Eurasia on the Move. Interdisciplinary approaches to a Dynamic Migration region, published by Nazarbayev University and GW’s Central Asia Program, discusses many aspects of migration flows in Eurasia.

As Caress Schenk (Nazarbayev University) notes in the book’s introduction, Eurasia is marked by some of the freest migration in the world thanks to the free labor zone of the Eurasian Economic Union and the visa-free regime of the Commonwealth of Independent States:

At the same time, however, it faces restrictions in the form of Soviet-era registration procedures, the active use of re-entry bans in Russia, and heavy-handed efforts to regulate emigration in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The volume features chapters from a new cohort of scholars, many of whom were born in the region but educated abroad. As a result of all of these efforts, Eurasian migration studies has increasingly brought together intellectual traditions, theoretical perspectives, and approaches to data that historically separated the English- and Russian-language literatures.

Malika Bahovadinova (Czech Academy of Sciences) and Isaac Scarborough (London School of Economics) investigate the impact that Soviet-era migration programs have had on Post-Soviet Eurasia. They argue that massive labor migration from Tajikistan to Russia has been built directly on the structural and discursive framework created during the final decade of the USSR with the goal of increasing labor market freedom within the Soviet Union:

Due to the Soviet development project, which encouraged immobility in Tajikistan by providing the basics of modern life in the village and promoting cotton harvesting, Tajikistan is unique among Soviet republics in becoming less, rather than more, urbanized over the years. As the number of workers in the Tajik SSR began to increase (hitting 200,000 in the mid-1980s), an increasing number of voices came to advocate directing these workers to employment elsewhere in the USSR. Whereas the Tajik SSR was experiencing “labor excess,” the Russian SFSR and other European republics were experiencing a manpower shortage.

Interestingly, labor migration evolved from providing contract workers (limitchiki) to individual Russian factories to the idea of permanent resettlement in the RSFSR. The Tajik State Committee for Labor, for example, launched an initiative in the mid-1980s that facilitated the resettlement of workers from Tajikistan to Khabarovsk krai in the RSFSR, where it was presumed that they would work in agriculture. With the dismantling of the Soviet system of guarantees and as economic insecurity became ubiquitous, Tajiks’ mobility behavior changed. To a large degree, labor migration to Russia came to be seen as “a lifeline to those sinking in unknown waters.”

Today, an increasing number of migrant workers from Tajikistan take advantage of relocation programs and other methods of moving permanently to the Russian Federation. Initial research in Dushanbe and Russia has shown a growing number of migrant workers using programs such the “resettlement program” (programma pereseleniia) for Russian “compatriots” (sootechestvenniki), and statistics reveal that a significant number of Tajik citizens receive either Russian residency or citizenship each year. In 2016, for example, 23,012 Tajik citizens acquired Russian citizenship, while another 18,882 became permanent residents. Thus, as the authors note, these migration flows demonstrate the force of history: “Soviet-era institutions and bureaucracies have lived on past their official expiration date in 1991, continuing to influence and affect life decades later”.

Galib Bashirov (Florida International University) provides a comparative study of Russian and Turkish approaches to migration from Central Asia:

Russia and Turkey both have deep historical, political, social, and economic ties to Central Asia. They are also the two most important destinations for migrants from Central Asia, primarily in the areas of labor and student migration. However, the two countries have developed distinct approaches to managing legal and illegal migration from Central Asia. “In Russia, nationalist-xenophobic tendencies that attempt to securitize migration from Central Asia clash with an economic rationale that requires cheap imported labor for economic development and a demographic predicament that the influx of migrants goes some way toward addressing. This leads to contradictions in the Russian approach to migration. Turkey, by contrast, has historically had an accommodationist attitude to migration from Central Asia. More recently, however, the influx of Syrian refugees en masse, as well as a growing number of terrorist attacks—some of which were perpetrated by Central Asian nationals—have led to the securitization of Central Asian migration to Turkey, albeit to a lesser extent than in Russia”.

