Shifting Migration Patterns in Central Asia – The Path Towards Resilience?

While the EU’s Central Asia strategy places an emphasis on human security, the issue of migration is a key pillar in the pursuit of resilience and should not be viewed solely through the lens of security. This Op-Ed examines migration patterns in Central Asia and the EU‘s strategy for the region in light of the war in Ukraine, providing three key focus points.

With Russia’s war in Ukraine, Central Asia is being confronted with new challenges, as mobility patterns of Central Asian labour migrants are being reshaped. The war has prompted a mass migration of Russians fleeing from the mobilisation announced in September 2022, many choosing Central Asia (CA) as their destination.

The current state of affairs

The EU updated its Central Asia strategy in 2019. It proposes to forge a stronger partnership with Central Asia, for the region to develop into a more resilient, prosperous, and interconnected political and economic space. Generally, migration in Central Asia has not been a standalone priority for the EU, as its main interests lie in trade, sustainability, and security. Rather it is identified as a challenge in both the 2007 and the 2019 EU strategies for the region. The matter of migration is nested within the resilience umbrella, while the nature of migration intersects with all three of the stated goals, and thus cannot be looked at in isolation. Resilience, as defined by the European Commission in its 2020 Strategic Foresight report, is the “ability to not only withstand and cope with challenges but also to undergo transitions, in a sustainable, fair, and democratic manner.” Accordingly, a more resilient society maintains stronger shock absorption mechanisms and enhances the capacity for adaptation.

EU engagement in Central Asia certainly heads in a more comprehensive and inclusive direction by “respecting the aspirations and interests of each of its Central Asian partners, as well as maintaining the need to differentiate between specific country situations”. In November 2022, the 18th EU-Central Asia Ministerial Meeting took place in Samarkand committing to strengthening EU-Central Asia cooperation to support a green and sustainable post-COVID-19 recovery and to tackle challenges emerging from regional dynamics, with a focus on the fall-out of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and the situation in Afghanistan. This builds on the current basis of EU-Central Asia relations, founded on the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (EPCA) with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and recently Uzbekistan, and Partner Cooperation Agreements (PCA) with Tajikistan as well as a pending one with Turkmenistan.

With regards to migration, existing partnerships between the EU and Central Asia include the Prague Process, a progressive dialogue targeted at migration and promoting migration partnerships in the EU, Schengen Areas, Eastern Partnership, Western Balkans, Central Asia, Russia and Turkey. The project was launched in 2009 under the Czech EU presidency. Its six cooperation areas echo the EU external migration and asylum policy framework. The Prague Process has been recognised for its results and for successfully contributing to enhancing international cooperation on migration. A more security-focused partnership in the region is the Border Management Programme in Central Asia (BOMCA), developed in 2002 by the EU to enhance security, fight against illegal trafficking and facilitate trade in Central Asia. In 2021 it entered into its 10th phase, with the objective to enhance security, stability, and sustainable growth in the region, support cross-border cooperation, and improve living conditions for people living in border areas of Central Asia.

Another recent promising instrument is the Dialogue and Action for Resourceful Youth in Central Asia (DARYA) initiative launched by the EU in 2022 as a five-year project, exclusively focused on vocational education, training, and skills development. The goals of this project are summarised in three modules, (1) forward-looking skills development based on better evidence and analysis of education and training outcomes and skills needs; (2) stakeholder-driven flexible and permeable approaches to regional and national qualifications that allow equal opportunities for all; and (3) increased use of flexible and inclusive teacher and learning approaches, based on learning outcomes relevant to the labour market. The project seeks to assist CA nations’ post-Covid recovery through the development of “quality and inclusiveness of education, training and employment systems”. This initiative is separated into two modules. Module 1 forms the foundation for the better adaptation of skills training, specifically for disadvantaged groups, while Module 2 seeks to engage stakeholders from the region and the EU to look at scenarios for different levels of integrating their skills and qualifications.

