Analytical materials / Kyrgyzstan

Anar Musabaeva “External migration and security issues in Kyrgyzstan”


“There has been securitization of the migration issue, meaning that migration has been regarded as a security issue, and the definition of security has significantly widened due to non-military dimensions, including the notions of economic, food, environmental, epidemiological and other forms of security,” said Anar Musabaeva, an independent analyst in Bishkek, for the article written exclusively for the CABAR.


The topic of the external economic migration in Kyrgyzstan is certainly one of the most important, given its scale and impact on social and economic development of the country. Despite the general recognition of the importance of international migration for our country,  there are, unfortunately, virtually no experts in our country who would be engaged in a systematic study of this topic. The analytical capacity of government bodies in this field is obviously insufficient.
In connection with the integration processes within the Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Community, the theme of migration was discussed more intensively, which, nevertheless, had not yet led to the development of a coherent and clear migration policy. So far, we can only provisionally say, that in recent years, the government of Kyrgyzstan has abandoned the rhetoric of labor export and began to listen to the opinion of experts about the risks and threats of external migration to the country’s development in the long term.

The theme of migration in Kyrgyzstan is most often discussed in the context of the movement of labor, economic impact of monetary contributions by migrants, and less frequently – in the context of the need to protect the rights of migrants in the host countries to reduce illegal migration, etc. Unfortunately, the topic of migration is even less frequently discussed in terms of its impact on general and national security. However, gradually, there is a growing understanding of the importance of the topic of migration in terms of national interests and security.

Securitization of migration
On the one hand, it is quite understandable that the securitization of migration, first of all, is a characteristic of recipient countries. This trend began to develop most  intensely over the last decade, mainly in those countries that received a significant number of migrants from other countries. Earlier, the topic of migration in the context of security issues was usually raised in times of conflict and war or aggravation of international relations, which resulted in a real threat of significant movement of people across borders such as refugees and migrants, etc.
Host countries around the world have always been concerned about how the influx of migrant workers would affect the domestic labor market and the economy, the system of social protection, social infrastructure, etc. The expressions “They’re flooding our country” and “They take our jobs,” in general, are not new and reflect the fears of the resident population of the countries in which a large number of people migrate to find work and to find a better life.
However, after the end of the cold war and the intensification of migratory movements around the world, the issues of mass migration ceased to be a matter of concern only for economic, social or humanitarian reasons. Broader issues relating to personal and public safety, moral and cultural values, preservation and strengthening of collective civic identity, cultural and religious identities are more and more often discussed today. Because of this, in many countries, not only the Ministry of Labour became engaged in migration issues, but also the Ministry of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Thus, there has been securitization of the migration issue, meaning that migration has been regarded as a security issue, and the definition of security has significantly widened due to non-military dimensions, including the notions of economic, food, environmental, epidemiological and other forms of security.
The war against terrorism that unfolded after 2001 has led to an unprecedented increase in the level of control over the mobility of the population, to increased influence of police networks and to the creation of various structures responsible for internal security.