The author finds that the collapse of the Soviet Union, the war in Syria, domestic terrorist attacks, public opinion, and political platforms all support and sustain the securitization of migration in Russia. These conditions, in conjunction with strong and frequent securitizing moves by political agents, create strong securitization mechanisms. In Turkey, on the other hand, the collapse of the Soviet Union, public opinion, and political platforms have largely served to constrain the securitization of migration from Central Asia. The two domestic terror attacks perpetrated by Central Asian nationals triggered securitization, for which the war in Syria had provided background conditions. Nevertheless, given that securitizing moves have been weak and infrequent, attempted mostly by politically marginalized opposition forces, there continues to be weak securitization of Central Asian migrants in Turkey.

Rustamjon Urinboyev (Lund University) explores migrant transnationalism with regard to Central Asian migrants in Russia in view of the growing use of everyday technologies of transnationalism (smartphones and social media) among Central Asian migrants in Russia, which may trigger social changes in both migrant-sending and -receiving societies:

Urinboyev presents the results of extensive multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork undertaken in Moscow, Russia, and Ferghana region, Uzbekistan. Communication technologies (eg., smartphones and social media) have enabled Uzbek migrants to stay in touch with their home societies, as well as create permanent, telephone-based translocal communities in Moscow, usually centered around migrants who hail from the same mahalla or village in Uzbekistan. The existence of this telephone-based transnational environment helps migrants cope with the challenges of musofirchilik (being alien) and avoid or maneuver around structural constraints such as complicated residence registration and work permit rules, social exclusion, racism, and the lack of social security. These migrant communities and networks serve as an alternative integration and adaptation mechanisms, providing access to basic public goods, such as jobs, housing, and physical and economic security. The networks usually revolve around the bonds of kinship, region of origin, or ethnic affiliation, which adapt many “domestic” practices to the conditions of migration and temporary residence. Hence, Uzbek migrants’ transnationalism is not merely an economic activity or cultural practice, but is both a coping strategy and a mode of resistance to the repressive political and socio-legal environment.

Nodira Kholmatova (European University Institute) explores feminization of migration from Tajikistan to Russia, revealing contradictions between the classical sociological trend of women’s empowerment and the constraints of traditional society. Kholmatova argues that female migrants do not see immigration as a means of achieving emancipation and empowerment. “On the contrary, women perceive labor migration as a setback, since they then have to regain their status by readjusting to traditional norms and values in their home society”:

A female migrant faces the competing imperatives to earn money and behave in line with traditional norms that are suspicious of migration. This creates cognitive dissonance because women would prefer not to migrate, given the patriarchal society’s negative attitude toward migration, but feel that they do not have a choice. In order to maintain a transnational lifestyle, women come up with strategies that allow them to perform their traditional gender roles and migrate to earn money. Regardless of how long they had been in Russia, the women studied in the sample were constantly engaged in finding ways to align themselves with traditional social and cultural norms. Beneficial as this behavior is for reintegration and maintaining social status at home, it can create problems, as it impedes women from developing strategies to cope with the uncertainties inherent in migration.

Nazira Sodatsayrova (University of Tsukuba) writes about educational mobility. Her research takes a qualitative approach, surveying Tajik students in Japan and asking about their educational biographical narratives to understand motivations before and after mobility:

The study revealed that educational mobility and other forms of mobility are connected to multiple factors: quality of education at a particular school (linked to the presence of qualified teachers); opportunities in the specific context; an individual’s interests; where students live; and other economic, political, cultural, and social aspects. The research indicates the desire and willingness of students to seek better education, due in part to the shortage of professional teachers, which impacted the global competitiveness of students in rural areas, but at the same time led to greater student mobility. Despite regional challenges, students were resilient and wanted to go further from home to continue their education. First, the value of education is demonstrated by the fact that students were willing to confront all the issues they faced. Second, students emphasize the importance of resilience in each period: the civil war, the transition, and the time of new opportunities thereafter. Third, students are not content with the opportunities available to them locally; they are continuously in pursuit of new opportunities and possibilities for themselves and their families, even if it means moving abroad. Today, Tajik youth face many challenges as they pursue mobility and which drive mobility: the rural-urban divide, professional or career competition, and responsibility for looking after their siblings and children. Studying educational mobility in context allows for a better understanding of mobility as a whole.

