A vibrant ecosystem of social media pages and digital apps has developed to support the community of Central Asian migrant laborers who are navigating the challenges of living and working far from home.
Each year, millions of Central Asian migrant workers send billions of dollars in remittances back to their friends and family. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan top the chart of the world’s most remittance-dependent economies, with money from abroad equivalent to more than a quarter of each country’s gross domestic product. The vast majority of Central Asian migrant workers — in total, over a million from Uzbekistan and more than half a million each from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — are in Russia, where they face an ever-complicated bureaucracy, exploitative working conditions, and social isolation.
Phone companies have tapped in to demand for services catering to migrants and their families, evidenced by massive signs advertising special rates for calls between Russia and home that hang in many of Central Asia’s major airports. Beeline, a Russian telecommunications company, even offers a plan which allows for unlimited use of several apps, including Facebook, Instagram, and Odnoklassniki, after a user’s cellular data allowance has been reached.
The structure of phone plans like this has fostered a thriving virtual community where social media and digital apps serve as substitutes for the dense family networks that characterize Central Asian society. Internet groups and social media accounts help migrants find jobs, stay on top of political developments back home, and even meet love interests.
Social media accounts geared toward migrants range from highly sophisticated companies with marketing teams and graphic designers, like @molbulak.ru, to scrappy @moscowjob_kg, which reposts screenshots of direct messages, typos and all, to connect people searching for legal work. Travel agencies advertise last-minute deals on flights to and from Moscow, which users can book directly through Instagram; those who can’t afford the flight can also find taxis looking to fill up the last seat.
For those missing a taste of home, grocery stores operating on social media sell products shuttled back from Kyrgyzstan. Datka, which has a brick-and-mortar store in Moscow advertises its wares on Instagram — for prices similar to home, migrant workers can buy kymyz (fermented mare’s milk) bottled in recycled 2-liters and chuchuk (horse sausage).
Digital apps also offer an opportunity for migrant workers to stay informed about their rights and get access to legal help. Even the Russian government has taken advantage of this technology to support the labor migrant economy. The Moscow Mayor’s Office developed an interactive website explaining the paperwork required to work legally in the country. Most apps about workers’ rights are grassroots initiatives, however. Guides are published in both Russian and regional languages and with simple interfaces, so as not to suck up cellular data allowances.
Not all social media activity serves an immediate practical purpose. Apps and social media pages offer a sense of community and belonging for Central Asians working far from home, and often far from their families. For example, groups like “Moskvadagy Kyrgyzdar” (Kyrgyz in Moscow) or “!!!!Tadjiki!!!V!!!Rossii!!!!” (!!!!Tajiks!!!In!!!Russia!!!!) on Facebook and Odnoklassniki offer a forum where migrants can share memes, talk about politics back home, and ask advice.
Migrant workers’ social media networks can include a dark element, however. In a 2018 study of radicalization among Central Asians, Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies (RUSI) researchers Mohammed Elshimi and Raffaello Pantucci recalled a number of interviewees who expressed concern about social media’s role in the terrorist recruitment process. The social and cultural displacement migrants experience while in Russia “potentially makes them more susceptible to mobilizing for international causes.”
As we learn more about how terrorist groups use social media to recruit isolated and vulnerable members of the migrant community, parallel efforts may shed light on how the same digital networks can be used to create feelings of inclusion and belonging.