Covid-19 and Central Asian Over-Dependence on Labor Migration: An Update on the Central Asia Migration Tracker

The Central Asian republics, in particular Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, have become accustomed to exporting excess labor capacity, generating much-needed revenue for households, and relieving pressure on their governments to create jobs and provide public goods and services. But the Covid-19 pandemic laid bare the vulnerabilities of the region’s over-dependence on migration.

In the first half of 2020, as Russia, which remains the main destination for the majority of over five million annual labor migrants from Central Asia, closed its borders, remittances fell by 22% compared to the same period in 2019. The flow of money reversed, with the volume of money sent from CIS countries to Russia increasing by 47% in the first half of 2020 to support labor migrants and students stranded there.

As a result of the pandemic, economic growth in Central Asia plummeted from 4.5% in 2019 to -2.6% in 2020 in Kazakhstan, from 4.6% in 2019 to -8.6% in 2020 in Kyrgyzstan, from 7.4% in 2019 to 4.5% in 2020 in Tajikistan, and from 5.8% in 2019 to 1.6% in 2020 in Uzbekistan. Millions of migrants who usually leave in the spring were stranded at home. Coupled with lockdown measures, this led to a significant rise in domestic violence, protests, and unemployment as it went up from 4.8% in 2019 to 6% in 2020 in Kazakhstan, from 6.7% in 2019 to 7.9% in 2020 in Kyrgyzstan, and from 6.7% in 2019 to 7.5% in 2020 in Tajikistan.

Russia’s hostile environment for Central Asian labor migrants, high ticket prices, and the pandemic-related border closures have all been contributing to the rise of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan as regional labor migration destinations. While Uzbekistan has become a popular destination for Turkmen migrants, Kazakhstan has emerged as a popular alternative destination to Russia for over 35,000 Kyrgyz, 14,000 Tajiks, and over 200,000 Uzbeks. More precise numbers are harder to find as many migrants take advantage of the visa-free regimes to work illegally and avoid paying taxes.

This report draws from data collected in the Central Asian Migration Tracker (CAMT). A detailed overview of the methodology for data collection and coding is available in the project’s codebook.

Kazakhstan

According to the Central Asian Barometer survey data from 2020, Russia was the most popular potential destination for study, work, and for living among Kazakhstanis. With regard to study, work, and living, 19%, 15%, and 14% of respondents respectively indicated that other than Kazakhstan, they would prefer to go to Russia. Despite the border closures, the actual intent to migrate to Russia, measured by the number of issued visas, matched the respondents’ preferences. Compared to 2019, the number of study visas issued by Russia experienced a two-thirds decline. Neither able to enter Russia for study nor to obtain clear information about a possible date of entry, students from Kazakhstan had to submit a petition to the Russian government requesting that it consider study as a reason for entry.

The number of Kazakh citizens entering Russia for work halved in 2020. In fact, Kazakhstan itself became a favorable destination for labor migrants from Central Asian countries in 2020 due to plane ticket and work permit price increases in Russia. The country’s position as a transit point for Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek labor migrants and its visa-free regime was brought into stark relief by thousands of migrants becoming stranded on the Kazakhstan-Russian border due to travel restrictions imposed by Russia. While the exact number of Central Asian migrants in Kazakhstan is hard to determine due to the fact that a significant portion of them work there illegally to avoid taxes and exploit the visa-free regime, it is known that the number of Uzbek labor migrants increased tenfold since 2015 and at least 35,000 Kyrgyz labor migrants worked in the country in January of 2021.

Kazakhstan, 2020 Work  visas % change vs 2019 Study visas % change vs 2019 Residence visas % change vs 2019
Russia 60,461 -55.61% 30,494 -66.41% 47,589 -24.88%
United Stated 144 -56.63% 585 -64.55% 570 -37.43%
Canada 245 -3.92% 245 -48.42% 290 -35.56%
Japan 81 -20.59% 144 -44.83% 41 -54.44%

Canada was the only country where the number of work visas issued saw a slight decrease by 3.92% from the previous year. According to our data, visas issued within the framework of Canada’s International Mobility Program accounted for almost 94% of all the work visas, showing that the program was resilient to pandemic related complications.

In the U.S., 65.55% fewer study visas were issued in 2020 compared to 2019. Namely, the number of F visas fell by almost three times from 1,628 in 2019 to 574 in 2020. The decrease in diversity lottery visas from 576 in 2019 to 370 in 2020 also contributed to the overall decrease in the issuance of the residency visas.

Among all three visa types, Japan issued more than half as many residence visas in 2020. The issuance of work visas, on the other hand, decreased only by 21%, due to a cut in work visas for migrants in the sphere of engineering/specialist in humanities/international services.