Bolat L. Tatibekov (Suleyman Demirel University) and Reuel R. Hanks (Oklahoma State University) study spatial dynamics of external labor migration in contemporary Kazakhstan:

Kazakhstan has been more open to the introduction of guest workers than other Central Asian countries, primarily due to current or impending labor shortages. Between 2001 and the first half of 2017, the government invited almost half a million foreign workers into the country—a figure that, of course, does not include those who arrived illegally. The authors study this data and apply a gravity model to understand the factors of distance from several countries (including Central Asian countries, Russia, China, and Turkey), cultural affinity, and economic ties.

The majority of Kazakhstan’s foreign labor force comes from two countries: China and Turkey. However, in the earlier period (2001-2009) there were more workers from Turkey than from China, whereas Chinese workers were more numerous than their Turkish counterparts in the later period (2009-2017). For example, spatial analysis showed that in the period of economic growth between 2001 and mid-2009, labor migration in Kazakhstan from Turkey was in line with the gravity model from the perspective of cultural affinity. In China, the gravity model prevailed from the perspective of distance and economic potential in the latter period. It seems that cultural affinity became a less important factor in determining labor migration than economic potential and geographic proximity. The authors can predict that labor migration from China is destined to increase.

Ajar Chekirova (University of Illinois at Chicago) explores the effect of registration documents on the citizenship rights of rural migrants in Kyrgyzstan. She attempts to address the issue of diminished citizenship rights using a case study of post-Soviet urban registration, or propiska, in Kyrgyzstan:

There are an estimated 350,000 internal migrants in Bishkek, the capital city, who together comprise almost 30 percent of the city’s population. These individuals, however, typically lack propiska, or local registration. In order to obtain an urban propiska, an internal migrant needs to prove that he or she owns real estate or has a formal rental agreement in the city, something that is beyond the financial means of many migrants. Instead, they tend to build homes on land obtained illegally, such that their property rights are not recognized by the state. As a result, many unregistered rural migrants in Bishkek have limited access to healthcare, education, social services, the banking system, or formal employment. Moreover, registration requirements have been integrated into other laws and policies concerning issuance of identification documents, property inheritance, criminal justice, welfare, marriage, and elections, thereby socially and politically disenfranchising these migrants. These limitations marginalize rural migrants, making them de jure equal citizens of the state but de facto second-class citizens in the city. The discrepancy between how citizenship is constructed at the national level and how it is interpreted and practiced at the local level opens new arenas of social inquiry.

Farrukh Irnazarov (Central Asian Development Institute) studies the impact of Russian re-entry bans on Central Asian labor migrants’ coping strategies:

In 2013, in spite of high demand for unskilled labor, Russian authorities decided to introduce and enforce a re-entry ban list, on which a migrant could be placed even for such minor administrative violations as a discrepancy between their registration and actual place of residence, a mobile phone bill in arrears, or late payment of fees. As a result, a large number of labor migrants ended up on the list and were banned from re-entering Russia, typically for between three and five years.

In the interim, however, labor migrants who find themselves blacklisted encounter a number of difficulties. First of all, they are usually unaware of the reasons for the ban, its duration, and other peculiarities; typically, when they leave Russia to visit their families back home, no one informs them that they are subject to a re-entry ban and will be unable to return to Russia. Thus, the entire process of banning individuals remains rather opaque. Currently, nine different government agencies can put a migrant on the re-entry ban list without explaining their decision. Moreover, labor migrants’ legal knowledge is typically rather poor, and they often have limited faith in the court system. Under these circumstances, migrants banned from re-entering Russia have to come up with their own coping strategies for dealing with this new reality while beyond Russia’s borders.

