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Pandemic vs. Migration: No More Work Abroad for Kyrgyzstanis?

The coronavirus pandemic is a reason to revise the migration policy of Kyrgyzstan, experts say.

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Tynchtyk is a migrant from Kyrgyzstan. He has worked as an apparel cutter in sewing workshops of Russia that sew for clothing brands for the last six years. In March 2020, he returned to his motherland to see the family, but could not get back – the borders were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Russia lifted entry restrictions in September 2020 for the citizens of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Korea and Kyrgyzstan. However, they may enter now only for a valid reason. The Russian government in its order No. 635-r dated March 16, 2020, determined 16 categories of persons who can cross the border.

Moreover, flights are carried out only once a week. Too many people want to depart, so air ticket prices are rising, accordingly.

“The states restricting the flights from Kyrgyzstan give an opportunity to some citizens to do business on that,” Tynchtyk said.

He could hardly return to Moscow in early 2021 and paid a lot of money for that. One-way ticket cost him about 28 thousand som (330 dollars), and plus 1.7 thousand (20 dollars) for the coronavirus test and 22 thousand (259 dollars) for the reason of departure.

“To do all of that I had to contact my acquaintances. […] I don’t want to reveal all the details. But now people make a lot of money on issuing the reasons for departure. I paid over 50 thousand som (590 dollars). Most of the people living in our country cannot even earn this money per month.”

In January 2021, the ministry of transportation resorted to the ministry of interior affairs, at the request of the Kyrgyzstanis who thought that airlines allegedly colluded with air ticket officers and intermediaries who issue “reason for departure to Russia” at extra charge. 

In the meantime, according to the Federal Service of Government Statistics, in 9 months of 2020 over 200 thousand citizens arrived in Russia from Kyrgyzstan. The majority are those who came to work. 


In 2020, during the lockdown, some Russian businesses cut jobs and suspended their operations. According to unofficial data, about 40 per cent of migrant workers from Central Asia working in Russia were dismissed and had to return to their motherland.

The specialists of industrial agencies keep silent about the number of citizens who returned to Kyrgyzstan from Russia during the restrictive measures. According to them, they are still collecting data and will publish them as soon as they are ready.

But if we look at the progress report of the State Migration Service, we’ll see some changes in the number of citizens who reside abroad temporarily and permanently.

Based on the reduction of the number of Kyrgyzstanis in Russia, we can suggest that some of them, not many, returned to the motherland.

According to the candidate of political sciences, Asel Murzakulova, both this crisis and previous ones show that migrants do not return. Even despite the lockdown and job cuts.

“If we look at the gender composition of the returnees, we’ll see that these are generally the families of migrant workers: people who returned for health reasons were not very active on the labour market of Russia. Migrants who lost work during the pandemic returned, too. However, we do not they prevailed in this group,” said Murzakulova.

The data on the amount of money transfers of the Kyrgyzstanis staying abroad support the expert’s words. In the first six months of 2020 money flows declined, whereas in the second half year the growth almost recovered and came up to the previous years’ levels.

East or west, Russia’s the best

After spending most of 2020 in Kyrgyzstan, Tynchtyk found a job in local sewing workshops. His salary was low, unstable. In Russia, he was employed officially, with pension contributions, five-day working week from 9 am to 6 pm, and some salary increase.

“I had to work at 5-6 sewing workshops with no days off to get the salary as in Russia, which is about 1,000 dollars per month. However, I could not get all the money I earned. The employers cheated me and did not pay the salary they promised, fobbing off with promises. Therefore, I have always looked for ways to get back to Russia,” Tynchtyk said.

According to the information and consultation centre (ICC) of the State Migration Service of Kyrgyzstan, the salaries in some sectors of the Russian economy doubled due to labour shortage.

In February 2020 (before the pandemic), one-hour work, for example, of outsourcing companies cost 1,250 roubles (16.56 dollars), while now, according to the ICC, the rate increased up to 2,500 roubles (33.13 dollars).

The salaries of the employees of the public utilities remain unchanged so far. Their labour rates and official salaries are based on the Unified wage tariff scale. In such cases, employers are already free to pay for additional load.

After the “shocking” events of 2020, the economy of Russia is recovering faster than that of Kyrgyzstan. But given the current restrictions on entry to its territory, it is difficult to fill the vacancies that became available after the last year’s lockdown. At the online conference “Business climate of Russia”, analysts said that 40 per cent of Russian companies with foreign staff faced the problem of their outflow.

To meet the needs of the labour market, Russia is actively introducing the mechanism of “targeted” entry to its territory for foreign citizens. Russian employers address official representatives of the state migration service of Kyrgyzstan in Russia and negotiate the hiring of labour. The companies bear all costs of transportation of potential workers, pay for two-week stay in a hostel (in the mode of mandatory observation) and the cost of PCR tests.

According to the ICC, over 500 Kyrgyzstanis arrived in Russia under this mechanism, generally to construction sites.

Have a job, cannot leave

During the pandemic, about 50 thousand people submitted electronic messages to the Information and Consultation Centre of the State Migration Service of the Kyrgyz Republic. These are citizens who want to leave Kyrgyzstan. According to the specialists, they see South Korea and Russia as a host country. The applicants do not have any special requirements to jobs, as the only jobs they are offered are in retailing, construction and services.

