MIGRATION IN POST-SOVIET KYRGYZSTAN: NATURE, TRENDS, AND TYPES

Ainura ELEBAEVA


Ainura Elebaeva, D.Sc. (Philos.), Professor, Director, Institute of Ethnology of the International University of Kyrgyzstan, represents the Central Asia and the Caucasus journal in the Republic of Kyrgyzstan


Migration in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan has seen the following stages: from the early 1990s to mid-1990s Russian-speaking ethnic minorities were moving away from the republic thus altering its ethnic makeup. There were two groups of migrantsone of them moved to other CIS countries, mainly Russia, the other, to the far abroad, for ethnic reasons mainly to Germany and Israel. According to the National Committee for Statistics, between 1989 and 1995 the number of Germans in the republic dropped from 101.3 to 26.1 thou.1 The migration wave reached its peak in 1992-1993the largest number of people (120.6 thou) left the republic in 1993. They were going away for political reasons such as growing national awareness and ethnic tension obvious in all former Soviet areas triggered by the U.S.S.R.s disintegration. The ethnic conflict in Osh in 1990 urged Russian speakers to move away from the republic.

The next stage began, conventionally, in mid-1990s when the republic started working on its migration policy. On 30 July, 1993 the cabinet set up an Administration of Migration at the Ministry of Labor and Social Security. A great number of migrants from Tajikistan forced the government to create the Osh Regional Migration Center in 1995. In 1993-1994, the government adopted several decisions that made it easier for the ethnic Kyrgyz to come back. Somewhat later, on 24 July, 1996, the need to regulate migration and to increase an inflow of labor migrants, and the worsening economic situation in the country forced the government to adopt temporal rules for the migrants that established the granting of the migrant status procedures and legal, economic, and social guarantees for them.

From September 1995 the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been helping our republic in many ways to realize the programs designed to increase the states involvement in managing migration processes and preventing migration.

In August 1996, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) opened its office in Bishkek with the task of creating a migration policy in the region and effectively managing it. Today, within the framework of an agreement between these two international organizations there are large-scale efforts to formulate a shared CIS migrant- and refugee-related strategy.

In September 1996, Bishkek hosted the first seminar of the Interdepartmental Commission for the Problems of Migrants and Refugees set up at the republican government with an active assistance of both the UNHCR and IOM. The seminar identified the republics national priorities. On 20 March, 1997 the government of Kyrgyzstan, the UNHCR and IOM signed an agreement on opening in Bishkek a center for regulating migration.

In August 1999, a State Agency for Migration and Demography was set up at the government that, together with other interested ministries, state committees and departments, regional administrations and local self-administration bodies of Bishkek took certain measures to fulfill the Main Strategic Trends of Migration Policies for 1999-2001.

The government is especially concerned with forced migrants from Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The immigration flow mainly comes from former Soviet republics; there are also migrants from the far abroad. The largest number of them came in the last three years; about 80 percent of the newcomers arrived from China, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.

The migration processes include external and internal migration, forced migration, labor migration and illegal migration. The State Agency for Migration forecasts that the level of illegal migration will grow. First, there is no effective legal basis to control population movement; second, there is no system of immigration control at the state border and along the transportation routes at the borders with the CIS states; third, the republic is crossed with south-eastern transit routes; finally, there is no working mechanism of deportation of illegal migrants.

Recently, there appeared small groups of petty traders from China and CIS countries in our republic, which means that there is a numerous Kyrgyz diaspora there. Transit migrants can also be described as illegal migrantsthey come to Kyrgyzstan with the hope of moving further to the West. Some of them remain in our republic. According to expert assessments, the flow of illegal migrants, especially from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and China will increase because of continued military-political and socioeconomic instability there. In 2002, Kyrgyzstan plans to receive ethnic Kyrgyz from Turkey and the Afghan part of the Pamir. The IOM has calculated that today Kyrgyzstan is home for 40 to 60 thou illegal migrants, 80 percent of whom are Chinese, Pakistanis, Iranians, Turks, Afghans, and Tajiks.

It should be said that a number of factors have made the republic especially attractive for internal and external migrants. First, it has no experience of law-based regulating migration flows. Kyrgyzstan, like all other independent states, is just learning how to control population movements. In addition, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have recently closed their territories to visa-free flows for the near and far abroad. This has made Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan the best transit routes used by illegal migrants. Moreover, internal migration is no longer dominated by the attraction factorsit is governed by rejection factors. In fact, internal migration has already acquired a forced nature. Finally, Kyrgyzstans integration into the international labor market makes it part of the worldwide processes of external labor migration.

An analysis of the migration processes going on in the republic today reveals two factors: an outflow of the non-title ethnic groups, mainly for permanent settlement in other countries and an internal migration of Kyrgyz. Recently, external labor migration, the so-called shuttle migration, has increased.

