Crossroads Asia

Why Is Kazakhstan a Growing Destination for Central Asian Migrant Workers?

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Crossroads Asia

Why Is Kazakhstan a Growing Destination for Central Asian Migrant Workers?

If trends hold, Moscow may have to compete with Nur-Sultan in attracting Central Asian migrants in the future.

Why Is Kazakhstan a Growing Destination for Central Asian Migrant Workers?
Credit: kjfnjy / Flickr

The number of labor migrants traveling to Russia continues to fall. Strict regulations adopted by the government have driven many labor migrants into illegal status, subsequently resulting in their inability to re-enter the country and to find jobs in the Russian labor market. 2018 saw the smallest increase in migrants in the whole history of the Russian post-Soviet period. The influx of migrants has declined from almost all countries, except Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkmenistan. The biggest decrease is among labor migrants from Uzbekistan, one of the largest sources of migrants to Russia.

As in Russia, the Kazakhstani economy suffers from a shortage of labor. Because of the oil-driven economic boom during the last decade, Kazakhstan has an increasing demand for both high-skilled labor in industry, business, and education, and low-skilled labor in agriculture, bazaars, and the construction sector. Unlike the Russian government, however, the Kazakhstani government has taken a more accommodating stance toward labor migrants, resulting in increased numbers of Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tajik workers in the country over the last few years. This is evident in the substantial increase in remittances sent from Kazakhstan between 2017 and 2018. Uzbekistan has become the biggest exporter of labor to Kazakhstan. Monthly remittances sent to Uzbekistan from Kazakhstan increased by 1.5 times in 2018, in some months doubling in comparison with 2017.

In regard to Kyrgyzstan, one can observe a similar trend. Despite the widespread belief that Russia remains the primary destination for Kyrgyz labor migrants, the value of remittances sent from Kazakhstan increased significantly almost every month. Kyrgyzstan joined the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015. As a result, Kyrgyz migrants are part of a single economic space that includes not only Kazakhstan and Russia, but also Armenia and Belarus. Citizens of the member states do not need a work permit; they can work under both employment and civil law contracts. This certainly facilitated the increased presence of Kyrgyz labor migrants in Kazakhstan.

Interestingly, there are increasing numbers of Tajik labor migrants in Kazakhstan. Unlike Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan does not share a common border with Kazakhstan. Moreover, based on the frequency of flights and trains, Tajikistan is not as well connected to Kazakhstan as it is to Russia. Nonetheless, in the summer of 2018, Tajikistan received almost twice as many remittances from Kazakhstan as in the summer of 2017. This is probably a consequence of a new agreement signed in March 2018 between Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, according to which Tajik citizens can stay in Kazakhstan without registration for 30 days, the same as Kyrgyz citizens. Under a previous agreement, Tajik citizens were obliged to register with state institutions within five days of arrival in the country. Despite rumors for several years that Tajikistan will join the Eurasian Economic Union, Dushanbe has not yet done so. For Tajik labor migrants, Kazakhstan remains a largely undiscovered destination. There are not as many Tajiks in Kazakhstan as Uzbeks or Kyrgyz. However, if the 2018 agreement stays in place their number will likely increase in the next few years. Last year, Air Astana raised the frequency of flights between Dushanbe and Almaty to five times per week. In December 2018, for the first time, Nur-Sultan also became connected to Dushanbe with regular flights. Connectivity between the two countries is also an important piece in a Tajik labor migrant’s calculus.  

What is also evident is that labor migration to Kazakhstan is of a seasonal nature. The largest amount of remittances is sent between May and October. That said, official remittance statistics cannot capture the actual magnitude of capital outflows from Kazakhstan. Recent research by Caress Schenk, director of Graduate Studies at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, reveals that many labor migrants do not send earned money through official payment channels. For example, 72 percent of interviewed Kyrgyz migrants responded that they had sent money home through “family members or friends or carried [funds] themselves across the border.” In contrast, only 25 percent of Uzbek migrants gave a similar response, allegedly because of a high level of corruption and raids by Uzbek border service officers.

In the last decade, Kazakhstan has actively worked on its image in the international arena, as part of its bid for the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010, host of EXPO 2017, and nonpermanent membership on the United Nations Security Council last year. As a result, the Kazakh government passed a few administrative amendments to legislation in regard to low-skilled labor in order to comply with international standards as prescribed by the International Organization for Migration and the International Labor Organization. This eased the lives of labor migrants in Kazakhstan. That said, many Uzbek and Tajik labor migrants still end up working illegally because they fail to obtain work permits or register on time. Nevertheless, given that (unlike in Russia) they do not need to pass a language proficiency and history test to acquire a work permit, the Kazakhstani labor market remains attractive for Uzbek and Tajik labor migrants. Moreover, discrimination, xenophobia, and frequent raids on migrants are less of an issue in Kazakhstan than in Russia.

By absorbing labor migrants from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, Kazakhstan not only satisfies domestic demand for labor but also benefits in a number of ways. Based on the Kremlin’s experience, the Kazakh government could use labor migrants as leverage against other Central Asian countries in the future. Given Kazakhstan’s aspiration for leadership in the region, the country will have another channel for influence in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. At the same time, Kazakhstan helps the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan by alleviating pressure on their national economies and providing work opportunities for their citizens. An uninterrupted flow of remittances helps the governments in those countries, especially Tajikistan, keep domestic discontent at bay. Thus, Kazakhstan benefits from a more or less stable external security environment in the region. Finally, labor migrants can also be a source of rent for corrupt bureaucrats and predatory policemen, both of whom are underpaid in Kazakhstan. In a way, the government prefers to keep a significant portion of labor migrants in an illegal status.

Some fear that increased migration may raise xenophobic sentiments in Kazakhstani society. Nevertheless, as long as the government is suppressing outbursts of nationalism in the country, it is unlikely that we will see the Russian level of anti-immigrant sentiment. Meanwhile the prospects for Russia’s economy have become even bleaker. Given that the Russian economy needs a large number of labor migrants for sustained growth, Moscow may have to compete with Nur-Sultan in attracting Central Asian migrants in the future.

Khamza Sharifzoda is a graduate student at Georgetown University. He specializes in the politics and governance of Russia, Turkey and Eurasia.