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Olga Gulina: You Do Not Have to Stop the Migration, You Have to Learn How to Manage It

“If a country provides its citizens with a decent quality of life and everyone is guaranteed a minimum of rights and freedoms regardless of social, religious or gender status, no one will voluntarily leave the country for many years to migrate in search of a better life.” – said Olga Gulina, Doctor of Laws, director and founder of RUSMPI UG – Institute on Migration Policy in an interview for the analytical platform CABAR.asia.

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CABAR.asia: What are the features of migration processes from Central Asia? What can you say about the trends in labor migration routes?

Olga Gulina. Photos from the personal archive.

Migration in the Central Asian countries is a socially mobile process that is constantly changing and transforming itself in different trajectories – geographic, temporal, socio-economic and, of course, demographic. For a long time, Russia and Kazakhstan were the two countries receiving migrants in the post-Soviet space, and other countries of the region – Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and slightly Turkmenistan – were the countries supplying migrants. Today we can notice seasonal migration from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan.

Migration flows, or migration corridors as we call them, are relatively stable, although we have long recognized minor transformations. For almost three decades, with a high degree of probability, migrants from Central Asia preferred Russia for labor migration, and Kazakhstan to a lesser extent. Today, all the countries of the region – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan – are looking for other directions for the employment of their citizens, entering into interstate agreements on workforce employment or recruitment, providing their citizens with work in the Middle East – Qatar, the UAE, Turkey, Poland and other countries.

What is the portrait of the average migrant of the recent years?

That is a good question, and the answer to it depends on many circumstances: migrant’s country of origin, receiving country, as well as migration goals and aspirations. Migration has many faces.

If we are talking about labor migration of Central Asian citizens to Russia, then the portrait of a Central Asian migrant in Russia differs in 1990s, 2000s and nowadays. Today, predominantly young men of working age rush from Central Asian countries to Russia. Only migration from Kyrgyzstan to Russia has a female face. Also, some think of migration to Russia already from their school age.  

If we are talking about the humanitarian migration from Central Asian countries to the European Union states, most of the asylum seekers requests have been approved for the citizens of Turkmenistan and least often for the citizens of Tajikistan. Thus, every third applicant from Turkmenistan, every fourth from Kyrgyzstan, every fifth from Kazakhstan and only every tenth from Tajikistan have been granted asylum in the EU states for the last 10 years.

For a long time, it seemed that mainly three countries – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – were subject to migration in Central Asia. However, recently external migration from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan has intensified. What could this mean?

Migration is, if you wish, a mirror of social, economic and political life.
Any migration dynamics “mirrors” all that is happening in the country and society. The change in the external migration of Turkmenistan reflects the political changes that have taken place in the country, although, due to inaccessibility of official statistical data, it is still difficult to talk about strengthening of migration flows.

Although a number of observers point out opposite trends – the existence of a ban on leaving the country for citizens under 40, difficulties in leaving the country for women and so forth. Still, reliable data from official dynamic statistics is required to talk about such migration trends, which is not available.  

As for Kazakhstan, indeed, starting from 2012, the gap between the number of people who left the country and the number of people who have arrived to Kazakhstan is growing. However, this is also a very important point – after the collapse of the USSR, the population of Kazakhstan, unlike Russia (both receiving countries), has grown and the country is not threatened by demographic depopulation. Although the growing trends in the population departure set thinking about what is happening in the country and the reasons for departure.

Is there a connection between the immigration policy of the Russian Federation and the mass exodus of Central Asian residents to Russia? By which methods and means does Russia encourage emigration from Central Asia?

Firstly, there is no mass exodus of Central Asian residents to Russia. Migration to Russia from this region is seasonal. People mostly travel to Russia in search of a better life, and not in an effort to find a new homeland.

Secondly, the Russian resettlement program – unlike other post-Soviet repatriation programs – always formulates the notions of program participants as individuals with signs of common language, religion, culture, traditions and customs, as well as their descendants. As a result, residents of Central Asian countries have always given a significant increase in the number of the Russian compatriots’ resettlement program. Citizens of Kazakhstan remain the leaders among the Central Asian states in terms of the number of participants in the Russian resettlement program (almost every third), followed by Tajikistan (almost every fifth), and significantly less – by Uzbekistan (almost every eleventh) and Kyrgyzstan (almost every thirty second) and insignificantly – less than one percent – by Turkmenistan.