The re-entry ban list is separate from deportation, but many labor migrants mistakenly believe that they were deported. Some migrants are familiar with their re-entry ban status and therefore decide to remain in Russia, sometimes attempting to obtain Russian citizenship in order to stay. Others are unfamiliar with the situation: once they leave the country, they are unable to return to Russia. Kazakhstan often serves an alternative destination for those migrants who travel through Kazakhstan but are turned back at the Russian border: there was a 12-fold increase in the number of Tajiks obtaining work permits and a 4-fold increase among their Uzbek counterparts in the period from 2014 to 2016. Those labor migrants who return to their respective countries have to deal with new realities back home. Considering that some of them have spent a significant part—a decade or more—of their working life in Russia, the re-entry ban engenders a number of reintegration problems. All Central Asian governments are working to mobilize their resources to address the issues related to return migrants.

John Round (University of Birmingham) and Irina Kuznetsova (University of Birmingham) write about states of exception facing Central Asian migrants in Moscow:

Central Asian migrants in Russia are demonized by the state and media, thus facilitating the state of exception and the abuses that occur within it. The authors explore how this impacts the mobility of Central Asian migrants in Moscow and show how they endure the actions of the state as they operate outside the country’s legal frameworks. Central Asian migrants are constructed as an illegal group, i.e. they are working in Russia without proper documentation and/or are working for cash in hand and not paying taxes. The vast majority of Russian newspaper reports use “illegal” as shorthand to criticize migrants and the government for failing to regulate the “problem,” while simultaneously failing to discuss the numerous challenges migrants face in attempting to operate formally, even when they have formal work permits. From this base of illegality, migrants are further constructed as criminal and diseased. Labor migrants develop sets of tactics to help alleviate their status as Homo Sacer. Many Central Asian migrants in Moscow have no choice but to live under such conditions, as their potential income back home is simply not enough to provide for their families.

Given the issue’s scale, Central Asians’ need to migrate for work, and the benefits of the everyday state of exception for many state actors (collecting bribes, etc.) and employers (the ability to pay extremely low wages without providing any benefits), there is little reason for optimism about alternative futures for labor migrants. The federal government argues that if migrants could integrate more into Russian society, then the friction between groups would be reduced; as such, it is introducing requirements for those applying for work permits to pass Russian language and culture exams. There is, however, little evidence that this would curb the worst excesses: the above suggests that an exam system will simply become a new site of informality where payments will be expected in return for passing the test. Therefore, until there is a change to Russia’s system of governance and economic structure, there is little chance of the everyday lives of Moscow labor migrants improving. Instead, they will be forced to live in a state of exception where abuse is the norm.

Shoirakhon R. Nurdinova (Anadolu University) explores socio-economic factors affecting Uzbek labor migrants in Turkey:

The numbers of travelers to Turkey from Uzbekistan increased in 2007 after Ankara implemented a visa-free regime. The Immigration Office of Turkey has declared that 18,270 residence permits were given to Uzbek citizens in 2016. Yet the fact that 1,648 illegal migrants from Uzbekistan were caught and fined by the authorities in 2016 supports the hypothesis that the official numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. Among the socio-economic factors that prompt labor migrants from Uzbekistan to come to Turkey, the author names cultural proximity and migrants’ networks as affecting their choice of destination country.

Azizbek Abdurakhimov (National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow) raises the question of an emigration trap due to the remittance-dependence of certain Central Asia economies:

Migration is very important for the Kyrgyz economy as a tool to overcome the population’s unemployment and poverty. The share of emigrants in the labor force has remained more or less static, at between 27 and 30 percent of the total.

Tajikistan is the poorest country in the region. The number of emigrants declined gradually between 1990 and 2000, and then started to grow again, reaching 587,000 in 2015. Between 15 and 25 percent of the economically active population worked abroad between 1995 and 2015, 77-80 percent of whom were employed in the Russian Federation.

