ALMATY -- While Russia is attempting to lure Central Asian migrant workers back to the country, after brutally expelling them during the coronavirus pandemic, research shows an uneven and unfavourable remittance relationship.
Remittances from migrant workers in Russia comprise a large proportion of Central Asian families' income, but they are negatively affecting the region's economies and threatening national security, say observers.
In a report published in January by the World Bank, researchers analysed the negative impact of remittances on the economies of Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia.
The report concludes that remittances to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, mainly from Russia, negatively impact these countries' economies.
Remittances reduce economic competitiveness, increase inflation, repel investors, and hinder the manufacturing sector and the creation of new jobs, the research shows.
A roughly 10% reduction in the labour force as a result of labour migration leads to a 2%-5.5% increase in workers' wages in source countries, the analysis found.
Meanwhile, Central Asian families who receive money from relatives working in Russia often work relatively little, or not at all, but they utilise various services, helping push service prices higher.
In Tajikistan, for example, up to 40% of families live on remittances.
The influx of foreign currency to countries in the region also boosts the exchange rate of local currencies, working against exports and growth in the real economy.
This trend reduces the competitiveness of local manufacturers' goods, not only domestically but in foreign markets too, as local companies are faced with rising labour costs, according to the report.
Remittances accounted for significant shares of Central Asian countries' gross domestic product (GDP), according to World Bank data from October: 25% in Kyrgyzstan, 26% in Tajikistan and almost 6% in Uzbekistan.
The lowest indicator (0.3%) is seen in Kazakhstan, which is the region's most developed economy thanks to its rich natural resources. Accordingly, Kazakhstan attracts migrant labour rather than exporting it.
Migrant workers from Central Asia are increasingly moving to Kazakhstan rather than Russia, since its government provides jobs, strengthening co-operation among the region's countries and creating a "brotherly" environment.
'Ours' and 'Theirs'
In recent years, Russian officials have been using migrant labour as leverage for geopolitical purposes, said Farhad Tolipov, director of the Tashkent-based research institute Caravan of Knowledge.
Russia has periodically initiated a visa regime with Central Asian countries that are not members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), particularly Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, he explained.
"Thus, Russia is actually dividing Central Asian countries into 'ours' and 'theirs'," Tolipov said.
Hostility from the Russian Federation is evident even towards migrant workers, who are regularly forced to endure widespread, gross violation of their human rights, he said.
"This isn't just bureaucracy and corruption in government agencies," he said. "Migrants often see a threat to their security from Russian nationalists and law enforcement agencies."
Tolipov linked labour migration to Russia with a threat to Uzbekistan's national security, pointing out that terrorist organisations recruit hundreds of Uzbek migrants in Russia and send them to fight in the Middle East.
A hostile environment, cruel working conditions and outright racism facing Central Asian migrants in Russia create ideal conditions for extremist recruiters to prey on vulnerable, frustrated workers, he said.
Injustice, racism in Russia
Even members of the Russian-led EEU appear to be experiencing Moscow's hostile policies.
Russian law enforcement systematically violates the rights of Central Asian migrants and subjects them to violence and extortion, human rights activists say.
"Discriminatory rhetoric against migrants remains rampant in Russia," Gulnara Derbisheva of Isafana, Batken province, Kyrgyzstan, director of the NGO Insan-Leilek, said at a roundtable held on International Migrants Day last December 18.
Central Asian immigrants stranded in Russia with no work and dwindling resources due to the coronavirus outbreak endured extra woes brought on by police harassment and widespread fraud.
"During the pandemic, [Russian officials] started saying migrants were violating public order and called for action," said Derbisheva. "Then the number of individuals prohibited from entering the Russian Federation rose sharply."
Migrant workers were among the worst-hit by the COVID-19 crisis in Russia, with one survey showing that three in four lost their source of income during the pandemic.
Russia's Interior ministry estimated last year that close to half of all migrants living in Russia before the pandemic had left the country.
Now Russia is looking to simplify entry requirements for migrant workers, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday (February 10) to aid industries like construction and agriculture that are facing labour shortages due to the pandemic.
Local governments taking action
But Russian laws ostensibly meant to protect Central Asian migrant workers do not always do so, leaving them open to frequent persecution by local police, warned Tursunbek Akun of Bishkek, a human rights activist and former Kyrgyz ombudsman.
Thousands of Kyrgyz citizens are held in Russian prisons, he said.
Central Asian migrants who have shared their stories with Caravanserai spoke about life in Russia, which for many of them has turned into a "nightmare".
"Our officials must develop the real economy and create more jobs in Kyrgyzstan so our citizens will not be forced to go to Russia for work," Akun said.
Central Asian authorities are clearly aware of the danger of economic dependence on labour migration to Russia and are making efforts to solve the problem.
In the fall of 2018, Tashkent adopted an initiative to bring back Uzbek migrants.
The initiative creates jobs in Uzbekistan for highly qualified specialists living in Russia, including in leadership positions, government agencies, publicly funded institutions, national companies and private firms.
The newly elected government in Kyrgyzstan has taken a similar course.
At his inauguration ceremony in Bishkek on January 28, President Sadyr Japarov said he considered it his duty to create thousands of jobs and bring migrant workers home.