ALMATY -- Labour migration is no longer enough to stave off Russia's demographic crisis, say observers.
Russia's offensive in Ukraine has aggravated a long-simmering demographic crisis that President Vladimir Putin has struggled to tackle, which could further damage its sanctions-hit economy.
For a country already suffering from a shrinking labour force because of persistently low birth rates, the conflict means even more difficulties that could persist for years.
The mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of men took them off the job market, while prompting many of the most educated parts of the population to flee the country.
Russia inherited low birth rates with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, when birth rates had halved due to economic hardship and uncertainties over the country's future.
Since 2020, Russia has lost around 2 million more people than it would ordinarily have done, as a result of war in Ukraine, COVID-19 and exodus, the Economist reported in March.
Life expectancy for Russian men who are now 15 years old has dropped by almost five years to the same life expectancy as in Haiti, and "the number of Russians born in April 2022 was no higher than it had been in the months of Hitler's occupation", it noted.
There are now at least 10 million more women in the country than men.
The crisis is "even worse than during the disastrous early 2000s, when the population was falling by roughly half a million a year", the Economist wrote.
Putin has since tried to push families to have children, heralding "traditional values" as a way to solve what he believes to be an existential crisis.
As part of his efforts to boost population growth, he introduced a financial bonus for a second and every following child.
But the situation could get even worse.
"As it is, the losses of war are placing more burdens on a shrinking, ailing population. Russia may be entering a doom loop of demographic decline," according to the Economist.
Migrants head home
Given the shrinking labour force, Russia's low unemployment rate of 3.5% is not a healthy sign -- showing instead a shortage of recruits, with various sectors struggling to fill posts.
A survey published on April 19 by the Russian Central Bank confirmed "acute" tensions, particularly in "processing industries", transport and "water supply".
A study last month from the Higher School of Economics said Russia needed to take in 390,000 to 1.1 million migrants every year until the end of the century to avoid population shrinkage.
But some sectors will not be able to compensate the losses of workers, particularly industries requiring high levels of education.
According to Russia's state migration policy concept through 2025, which was adopted in 2012, the resettlement of migrants in Russia could partly offset the country's population decline.
The document states that between 1992 and 2012, more than half of the natural population loss was offset by migrants who came from the former Soviet republics.
However, this source may also run dry.
Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and the large-scale sanctions that were imposed in 2022, the Russian economy has contracted by more than 2%. Foreign companies have also rolled back their operations and construction has been suspended, leaving many migrants from Central Asia without steady jobs.
Zarina Attokurova of Osh, Kyrgyzstan used to work as an office manager in a Moscow software development company.
In March, she was laid off as part of staff cuts after European customers stopped working with the Russian company. She returned to Kyrgyzstan and got a job in Bishkek.
"In Russia it's harder to find a good job now than it was in the past," Attokurova told Caravanserai. "There's a huge number of people who lost their jobs last year, so now there are a lot more people -- including locals -- applying for the most attractive jobs."
Many Russian companies have moved to Kyrgyzstan over the past year, she noted.
'Nothing to do in Russia'
Putin's mobilisation last September has also had a discouraging effect on migrants.
According to rights activists, Russian draft bureaus, in flagrant violation of the law, have forcefully served draft notices and drafted even citizens of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to go to the front.
Many migrants returned to Kyrgyzstan from Russia last year, said Bishkek Bar Association director Islam Baigarayev.
"They were very disheartened about what was happening in Russia," Baigarayev, who offers legal assistance to migrant workers, told Caravanserai. "Russia stopped being an attractive country to go work in."
Many migrant workers are interested in opportunities to work in other countries, such as Kazakhstan and South Korea, he said.
In the coming years, Russia will confront an even more drastic reduction in labour migration from Central Asia as economic hardship deepens there, said Baigarayev.
"It's undeniable that this trend will have the worst possible impact on the demographic crisis in Russia," he said. "This stems from the Russian government's failure to value its own citizens or foreigners."
Oibek Khasanov, a builder from Tashkent who works in construction in Moscow, returned to Uzbekistan last May after construction in the Russian capital came to a halt. He said that in Tashkent he put together a construction crew and is earning more than in Russia.
"In our country, we're seeing ever more jobs for former migrant workers because there are more businesses and more houses to build, and people are becoming more prosperous," Khasanov said.
"There's nothing to do in Russia now."