Uzbekistan, a country of about 32 million people, reputedly has very high economic potential but still faces problems related to unemployment, weak economic and legal infrastructure, corruption, and a poor banking system. The number of migrants increased between 1990 and 2015, from 1.4 million to about 2 million. About 60 percent of all migrants work in Russia, and Uzbek nationals comprise 5-11 percent of Russia’s migrant population.

The results of the author’s analysis show that Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are sufficiently dependent on migration to be considered “in” the emigration trap, as their macroeconomic situations are explained by external indicators related to remittances and the macroeconomic situation in recipient countries. For instance, the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan may face macroeconomic crises if Russia imposes restrictions on immigration.

Gulnaz Atabaeva (Alatoo International University) further explores the link between remittances and economic growth in Kyrgyzstan:

In Kyrgyzstan’s small, open economy, significant external inflows of money have the potential to affect virtually all economic variables. Remittances sent by migrant workers have played an important role in promoting economic development. They have minimized the problems that result from a shortage of foreign exchange reserves. They also cover a large proportion of Kyrgyzstan’s substantial trade deficit (the country imports three times more than it exports). It is undeniable that in the early stages of development, a poor country like Kyrgyzstan needs foreign exchange to pay for the imports it needs. Remittances also have an impact on poverty. Recent empirical research on Kyrgyzstan found that international remittances largely alleviate poverty by increasing household expenditure. Between 2000 and 2015, remittances in Kyrgyzstan increased by an average of 55.4 percent annually; household final consumption expenditure grew by an average of 13.2 percent annually.

But there are potentially adverse effects of remittances: they support private consumption of imported goods instead of financing investment, which can erode competitiveness and increase trade deficits. Kyrgyzstan should therefore focus more heavily on importing new technologies and capital goods instead of consumer goods, the author argues. Government policies should encourage individuals to “channel” remittances into productive investment, because it matters how this hard-earned money is being used.

Gulnaz Atabaeva

In Uzbekistan, remittances may serve as a source of finance for entrepreneurship, argues Jakhongir Kakhkharov (Griffith University):

But data on the use of remittances from relatively large-scale surveys show that only a small number of recipient households in Uzbekistan invest in entrepreneurship. This may be due to the fact that the remittances Uzbek households receive are small and are mainly used to address immediate consumption needs. As the size of remittance income increases, households exhibit a greater desire to invest. Remittances, therefore, have the potential to become a vital investment source for MSMEs (micro, small, and medium enterprises) if augmented with a bank credit and/or an increase in the amount of remittances. Moreover, even if households do not invest remittances in entrepreneurship, Uzbekistan’s financial sector appears to be benefiting from this inflow of funds. A small part of remittances may even be turning into the bank loans that private enterprises need to grow. To increase the positive effect of remittances, policymakers should consider strategies to reform the banking sector so as to boost its role in financing micro- and small businesses; encourage migrants’ families to invest remittances into MSMEs by educating migrants on how to run a business; and improve the business environment.

Zhengizkhan Zhanaltay (Eurasian Research Institute) studies social remittances:

The term, coined by Levitt, indicates that labor migrants not only remit money, but also transfer ideas, know-how, practices, and skills, thereby influencing the development process of their countries of origin. In the Central Asian case, it could be said that migrants’ reason for transferring social remittances is more economic, as it is oriented toward improving living standards by accumulating social and economic capital abroad, and using this capital to start a new business or find a job with a decent salary at home. The migrant-exporting Central Asian countries have great social capital potential but use only a fraction of it. Therefore, government officials, labor organizations, and diaspora representatives need to work together to find ways to use migrants’ social capital more efficiently, with the goal of transferring their knowledge, skills, and expertise to underdeveloped sectors and industries that have high potential to benefit from social remittance transfers. For instance, encouraging entrepreneurial activity at home by introducing new support programs and informing people about existing structures would allow Central Asian countries to capitalize on the positive potential of SME development and thus benefit from migrants’ accumulated social and economic capital.


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