The number of Russians in the republic declined by one third because of their intensive emigration in the 1990s: in 1989, Russians comprised 21.5 percent of the total population; in 1999, they accounted for only 12.5 percent. The number of Ukrainians has dropped by half, Germans, five times. Their shares in the total population decreased from 2.5 percent in 1989 to 1 percent in 1999 in case of Ukrainians, and from 2.4 to 0.4 percent in case of Germans.2

In the middle of the 1990s migration flows became shallower: only 5.5 thou left the republic. In 1998, migration intensity increased: in the latter half of 1999 the republic lost 9.9 thou. On the whole between 1990 and 1999, 377.6 thou left the republic (mainly Russians, Ukrainians, and Germans).

In the last few decades the population grew thanks to natural increase, about 50.3 percent of which was swallowed by migration outflows. This shows that nearly half of the natural increase just covered the gap left by those who had left. Today, as before, Kyrgyzstan supplies hired hands to other states: there are 250 labor emigrants per 100 of labor immigrants.

This unprecedented outflow has nearly exhausted the republics emigration potential: the majority of the most dynamic population groups that also had other means (mainly non-title ethnic groups) left for their historical homelands: Russians went to Russia, Germans, to Germany, Jews, to Israel.

These large-scale shifts triggered negative effects: on the one hand, they affected the demographic processes and the republics ethnic compositionit has moved toward mono-ethnicity; the share of urban dwellers also decreasedthe republic experienced disurbanization; some ethnic groups decreased because of natural causes and became much smaller, etc. On the other hand, migration affected the socioeconomic situation: the republic lost specialists with higher education and skilled workers, the employed population now has to bear a much heavier load of those who cannot work, etc.

Why do people leave? They leave because they cannot find work, because they are paid low wages and because of other negative economic factors. No wonder there were about 300 highly qualified specialists among those who left the republic in 1999. Many of them hoped to find better paid jobs in Russia.

Internal Migration

This is first and foremost labor migration that demonstrates a stable flow from the countryside to cities and towns. People frequently move from one administrative region to anotherthe capital is naturally preferred. In 1999, 35 thou of labor migrants out of the total number of 42.7 thou worked in Bishkek. The city and the Chu Valley in which it is situated have the largest positive balance of region-to-region migration while other regions are consistently losing their population. The highest regional migration level is observed in the Naryn and Talas regions (89 percent); in the Issyk-Kul and Chu regions (59 and 54 percent respectively).3 As a result of intensive migration there appeared settlements made of privately owned houses at Bishkek, in the north, and in Osh, with mainly unemployed population. There are 12 settlements around Bishkek with a population of over 200 thou.

In the last decade the republic experienced the following economic trends: a sharp production slump (industrial output dropped by 1.6 times); industrial structure changed and part of industrial workers lost their jobs, which worsened the situation on the labor market. Declining production changed the employment structure in favor of the nongovernmental sector while the total number of employed decreased by 6.4 percent. According to the 1999 population census, these trends were especially evident among the urban population (a decrease in the number of employed from 66.5 to 42.2 percent); the figures for the rural population were better: 67.3 to 64 percent. High employment figures of the rural population, however, should not be taken for an evidence of prosperity: there are large families there and the share of excessive able-bodied population is high. About 16 percent of the employed described work on personal plots as their only occupation.

The changes in the population structure according to the sources of income that took place between the two population censuses (1989 and 1999) reflect the changes in the republics socioeconomic life. The share of people over 15 who live on wages decreased from 66.9 to 55.1 percent; the share of those who received state pensions and allowances dropped from 16.5 to 14.6 percent, those who received stipends, from 4 to 0.4 percent. At the same time, there are more dependents: their share increased from 12 to 24.8 percent. According to the 1999 population census, the number of able-bodied unemployed who were actively looking for jobs was 277,000 (14.4 percent of the economically active population; the figure for cities was 24.2 percent). Young people between 16 and 29 (21.2 percent) comprise the larger part of the unemployed: they cannot continue their education or find jobs.4

This explains why people move in search of work. Unregulated internal and external labor migration has become typical of the republic: 1,357,000 people (28 percent of the total population) at least once moved in search of work inside the country or left it.

A poll among experts conducted by the IOM 5 confirmed that internal labor migration had come to the fore as a domestic issue. A large number of expert respondents (38.2 percent) believe that internal labor migration had become a serious regional problem; 11.5 percent of them predict considerable social upheavals. An analysis of the poll results identified the order of priority of the causes of internal migration: 55.2 percent of respondents (including those living in the Issyk-Kul Region83.3 percent; in Chu Region61.7 percent, and in Bishkek61.3 percent) believe that migration is a lifebelt in the hard economic situation. An absolute majority of experts (78.4 percent) were convinced that new jobs should be created where they were needed most, an economic revival through encouraging small businesses, small shops, etc. was the only answer to the problem. The experts were concerned not so much with the real scope of migration as with its future effects that had already become clear: people became ready to move.