In view of the situation in the Middle East, the events surrounding the
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the potential risk of impact of these events on the change in the geopolitical situation on the Eurasian continent, some experts express the concern about the possible inclusion of the migration flows in the various terrorist and extremist networks. Thus, there are more and more questions about potential “export” and “import” of terrorism, fundamentalism and extremism.
Relevance of the topic “Migration and Security” for Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan, although accepting a certain amount of labor migrants from neighboring countries, yet is primarily a country “delivering” migrants mainly to Russia and Kazakhstan, and to a much lesser extent – to other countries near and far abroad. Although the geography of external migration from Kyrgyzstan is expanding, Russia and Kazakhstan will remain the main vectors of migration in the coming years.
The interest of the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan in security issues, which are the main recipients of our migrant workers, is quite understandable. Last but not least, this concern is related to the real and perceived threats of growing terrorism and extremism in the context of the above-mentioned events in the Middle East. If we consider that in Kyrgyzstan, as well as in neighboring countries, there has been increasing religious influence among the population, it is clear that it is already creating a background for framing migration from Kyrgyzstan in the context of national security issues. This emotional background is intensified by the information of individual experts who now say that  Muslims of Central Asia are recruited through Internet technologies to participate in the fighting in Syria. The fears that legal channels can be used to exit through receiving or transit countries are not unfounded.
The question arises whether the topic of migration in the context of security problems is relevant for our country. Or is the securitization of migration a problem of the receiving countries? Are there substantial grounds for consideration of external migration as potentially threatening the security of Kyrgyzstan – a country sending migrants to other countries?
There are sound grounds for that, and, moreover, the concept of national security, adopted in 2012, in the section of the national interests, has clearly pointed to a number of problems of external migration to the security of the state and to the very existence as a sovereign state.
Without falling into excessive degree of securitization of migration, in my opinion, however, it should be noted that there are a number of problem areas that deserve the most attention in terms of risks to national security. Without intervention and action by the government, these threats and risks may eventually undermine the state itself and society.
The main risks and threats to security in Kyrgyzstan as a country sending migrants.
One of the main issues is the economic security.
Migration has an impact on the economy of any country, sending or receiving migrants. To date, the economic impact of labor migration from Kyrgyzstan to the national economy is perceived mainly positively. According to various estimates, the contribution of migrants through their remittances in the economy is 30 to 50% of GDP.
These figures often conceal the problem of long-term exposure to the economic security of the country. Labor migration of highly skilled professionals, in other words, the “brain drain” in the long run, of course, can cause considerable damage to the economy. Affecting the quality of human capital, such migration has a negative impact on the competitiveness of the economy, especially taking into account that many professions are simply not replaced due to deterioration and degradation of the educational system as a whole or its specific part.
It is no secret, for example, in the health sector in Kyrgyzstan, there are not enough specialists in many areas. For example in many clinics, there are no rheumatologists, neurologists, physicians, urologists, cardiologists and others. Similar examples can be found in other sectors of employment. If migration is not reduced in volume for many years, and the country continues to lose specialists in certain areas, sooner or later the cumulative effect of such migration will manifest itself in the fact that there will be not only a serious imbalance in the labor market, but also it would undermine the basis for ethno-cultural and, in a broader sense, for social reproduction of the local population. The local security systems will be loosened. This has implications for national security.
In the case of Kyrgyzstan, during the past two decades, a significant number of qualified personnel have left the country, and according to expert sources, the vast majority of these migrants did not return to their homeland. The first wave of migration that followed immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union brought serious losses in the form of brain drain. But in the following years, the cumulative effects of such migration were quite noticeable.
If we take into account the integration trends in the Eurasian region, it is likely that the migration of skilled workers from Kyrgyzstan may increase, because the difference between the opportunities for decent paid work in Kyrgyzstan and in Russia will have a kind of “ejecting effect.”
In turn, experts and policy makers in Russia more often speak about the promotion of skilled and intellectual migration to Russia while restricting the of untrained workforce. This is understandable and justified from the point of view of national interests of Russia, which is interested in the modernization of its economy and improving economic competitiveness in the global arena. It is clear that in this case, the interests of the host country (Russia) and the sending country (Kyrgyzstan) are not similar, they rather contradict each other.
Reversible migration can sometimes help build human capital, when people with the knowledge and skills come back to their homeland. But, unfortunately, it rarely happens; mostly in cases where the economic conditions and opportunities in the country of origin have significantly improved compared with the living conditions in the recipient countries. Even the fact that Kyrgyzstan has recently been re-classified by the World Bank as a country included in the list of countries with an average income (albeit at the bottom line) does not make wages in Kyrgyzstan higher than in Russia.