The question remains how the EU strategy in Central Asia applies in light of these developments. The updated 2019 strategy, with a focus on building resilience, is promising for the region. However, the EU’s priorities and terminology have gradually shifted over the years. The promotion of democracy and human rights has been mainstreamed in EU external relations, policies and strategies for the region. However in practice, between 2007-2013 the first EU strategy on Central Asia dedicated only about 20-25% of the budget to the promotion of good governance. Meanwhile, in the EU’s 2019 updated strategy on Central Asia, democracy and human rights fall under the generalised umbrella term of resilience, exhibiting the shift in its discourse, towards a more realistic strategy. This can be found in the shift away from its normative power to ‘principled pragmatism and resilience’. Moreover, the EU’s interest in Central Asia is also defined by geopolitical motives, as Central Asia plays a ‘key role in linking the Far East to Europe’ with its increasing ‘geostrategic significance’, predominantly pursuing energy and security objectives and prioritising the humanitarian dimension to a lesser extent. These views are further highlighted by the European Commission’s 2017 strategy on resilience in which the employed security-forward strategy generates the externalisation of EU governing systems onto local communities. On the ground, however, this often results in a denial of “agency to ‘the local”, thereby falling short of the EU’s own resilience goals for the region.

Migration patterns in Central Asia

While, under international law, there is no universally accepted definition of ‘migrant’, the EU defines the term in a global context as the “movement of a person either across an international border (international migration), or within a state (internal migration) for more than one year irrespective of the causes, voluntary or involuntary, and the means, regular or irregular, used to migrate.” The broad definition is inclusive of the different kinds of mobility patterns but does not identify the different inequalities faced in being a certain kind of migrant compared to another. Types of migrants include among others, economic, political, environmental, and labour migrants.

Labour migration of Central Asians to Russia has long constituted a lifeline for the workers and families living in rural areas. Remittances account for a significant portion of Central Asia’s GDP. As of 2019, almost 30% of both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan’s GDP is credited to remittances, with a respective inflow of 2,29 and 2,41 million dollars (USD). In Uzbekistan, remittances make up a small percentage of their GDP, less than 10% in 2019, yet it is still significant as in 2021 up to 4.5 million migrants registered their intention to work in Russia. With the visa-free movement between Central Asian countries and Russia and their shared history, Central Asian migrants gravitating to Russia for work defines the migration corridor as particularly informal. Nonetheless, these mobility patterns are crucial for the economic development of Central Asian countries, as they contribute to poverty reduction and provide employment opportunities. Driven by unemployment and underemployment, families can provide for themselves and improve their standard of living owing to migration and remittances. However, this results in a dependency trap or remittance trap. Central Asians depend on remittances to survive, and hence rather than investing in local businesses or markets, the labour force is being prepared to emigrate, taking shape as a coming-of-age experience. This dependency trap goes both ways, as Russia depends on low-skill workers from Central Asia to fill in their labour shortage. This is why projects such as DARYA are vital, as they focus on building the skills of the growing youth segment of the population in Central Asia and developing the education, training, and employment systems to reduce this reliance on Russia. Russia’s population has been in decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with Russia’s birth rate at 1.5 children per woman and an above-average mortality rate. As such, Russia has used policies to attract migrants to counter-balance its own demographic crisis. Russia’s economy has a shortage of ‘low-skilled labour’ workers, a crucial gap migrants are willing to fill due to the lack of employment opportunities at home.

Impact of the war on mobility patterns and remittances

Against this backdrop, the war in Ukraine and resulting isolationist policies have impacted migrants and Russia’s stance on migration policies. Russia finds itself in a long-standing paradox in which it has been relying on migrants to bolster its economy and offset its demographic crisis, while benefiting from their cheap labour, and more recently, using predatory recruitment tactics on migrants to meet the Kremlin’s demand for military mobilisation. Central Asian migrants are often racialised for their non-Slavic identity, facing discrimination in addition to little to no labour or social protection. These sentiments and policies have risen as they have been subject to increased discriminatory practices and scapegoating

Experts predicted a dramatic drop in migrant movements, remittances received, and economic growth, as the US, EU, and UK imposed economic sanctions on Russia. The Central Asian economies remain highly intertwined with Russia’s, despite the increasing diversification of their economies and the shift to a multi-vector strategy. However, Central Asian economies are performing better than the World Bank had predicted, with an updated forecasted growth of 3.7% in 2022, and 3.9% in 2023. Remittances from Russia to Central Asia grew unexpectedly to a record high in 2022, due to the appreciation of the ruble against the US dollar and high oil prices.