According to the poll results, not less than 25 percent of the republics population were prepared to move away to new places. This means that in the next two years the number of people in the capital will increase by 150 thou at the expense of internal migrants. On the whole, according to the preliminary assessments, up to 700 thou are prepared to change the place of residence in the same period. This is a large figure for the country with a population of 4.8 million.

External Labor Migration

Before 1993 people moved out of the republic to settle in another country of the near or far abroad. Starting with 1993-1994 Kyrgyz and members of other ethnic groups in great numbers have been moving out to other CIS countries (mainly Russia) in search of work. The negative migration balance is mainly explained by economic problems. The analysis that the Republican Human Rights Center prepared for IOM says that between 1994 and 1997 about 200 thou Kyrgyz left the republic in search of work.6 The number of migrants is hard to establish with any degree of precision because of the seasonal nature of migration. According to the National Committee for Statistics, in 1991-1996 the share of those who left the republic was 15.6 percent higher than the share of those who arrived in the republic. Migration was mostly of a shuttle nature explained by the fact that it was connected with employment and studies outside the republic.

People with higher education migrate to the places where they used to study, defend their theses or were trained. In the Soviet past students from Kirghizia studied in large centers of academic science (Moscow, Leningrad, and Novosibirsk). Migration of students is created by the interstate agreements between the Republic of Kyrgyzstan and other countries. The youth is mainly attracted by the prestigious universities of the United States, Britain, Germany, and other developed countries (which harshly limit the intake of foreign students), yet the greatest number of young people study in Turkey, which is prepared to accept more students. For strategic reasons it is actively infiltrating itself in the intellectual circles by offering Kyrgyz students 200 to 300 free places in its universities every year starting with 1992. Under an intergovernmental agreement, every year 50 citizens of our republic irrespective of ethnic affiliation are offered free places in Russian higher educational establishments.

Recently the trade-related routes of labor migration have become clear. To a great extent they depend on convenient transportation means, wholesale prices, customs fees, etc. Goods from Kyrgyzstan are mainly sold in Russia (Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnoiarsk, Tiumen, Samarathe cities easily reached from Bishkek by railways).

Trade migration developed in the republic because of its rather easy customs policies. A WTO member, Kyrgyzstan can import goods from other WTO countries without paying customs fees. As a member of the Customs Union of CIS countries it can export goods from them without limitations and high customs dues.

Today, external labor migration is going along three main channels: through intermediary firms, through contracts with state structures and on the individual basis. This shows that state regulation is limited to two former channels. The majority of firms engaged in labor export have no licenses, which means that they infringe on the migrants rights. People prefer to act independently, and that deprives the state of an opportunity to keep statistical records of labor migrants.

According to unofficial data, Russia and Kazakhstan receive the greatest share of unorganized labor migration from the republic (44.1 and 40 percent, respectively). It should be noted that until recently Kazakhstan had been more attractive than Russia because of its favorable socioeconomic and political climate. In the wake of the 11 September events, however, the authorities tightened immigration control. On 20 September, 2001 the migration police of the Almaty Department of the Interior launched an operation designed to find and remove all illegal foreign migrants from the city. The operation covered all possible places: hotels, hostels, enterprises, tourist firms that work with foreigners, restaurants, cafes, and local markets. Several hundred Kyrgyz were detained on the wholesale market Bolashak. They were kept under lock for about 24 hours, deprived of registration and sent to court that sentenced them to fees (from 15,500 to 25,000 tenge, or from $110 to about $200) and deportation.7

This was a flagrant violation of their rights. The Foreign Ministry of Kyrgyzstan protested. It described this as an unfriendly act toward Kyrgyzstan. The events in Almaty were discussed by the public, the parliament, and the media.

An interstate Agreement on Social Protection of Labor Migrants in the Border Areas prepared for signing was prompted by the need to regulate the legal status of the Kyrgyz labor migrants working on tobacco plantations in Kazakhstan. It is expected to resolve the problem of the legal rights of the Kyrgyz citizens working in the Almaty, Dzhambul, and South Kazakhstan regions.

One has to admit that in 2002 the position of such people in Kazakhstan improved. In February, the newly established employment agency was empowered to issue relevant documents to the labor migrants. It signs contracts with farmers who register the hired hands from Kyrgyzstan and protects their rights.

