migrants also serve as a labour market 'buffer' in Russia (as they do in many developed countries) and are the first to lose their jobs in an economic downturn.

Another major driver of migration is the high inequality in income and pay between Russia and Central Asia – even a relatively low wage paid to migrants in Russia is usually sufficient to support a family back home.

Crisis Not a Barrier to Migration

A slight decline observed in migration from Central Asia to Russia in 2014 and a significant decline in USD-denominated remittances registered in late 2014 and early 2015 reflected both a slowdown of the Russian economy and the ruble devaluation.

However, in 2015, migration increased again, according to Tatiana Karabchuk, Deputy Head of Laboratory for Comparative Social Research. Russia today is the absolute leader as a destination country for migrants from Central Asia. In addition, Russia leads as the country where many nationals of the Central Asian countries would like to come not only to work, but also to study or take permanent residence, according to the EDB Integration Barometer. According to Karabchuk, the country has adjusted to the economic crisis, contributing to the returning popularity of migration to Russia.

Admittedly, a proportion of migrants from Central Asia would like to work, study or take permanent residence in Europe or the United States, but these are migration sentiments which may or may not lead to actual migration. In practical terms, however, Russia remains one of the most accessible countries for Central Asian migrants.

The LCSR study also shows that a convergence of values is contributing to migration from Central Asia to Russia, as people from Central Asia feel closer to Russia than to the E.U. or U.S., partly because of shared values from the Soviet past.

What makes Central Asian migrants different from most Russians, according to Karabchuk, is the fact that the former are collectivists and see their wellbeing as dependent on government and society rather than their own actions. "Considered in terms of Inglehart's theory of values, people in the CA countries have not yet transitioned to post-materialist values," notes Karabchuk. This value gap may cause tensions between the locals and migrants in Russia.

Promote Development Rather Than Consumption

Both Russia and the Central Asian countries benefit from migration – the former by receiving the needed workforce and the latter by having local problems such as unemployment and poverty alleviated.

Meanwhile, migration policies can be further improved to minimize risks and maximize gains. According to Peleah, "It is not just about border control and keeping track of the numbers, but about a more comprehensive approach to migration." He argues that migration policies should address a range of issues, from security in the destination country to effective use of funds contributed by migrants to their countries of origin. Today, their earnings are mainly used for consumption, which drives inflation, real estate prices, and imports, including luxury goods, but contributes little to the country's development.

* The project's findings are published in 'Labour Migration and Labor-intensive Industries in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan: Opportunities for Human Development in Central Asia' and 'Labour Migration, Remittances, and Human Development in Central Asia'


Author: Marina Selina, October 21, 2015