Central Asian Labor Migration: Exploring New Destinations Amid Geopolitical Tensions
Author: Meray Ozat
Oct 4, 2023
With a shortage of domestic job opportunities and historically low wages, Central Asia is renowned for its significant labor migration. And for Central Asian labor migrants, Russia has historically stood as the most common destination for employment. As a result, when Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, Central Asian governments warned of the rising geopolitical tensions and potential impacts on the safety and well-being of their labor migrants in Russia. However, despite these concerns, Central Asian remittances to Russia remained resilient, compelling Central Asian governments to explore alternative destinations for their labor migrants.
Remittances play a substantial role in the economy of many Central Asian states, particularly in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, representing 21%, 31%, and 51% of their GDPs in 2022, respectively. But, despite the falling value of the Russian ruble, a shrinking job market, and a sanctioned economy, labor migration to Russia continued to rise after the war in Ukraine began.
During the first quarter of 2023, foreign laborers migrating to Russia surged by 1.3 million, marking a 60% increase compared to the same period in 2022. Central Asian laborers still constitute a significant portion of labor migrants in Russia, with 350,000 Tajiks, over 630,000 Uzbeks, and 173,000 Kyrgyz working in Russia. All these groups experienced a significant surge in labor migration to Russia compared to the previous year, with Uzbekistan witnessing a 72% increase and Tajikistan recording a notable 40% rise. Remittance inflows from Russia to Central Asia have also exhibited resilience, increasing by a substantial 50% from $16.8 million in 2021 to $25.1 million in 2022.
While the data indicates a growing trend of labor migration to Russia and an influx of remittances, there has also been a significant outflow of Central Asian migrants from Russia following the Ukraine war. In the first quarter of 2022, mass emigration from Russia was reported with 60,000 Tajiks and 133,000 Uzbeks having returned to their home countries. Remittances also shrank during the same period. The remittances to Kyrgyzstan in March 2022, for instance, dropped by 28% compared to 2021. It is important to recognize that remittances flowing into Central Asia are not solely attributed to transfers made by labor migrants but also encompass capital migration of Russian companies and citizens, especially after the Ukraine war.
Central Asian migrants staying in Russia have also faced numerous challenges, including threats stemming from Russian military actions, economic instabilities, and inferior social treatment. Since Russia announced the mobilization of additional troops in September 2022, the Russian government has sought to recruit Central Asian migrants to the frontlines, either by enticing them with Russian citizenship or through coercion and pressure.
Many migrant workers from Central Asia say they have been approached by Russian military recruiters in mosques, dormitories, and migration offices as Russian government officials expand their mobilization campaign to attract both Russian citizens and foreign workers. Some Central Asian migrant workers have been approached on the streets by Russian military recruiters handing out brochures, claiming those who sign up for the military contract service will receive an initial payment of $2,390, followed by salaries of up to $4,160 a month. Others have been threatened with deportation, claiming that recruiters warned them that if they do not accept to join the Russian military, they will be banned from entering Russia for at least five years. But, if they do accept, they could become “Russian citizens after just six months.”
Despite the coercion, most Central Asian migrant workers have managed to avoid the war. However, the post-Ukraine war economic downturn in Russia, currency depreciation, and Western sanctions have disrupted the income and job security of many Central Asian migrants. Additional issues, such as the subpar treatment of Central Asian migrants and complex legal problems, have compounded their hardships and left many with no choice.
It’s believed that some Central Asian migrant workers accepted jobs in the Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine- typically working for Russian construction companies-, while others have fallen victim to the economic and legal coercion posed by Russian recruiters. Since the war began, dozens of families across Central Asia have received the bodies of their loved ones killed in Russia’s violent invasion of Ukraine.
Due to mounting concerns for Central Asian migrants in Russia, governments in the region are actively exploring diversification in the destinations of labor migration. Uzbekistan, which is the Central Asian country with the second-largest labor migrants in Russia and the second-largest economy in Central Asia, has been at the forefront of this effort. Despite the significant increase in remittances from Russia to Uzbekistan in 2022 (tripling compared to 2021), Uzbekistan has been engaging in bilateral cooperation on labor migration with multiple countries, including the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Baltic states, since the onset of the Ukraine war.
In 2023, Uzbekistan continued its efforts to expand the range of possible destinations for labor migrants to various regions. In September 2023, Uzbekistan took another step towards diversifying labor migration destinations by establishing agreements with Germany. The Agency of External Labor Migration under the Ministry of Employment and Poverty Reduction of Uzbekistan held discussions with Goldcliff Stark, an international law firm based in Germany, who expressed interest in providing labor assistance to Uzbekistan by employing Uzbek workers.
The Ministry of Employment and Poverty Reduction continued negotiations with Germany through trips to Germany’s Baden-Württemberg and the Heilbronn-Hohenlohe regions to discuss labor migration and employment opportunities for Uzbek workers in sectors experiencing labor shortages, such as nursing, tourism, and the hotel industry. CBZ München GmbH, a German company, expressed support for this cooperation and outlined the necessary steps for accepting qualified Uzbek workers.
Uzbekistan is also actively exploring opportunities in the Middle East. On September 25, representatives of the Agency for External Labor Migration held discussions with the Israel Association of Manufacturers (IAM), an Israeli company with over 2000 enterprises and industries. With a growing need for qualified workers in various Israeli enterprises, IAM expressed a willingness to hire Uzbek workers. The discussions concluded with an agreement to undertake the necessary steps required for admitting Uzbek workers into IAM through government-authorized arrangements.
A similar agreement was reached between Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia following discussions with the International Recruitment Company of Saudi Arabia, a top employment company in Saudi Arabia with approximately 40 branches across the country. During the talks, the Saudi side also expressed its willingness to accept Uzbek labor migrants to its private sector opportunities.
Other Central Asian countries are also pursuing similar approaches for their labor migrants. In 2022, the Kyrgyz government signed an agreement with the South Korean Human Resource Development Service to create 5,000 job openings for Kyrgyz citizens in South Korean companies. Tajikistan also entered into similar agreements with South Korea, albeit with fewer job opportunities. While Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have not achieved the same level of success as Uzbekistan in diversifying the geographic destinations for their labor migration, they are gradually exploring opportunities in Europe, signaling a promising evolution in their strategies.
The dynamics of Central Asian labor migration are moving in a new direction. While labor migration to Russia seems to continue among remittance-dependent countries in Central Asia, the regional countries, led by Uzbekistan, are actively seeking alternative destinations. Recent developments demonstrate the firm commitment of Central Asian countries to diversify the sources of remittances and reduce their dependence on Russia. Nevertheless, the World Bank estimates that remittances from Russia will remain substantial in the coming years. Central Asian governments must strike a balance between seeking alternative migration options and maintaining diplomatic relations with Russia, as the country still hosts a significant number of Central Asian migrants and plays a crucial role in remittances.