Yet those of the labor migrants who work on the merchandise markets of Almaty still face a lot of problems. Under the Law on the Special Status of the City of Almaty the 13th session of the city maslikhat adopted a decision On Certain Questions of Regulation of the Migration Processes in Almaty, while local akim V. Khrapunov issued an instruction that established a simplified registration order for foreigners engaged in commercial activities and limited their number to 5 thousand. Today, the number of registered traders from Kyrgyzstan is much lower because the license and other documents needed for registration cost too much. Few people are now engaged in legal trading activities while there are 3,000 people from Kyrgyzstan working in the Bolashak market alone, one of the 30 markets on the northeastern fringes of Almaty. They have no licenses, therefore they are deprived of temporal registration, medical services, and school education for their children. In June 2002, they called a massive rally in the Bolashak market to make public their demands.

One wants to say once more that the Russian Federation is the main migration partner of Kyrgyzstan: in the last ten years it accounted for 49 percent of those who arrived, 61 percent of those who left and 67 percent of the migration decrease.8 To identify the trends of labor migration to Russia the Center for Social Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Kyrgyzstan conducted a sociological poll within the frameworks of the Carnegie Endowment research project. It covered 194 respondents: the majority of them were polled during the October-November 1999 expedition to Ekaterinburg at the Taganskii riad wholesale market that attracts, depending on season, from 5 to 10 thou Kyrgyz. They sell cheap, mainly Chinese, goods that they bring by railway from Bishkek or Almaty.

The results identified the main reasons for labor migration: 78.4 percent of the respondents had no permanent employment in Kyrgyzstan; 17.5 percent were permanently employed; 1.5 percent had temporal jobs; 1 percent was employed but was on prolonged non-paid leaves. It should be said that shuttle trade allowed them to improve their material situation. The profit was created by the scissors between retail prices and the standard of living: in Kyrgyzstan average wage was $25 while in Russia, $110. One percent of all polled answered that they were improving their material situation with every trip to Russia or any other country. The shuttle traders had dependents back at home: 29.4 percent of them had 3 or 4 people to feed; 22.2 percent, 5; 10.3 percent had many children; 7.7 percent had 1 or 2 children while only 2.6 percent had no families to keep.

The respondents described the following things as positive factors: 25.8 percent could earn money for wholesome food for their families; 22. 2 percent could keep their families above the subsistence level. Still, 10.8 percent pointed to negative factors: illegal fees collected at the customs, high taxes, illegal confiscation of goods, negative attitude demonstrated by the local authorities and the people, high crime incidence, and racket. There are many personal worries because people stay away from home far too long, they have health problems, the work is stressful, etc.

We can say that external labor migration is a new phenomenon for Kyrgyzstan. According to various assessments and on the strength of comparing labor potential (employed and unemployed in various spheres), one can say that from 350 to 800 thou are working outside the republic. They are mainly shuttle traders and work in Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Iran, and UAE. A considerable number of people work as construction workers in Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation; according to expert assessments, there are about 50 thousand people from the southern areas of Kyrgyzstan working on tobacco and cotton plantations of Kazakhstan.

Obviously, in the conditions of a socioeconomic crisis, massive unemployment, the worsened situation on the labor market which makes it impossible to create many new jobs, the state should address the problems of external labor migration of those who are seeking employment themselves. To regulate labor migration to Russia president of Kyrgyzstan Askar Akaev issued a decree On Opening in Ekaterinburg and Sverdlovsk Region a General Consulate of the RK in the Russian Federation so that to protect the interests of the legal and physical persons from Kyrgyzstan working in Russia.

There is a draft Law on External Labor Migration that will be soon discussed in the parliament.


1 See: Kyrgyzstan v tsifrakh. Otchet Natsionalnogo statisticheskogo Komiteta Kyrgyzskoi Respubliki za 1995 god, Bishkek, 1996, p. 10.
2 Here and elsewhere statistical information is borrowed from Naselenie Kyrgyzstana. Itogi pervoi natsionalnoi perepisi naselenia Kyrgyzskoi Respubliki 1999 goda v tablitsakh, Bishkek, 2000.
3 See: Osnovnye itogi pervoi natsionalnoi perepisi naselenia Kyrgyzskoi Respubliki 1999 goda, Bishkek, 2000, pp. 46-49.
4 See: Ibidem.
5 The questionnaire was elaborated by the Center for Social Studies at the National Academy of Sciences of the RK on IOMs instruction.
6 See: A. Dyryldaev, O migratsionnykh protsessakh v Kyrgyzskoi Respublike, Tekushchii arkhiv Bishkekskogo ofisa Mezhdunarodnoi organizatsii migratsii (MOM), 1997. p. 1.
7 See: Respublika, 2 October, 2001, p. 4.
8 See: Vneshniaia migratsia russkoiazychnogo naselenia Kyrgyzstana: problemy i posledstvia, Ilim Publishers, Bishkek, 2000, p. 12.

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