Kyrgyzstan

Due to the pandemic, about 60,000 Kyrgyz migrants returned home from 60 different countries; however, the real figure may be closer to 100,000 people. A survey by the National Statistical Committee demonstrated that about 54 percent of households’ incomes decreased because of Covid-19 between March and October 2020. About 20 percent of households reported that at least one member had lost their jobs at home, while five percent were forced to return to Kyrgyzstan from abroad after being fired. Members of about eight percent of households were not able to fly home, and nine percent delayed or canceled their planned trip to a foreign country. The surveyed households reported that remittances decreased by more than 16 percent. 

Kyrgyzstan, 2020 Work  visas % change vs 2019 Study visas % change vs 2019 Residence visas % change vs 2019
Russia 190,312 -58.05% 6,790 -68.48% 12,901 1.39%
United States 7 -46.15% 84 -74.55% 257 -56.88%
Canada 40 60.00% 30 -79.17% 65 -38.10%
Japan 61 -48.74% 108 -63.01% 15 -76.92%

In 2020, about 299,611 people arrived in Russia, a sharp decline compared to 959,130 people who traveled to Russia in 2019. The Russian authorities indicated that during the second and third quarters of 2020, they registered the lowest number of people crossing the border. Overall, in 2020, the number of work and study visas issued for Kyrgyz citizens dropped by more than half compared to the previous year leading to the decline in remittances. According to the National Bank, about $2.3 billion USD were transferred from Russia, which is $34 million less than in 2019. Nevertheless, about 98 percent of all money transfers from individuals from abroad in 2020 came from Russia.

On January 31, 2020, the United States suspended issuing immigration visas to Kyrgyz citizens, restricting the entry of people with the employer-sponsored visa category. The restrictions were imposed due to the “deficiencies in the security of travel documents,” referring to cases of illegal issuance of Kyrgyz passports. Later in spring 2020, due to the pandemic, the U.S. suspended all visa services worldwide. These changes greatly affected study and residence visas. According to the CAMT data, the study visas decreased by more than 74 percent and residence visas by almost 57 percent compared to 2019.

Tajikistan

Tajikistan cancelled international flights on March 20 just as the annual labor migration season was starting to gain steam. As a result, out of over half a million people who leave the country annually, only 129,000 were able to do so in 2020. Such a sharp decline in outmigration caused a 15% drop (or $195 million) of remittances from Russia in the first half of the year – a serious blow to the country where a third of the 2019 economy (or $2.5 billion) consisted of remittances from abroad.

According to Russia’s Interior Ministry, over 507,000 Tajik nationals became stranded in the country as Russia shut its borders in March 2020. The government of Tajikistan organized a series of charter flights that brought back 90,000 Tajik nationals. But many remained stuck in Russia without means of surviving as the Russian economy shut down. An International Organization for Migration survey found that 90% of migrants in the spring of 2020 lacked funds to send home to their families, 60% of migrants could not pay for rent, and 40% did not have enough money for food.

Tajikistan, 2020 Work visas % change vs 2019 Study visas % change vs 2019 Residence visas % change vs 2019
Russia 507,255 -56.99% 15,127 -66.13% 80,107 5.91%
United Stated 6 -71.43% 55 -70.43% 216 -80.13%
Canada 10 100.00% 10 -87.18% 25 -45.65%
Japan 9 -62.50% 57 -64.15% 4 -71.43%

The decline in labor migration and the resulting drop in remittances led to a decline in Tajikistan’s economic growth from 7.4% in 2019 to 4.5% in 2020 (the lowest since 2009) and drove domestic unemployment up from 6.7% in 2019 to 7.5% in 2020. The share of Central Asian Barometer survey respondents who said they were unemployed and seeking work jumped from 15% in the end of 2019 to 27% in the summer of 2020, while the share of those whose monthly income at least partially came from remittances grew from 35% to 40% over the same period.

Turkmenistan

The scale of migration out of Turkmenistan remains difficult to assess in the absence of state transparency, independent media, and freedom of information. While Ashgabat claims that in 2020 the country’s population stood at just over 6 million people, RFE/RL’s sources in the Turkmenistan government put the population at below 3 million as of early 2021 – a depopulation caused primarily by outmigration of Turkmen citizens looking for relief from the dire economic situation and the authoritarian idiosyncratic government of Berdimuhamedow. The number of parents in Turkmenistan quietly urging their children who study abroad not to return back is growing.

Turkmenistan’s destabilizing population drain would probably be more dire if not for the government’s history of attempts to stop the outmigration by any means necessary. Around half of the passengers of the Ashgabat-Istanbul flights are regularly taken off the plane. Those who want to leave for Russia have to navigate an increasingly opaque bureaucratic labyrinth that has created a black market of middlemen who charge for the service of straightening out the documents of potential migrants.