“They have jobs, but cannot leave because of the restrictions,” Almaz Alybaev, deputy director of ICC of the State Migration Service of the Kyrgyz Republic, said. “Currently, specialists are being hired for the travel season in Turkey. However, we do not want to raise hopes and suggest anything. It all depends on the situation with the pandemic this year. We were ready to send our citizens to Japan. We have already signed the agreement. But because of the pandemic, everything was suspended.

Besides, local private employment agencies managed to find jobs for 130 Kyrgyzstanis last year and send them abroad, according to the ICC. However, the year of 2020 became a real test for the companies, only 70 out of 100 employment agencies were licensed. Some of them still have pending obligations to their clients assumed before the pandemic.

If a person could not depart the country and find a job because of the pandemic, in this case the service must be prolonged to the next year upon the consent of a person who wants to leave abroad. Also, the private employment agency and the applicant must make an agreement that the money would be returned to the applicant less the amount spent for the interview, sending of documents to diplomatic institutions, etc.

“As to the money spent on getting an employment visa, the state has set forth the mechanism of returning of money from the deposit of the private employment agency. If the company, for example, works in two directions (Czech Republic and Turkey), it has 200 thousand som on its deposit account. This money will be used as agreed with the employment agency. I think these mechanisms work well,” said Alybaev.

However, Asel Murzakulova noted that the pandemic is a reason for Kyrgyzstan to think of revising the migration policy. In 2020, migrants were more vulnerable to the risk of infection as the majority of them work in the service sector.

I think the migration policy which is mostly focused on the protection of the migrants’ rights needs to emphasise now the issue of migrants’ right to health care and their medical insurance. These are new requirements to migration policy not only in our country, but also in the whole world. The programme must be revised and focused on this aspect.

According to experts, the Kyrgyzstanis working abroad have found themselves in a very tough situation and maybe for the first time thought about the financial cushion. The money of migrant workers spent in domestic economy of Kyrgyzstan proved to be insufficient to ensure its sustainable growth. Citizens more than ever need to acquire knowledge and skills of correct investment of their money.

All new opportunities and conditions, according to experts, must be set forth in the migration policy concept of the Kyrgyz Republic for 2020-2030. This document is not yet approved, and the amendments proposed by the experts under uncertainty are not considered yet.

If we look briefly at the expected outcomes of the new migration policy that was developed before the pandemic, the market should change in the next 10 years:

  1. Labour resources of the Kyrgyz Republic will be involved in skilled work with decent working conditions.
  2. Zero balance or almost zero level of migration balance will be reached due to low absolute values.
  3. Active and passive migration moods of the people in Kyrgyzstan will decrease in the long run.
  4. Migrants, compatriots and their communities will invest to the development of Kyrgyzstan and regions by implementing social, economic, educational, cultural and other projects.
  5. Conditions and mechanisms to attract investments from migrants to opening their own businesses in Kyrgyzstan will be created.
  6. The alumni of universities and high schools will adequately respond to challenges they face, will be competitive on labour markets.
  7. The employment rate of alumni, citizens of Kyrgyzstan, who studied abroad, will increase. The number of employed foreign specialists and foreign alumni will increase to meet the needs of the national economy, especially in such areas as medicine, IT, engineering.
  8. Conditions for legal stay of migrants, immigrants, stateless persons will be created via holding and introducing economic, legal and administrative measures, as well as awareness campaigns.
  9. Migrants will be covered with basic social services.
  • Flows of labour migration will be diversified and ensured by beneficial economic conditions, legal and social guarantees.
  1. Various risks and threats that force people to migrate will be kept to a minimum.

“The state has developed the migration policy that is not intended for the legalisation of migration flows, but for the reintegration of our citizens, their employment and return. Since the state did not have the concept of reintegration of migrants, they work abroad now. Once they deplete their resources and come back to Kyrgyzstan, they will be the burden on the state budget,” Alybaev said.

Both experts and officials say that Kyrgyzstan needs to boost the domestic labour market. However, there are no big changes on it yet. In fact, despite the number of returning migrant workers and the economic downturn in the country that caused the job cut, the official rate of unemployment as of January 1, 2021 was as low as 3 per cent.

If a citizen does not register officially with employment agencies, they are not considered unemployed.  Perhaps people simply do not go through these procedures because they do not want to get the unemployment benefit in the amount of about 500 som a month and to get the opportunity from the agency to be involved in the paid relief works.

According to the employment agency of Kyrgyzstan, the number of registered unemployed is 98.7 thousand people and just over 20 thousand vacancies. In other words, 44 unemployed run for one vacancy.

“I want to live and work in Kyrgyzstan. My parents whom I miss so much live there. I feel so sad that I can hardly stop myself from crying. I used to come here every six months, and now amid the restrictions I don’t even know when I can see my family and relatives next time. I am the only son. While in Russia, I built a new house in the village, bought a car for my father. I am still single. But if Kyrgyzstan had operating factories, jobs, we would all come back and live here happily…,” Tynchtyk said. 

Main photo: today.kg

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