Political transformation is one more problem area in the “migration-security” topic.
It has become almost axiomatic to discuss in the social sciences the impact of migration on changes in society, culture, ethnic, cultural and other collective identities, or on undermining the formation of new models of civic identity. Although all of these risks are traditionally considered mainly in relation to the host countries, we must recognize that they are relevant also to the sending countries. For example, the government’s inability to address the security issues of their citizens working in other countries or to offer its citizens the conditions for decent work in their home countries during several decades hardly promotes civic identity. It’s no secret that more and more temporary migrants from Central Asia prefer to obtain Russian citizenship. Thus, according to unspecified data, during the years of independence, about half a million former citizens of Kyrgyzstan received Russian citizenship.
But few people pay attention to the fact that migration affects the process of reformatting of the state apparatus and institutions of governance. Solving the problem of ensuring its security, the government sets a particular practice of migration monitoring and control. At the same time, the government encodes itself in different ways; for example, as a country of destination, transit country, donor country for migration, poor country and others. The way the government encodes itself in terms of migration management is essential for security. As we know, the objectives of national security are the preservation of the territorial integrity, respect for the principles of the constitutional arrangement, preservation of legal personality in international relations. Kyrgyzstan, having foreign migration of 10 to 20% of its working population, should be aware of a threat to its legal personality, especially considering that most migration is directed into a limited number of countries. Dependence on the larger and more successful economies suggests that Kyrgyzstan will inevitably bear all the threats and risks that exist in these countries. Moreover, having the current volume of external migration, Kyrgyzstan inevitable feels the influence of not only the foreign policy of the host countries, but also of their domestic policies.
Impact of migration on other aspects of national and public security.
Sending countries, including Kyrgyzstan, should be worried with the problem of illegal export of people (human trafficking) for labor or sexual exploitation. The cases when, under the guise of legal migration, citizens are trafficked abroad are not cases, where they get into slavery or even disappear. The government should think about how to prevent it, as to protect the rights of citizens after something bad has already happened is extremely difficult and requires considerable resources.
Another growing threat is that, due to the changed geopolitical situation, part of the migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan has a chance to be involved in terrorist and extremist activities on regional or even global levels. Despite the lack of accurate data, there is evidence that a number of citizens from Central Asia, including Kyrgyzstan, coming on the territory of the recipient countries of migration, are involved in a variety of networks, including extremism. It is very difficult to predict the further vector of mobility of such persons. Even if we provide for the possibility of their return home, there is reason to believe that the consequences of their return can be very negative for the security of the state and society.
There is a relationship between migration and border issues. Taking into account national interests, the absence of effective domestic policy of development, the government’s inability to balance central and municipal development, the failure to properly build policy development and effectively use human resources, , have all led to the fact that there is noticeable depopulation in the southern regions of the country, particularly border areas. In this case, domestic experts have repeatedly drawn attention to that fact that in areas where there is depopulation, there is a replacement of human resources with human resources of neighboring countries. These processes are often referred to as the “silent colonization” of our territories, indicating the seriousness of the issue with the outflow of population in terms of demographic pressure from neighboring countries that have relatively high rates of population growth.
It is impossible to cover all aspects of migration and security in one short article. In this material, I have just outlined some of the major aspects of security that are important for Kyrgyzstan as a country that sends their migrants in other countries. Of course, there is a much larger number of risks and challenges of migration for Kyrgyzstan in terms of security of individuals, society and the state.
There is also the issue of migration for Kyrgyzstan as a country receiving migrants, ethnic immigrants. The country is not ready to accept refugees in case of aggravation of the political situation in the region either.
Over the past few years, the issue of migration in the context of security issues has already started to appear in public debate in Kyrgyzstan, although previously, migration was mainly seen from the point of view of its economic effects for the country. It is also possible to state that there is a multidimensional and multifaceted understanding of migration from Kyrgyzstan and its implications for the development of the country, its security and its place in international relations. On the other hand, the potential for the study of various aspects of migration is still insufficient. In the republic, in 2013, there was an attempt to develop the concept of external migration policy, but this development has not been completed yet.
The upcoming processes of Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Space pose additional challenges and concerns for Kyrgyzstan as a country providing the migrants for Russia and Kazakhstan. How will the rules for the movement of migrants change? How will political events develop and what will be the economic context of integration processes? No one knows precisely the answers to these questions. This, in turn, makes it important to study the phenomenon of migration from different sides, and last but not least – in terms of national security.
Anar Musabaeva, independent analyst