The world’s reliance on Russian energy resources has permitted its economy to stay afloat. In fact, despite Europe’s restrictions on natural gas and oil imports, a number of countries are filling the export gap, namely China, Turkey, and India. Russia has also turned to these countries and Central Asia to obtain goods including washing machines, phones, and car parts, goods they no longer have direct access to, due to the banning of imports from the West. Others point to the Russia Fortress strategy, whereby Russia is more self-reliant and barely scathed by external sanctions, through the diversification of its economy, reducing its dependence on Western trade and technology, and its external debt. Consequently, Russia’s and Central Asia’s economy is appraised as resilient to Western sanctions. Yet, even though these cases point toward resilience in their economy, it is only enough to keep their head above water in the short term. With more Russians leaving, the country is in the process of a ‘brain drain’, while already being reliant on migrants to fill labour shortages. The long-term impacts have the potential to be much more devastating. Hence, though Russia has achieved some success, it is nevertheless a deceptive understanding of the reality, and the image of Russia’s Fortress risks crashing down along with the livelihoods of migrant workers.

Russians in Central Asia

Another effect of the war in Ukraine, following the mass mobilisation ordered by Putin, and the crackdown on media, is the mass migration of Russians to Central Asia. This new migration pattern is a double-edged sword. In a context where global inflation is exacerbated by the war, nations worldwide are being affected. Yet, low-income countries such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are disproportionately affected, as regional inflation had already increased by 16% by October 2022. Moreover, the flood of migrants has led to housing prices doubling and even tripling in some capitals of Central Asia. Cases of landlords evicting local families, students, or more vulnerable groups for wealthier Russians are prevalent. At the same time, as Russians often have a significantly higher income than locals, they also contribute to economic growth, as Central Asian countries are experiencing an estate boom, with growing catering services, hospitality, and tourism sectors. New jobs and a higher amount of money are now being circulated in their economies. Additionally, many argue that these new migrants will benefit the economy as this ‘new workforce’ will bring valuable resources as they are highly trained. This illustrates the stark difference with the racialised policing of Central Asian migrants in Russia, while these Russian migrants are encouraged to be retained to help the local economy develop. Nonetheless, the exact impact on the long-term economy of Central Asia remains highly unclear.

EU strategy

While the issue of migration is mainly viewed through the lens of security, issues of human trafficking, and border security, it is not the case that EU strategies have not progressed for the better. There are three points the EU could focus on when addressing migration and resilience in Central Asia. Firstly, the EU may have to shift its view on migration from a mainly security-focused engagement, to a more well-rounded approach, whereby resiliency can materialise. For Central Asia, migration is not only a security feature but an essential part of their livelihoods. The economies of these nations depend on migration and remittances, hence, more effort should be poured into providing solutions and policies through the EU’s presence in the region, while also mitigating the impact of their sanctions on nations reliant on Russia.

Moreover, migration cannot be assessed in isolation from resiliency. The EU’s neighbourhood policies should focus more on developing local institutions and governing abilities. For instance, by increased communication with involved local stakeholders and aid in education or economic sectors for a more dynamic economy. The DARYA project and the Prague Process provide room for the development of dialogue with local actors and stakeholders to build a system approach for better skills provision and employability for young people in Central Asia in the short and medium term. An important first step that these initiatives provide, is inclusivity as disadvantaged groups are specifically targeted. Although this has only recently been adopted and the effectiveness of this EU project is yet to be determined, initiatives such as these display promise in advancing CA nations in supporting its significantly young population and promoting a dynamic labour market. 

Finally, the EU needs to improve its communication policy towards the target groups and new Central Asia-tailored tools to increase awareness of the EU and its policies. While Central Asia perceives the EU in both a positive and negative light, the EU’s image is also exposed to distortion and stereotypical perception. Central Asia’s cultural context and differences in values, as well as its proximity to Russia and its anti-Western propaganda, has manifested itself in euro scepticism. In order to counteract that, the EU can promote more direct contact with these nations and their people. As an individual knows more about objects, groups, or institutions, the less stereotypical their image becomes. Hence, this would move the EU agenda to a more informative and inclusive approach. As the EU’s attention towards Central Asia advances, with growing initiatives, notably the Global Gateway, DARYA, BOMBCA, and energy security through the middle corridor, it is yet to be seen how the implementation of these promote and develop resilience mechanisms in Central Asian labour markets. In order for Central Asian states’ resilience to be successfully enhanced, migration must be taken into closer consideration, as it can serve as a lifeline for the region. The focus must be on local institutions, with EU engagement specifically catered to the unique positions the Central Asian nations find themselves in.

Author: Maylis Peting de Vaulgrenant

Photo credits: Flickr