What actions should countries of the region take to stop migration? Is it in the interest of political elites of these countries?

You do not have to stop the migration, you have to learn how to control it. This is a great complexity for all the post-Soviet independent states, that migration is seen only as political, but not an economical process.

If a country provides its citizens with a decent quality of life and everyone is guaranteed a minimum of rights and freedoms regardless of social, religious or gender status, believe me, no one will voluntarily leave the country for many years to migrate in search of a better life.

Do you think that it is beneficial for the authorities to send potential protesting and active groups to migrate, and solve socio- economic problems at the expense of their remittances?

There are two questions in your question. The first is about the influence of protest moods on migration dynamics and the second one is about the possibility of solving social and economic problems at the expense of remittances from migrants. Regarding the first question, you are right, the migration dynamics, for example, the number of requests for asylum from Central Asia to the EU countries, is determined by the political and economic agenda within the countries of their region, and not outside of it. Any change in the political situation, a change of ruling elites have an impact on the migration dynamics.

As for your second question, everything is not so simple. In the long term, solving social and economic problems at the expense of only remittances from migrants is not beneficial for any country. However, in the short term, as the experience of Ukraine has shown, this is possible. As you may know, remittances from migrants to Ukraine are several times higher than foreign investments in the country.

What is the effectiveness of the migration programs in Central Asian countries? For example, attracting repatriates from abroad, resettlement of residents from the southern regions to the north, etc.

Of the 15 former Soviet Union states, seven – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine – have special repatriation programs aimed at the diaspora and / or compatriots living abroad. The success of repatriation programs and the “quality” of the immigrants involved, their level of education, and demographic indicators vary from year to year and from country to country. The Russian resettlement program stands alone in this series because of the broad interpretation of the program’s target group and the growing number of its participants every year, which we have already discussed with you before.

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan also implement programs for the return of titular nation representatives: oralmans to Kazakhstan and qairylmans to Kyrgyzstan. Transformation dynamics of these programs are very interesting. Thus, Kyrgyzstan has already announced the expansion of repatriation initiatives in the framework of the government’s “New Era – 40 Steps” program. A country with more than 717 thousand labor migrants abroad, about 80% of which are in Russia, is interested in their return. It is important to mention that the effectiveness of the return programs in any country should not be assessed by the number of people returned, but by the number of people who returned and did not leave the country again after a certain period of time.

Migrants live for two countries during many years and experience great difficulties (of a material, moral and psychological nature). When does a regular migrant choose a destination country? How massive is it?

Any immigration decision and the migration itself are individual.
In the post-Soviet space, with the rare exception of territorial conflicts, people migrate or, as they say in Russian, “vote with their feet” (голосуют ногами) for a new, more decent quality of life.

Choosing one or another country, as you rightly noted, is always connected with great doubts, difficulties and vital problems, therefore the decision on migration is always the choice of the migrant and his immediate surroundings. And the direction of this movement is determined by the place where the migrant can find a different quality of life, or it seems to him that he will be able to find a better place to live in.


Dr. Olga R. Gulina is director and founder of the RUSMPI UG-Institute on Migration Policy. She studied constitutional and migration law in Russia, Germany, and France as well as at the Helsinki Human Rights Foundation and European Academy of Diplomacy in Poland. Gulina held fellowships from the German Chancellor Program of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and from the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. She is the member of the advocacy group of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum and author of several books and papers. Her field of expertise is human rights law, immigration law and its enforcement. A new book by Dr. Olga Gulina “Migration as a geopolitical challenge in the post-Soviet space” (Миграция как геополитический вызов на постсоветском пространстве) talks about how migration management becomes both a cause and a consequence of political changes that affect foreign and domestic policies in the post-Soviet space.

Link to the book: https://cup.columbia.edu/book/migration-as-a-geo-political-challenge-in-the-post-soviet-space/9783838213385


This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.

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