Turkmenistan, 2020 Work visas % change vs 2019 Study visas % change vs 2019 Residence visas % change vs 2019
Russia 3,906 -18.84% 29,293 -40.76% 4,356 14.75%
United Stated 4 -69.23% 50 -69.88% 91 -60.26%
Canada 15 50.00% 10 -56.52% 10 -54.55%
Japan 1 -85.71% 21 -36.36% 0 -100.00%

With a visa-free regime between the countries, Turkey remains the most popular destination for migrants from Turkmenistan. While the Turkish government does not offer detailed immigration statistics, it stated that over 87,000 Turkmens received residency in Turkey in 2020 and hundreds of thousands of Turkmens remain in the country illegally.

Uzbekistan has become a popular destination for Turkmen migrants in the past few years and now rivals Russia. In 2020, Turkmenistan saw the smallest decrease in migration to Russia among the Central Asian countries because Russia’s strict visa regime with Turkmenistan historically has kept migration from there the lowest from Central Asia.

Uzbekistan

Low levels of socio-economic development and weak labor opportunities in Uzbekistan continue forcing people out in search of better employment and study opportunities. Over 10% of Uzbekistan’s economy now comes from foreign remittances, highlighting the country’s dependence on its labor migrants.

Covid-19 has had a profound impact on migration patterns from Central Asia’s most populated state. State-enforced lockdowns restricted access to major labor importing markets, trapping many labor migrants in Uzbekistan and forcing many more to return. Despite the government’s effort to liberalize the process of migration in previous years, the Agency for External Labor Migration was largely unprepared for the increased inflow of Uzbek nationals at the beginning of the pandemic; as a result, thousands of Uzbeks were stranded in Russia and other places while waiting in temporary camps.

Despite the disruptions to Uzbekistan’s labor migration, remittances did not fall dramatically in the first half of 2020. And yet, the number of people living in poverty has increased to 9% of the population, with almost one million dropping below the poverty line in 2020. 

Uzbekistan, 2020 Work visas % change vs 2019 Study visas % change vs 2019 Residence visas % change vs 2019
Russia 1,011,028 -52.02% 18,430 -63.20% 38,679 -15.75%
United Stated 54 -36.47% 76 -77.11% 621 -62.95%
Canada 25 0.00% 15 -94.30% 90 -39.19%
Japan 253 -53.49% 603 -77.04% 107 -73.71%

 

Unlike Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan notably has neglected the Bologna Process, the standardization of higher education in Europe and beyond. The country’s higher education system matured in isolation from the rest of the world, with student exchanges and study programs being an exception rather than a norm. This helps explain the small number of student visas issued by EU states to Uzbek citizens – a number that fell even further during the pandemic. Russia and Kazakhstan remained top destinations for Uzbek students in 2020, thanks to shared language, culture, and a Soviet past.

The majority of emigrants from Uzbekistan chose Russia and Kazakhstan for the same reasons. Because Uzbekistan does not accept double citizenship, many Uzbeks are choosing the Russian passport to avoid the struggle with work permits and bureaucracy.

Conclusion

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted once again the importance of migration reforms in Central Asia to mitigate the region’s addiction to overseas seasonal labor. In the short-term, regional governments should negotiate the prolongation of visas and the provision of safe travel routes from their host countries back to Central Asia. In the long term, governments should create incentives to channel remittance flows to support private businesses and the creation of jobs, as well as investments in human capital. The Central Asian republics should also help returning migrants adapt to the local job market by providing training and other opportunities for acquisition of skills that are vital to getting a job and reintegrating into the local economy. Finally, the governments should support migrant networks and media outlets for the purposes of communication, information sharing, and protection of migrants’ rights.

Yet none of the much-needed reforms are happening. The pandemic has not broken the cycle of the region’s over-dependence on labor migration. The demand for migrants has remained steady and the governments in the region are looking to continue to export labor. Many are now returning to Russia as the border closures are lifted and those who can’t because of the high ticket prices and hostile environment towards migrants in Russia are more and more often choosing Central Asian neighbors, particularly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – a trend that needs to be studied more closely in the future.

The international community’s support for migration and economic reforms in Central Asia is vital. Foreign donors should assist small and medium enterprises in creating jobs in the region to help absorb excess labor capacity via provision of microcredits and loans. Any support to Central Asian governments in diversifying their economies, including the IT and green energy sectors, would also help.

Zhibek Aisarina graduated from Nazarbayev University with a major in Political Science and International Relations and a minor in World Languages, Literature, and Culture. She is currently an MA student in Eurasian Studies at Nazarbayev University. 

Elvira Kalmurzaeva is an MA student of International Affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University. She also holds a master’s in Political Science and Security from the OSCE Academy and BA in International Relations from Kyrgyzstan-Turkey Manas University.

Sher Khashimov holds a master’s in public affairs from Indiana University and a BA in Linguistics from Russian-Tajik Slavonic University in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

Doniyor Mutalov is an undergraduate student at Webster University in Tashkent. He is interested in security issues, political violence, international affairs and authoritarianism in Central Eurasia.