The initial period of Kyrgyzstan’s independence after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union was a very difficult time for the Kyrgyz nation and its economy. Highly limited employment opportunities and rising levels of unemployment and poverty, especially among the rural youth, forced hundreds of thousands of people to migrate to Russia every year in search of work.
During this deep crisis in the market, my parents were forced to leave the country with my older siblings to find job opportunities and money to feed the family. Most of the labor migrants in that period worked in the service sector as cleaners, janitors, builders, shop assistants, and so on. Since my childhood, my family has told me of their experiences in Russia. They often faced the violation of their basic human rights from a brutal police force, and suffered from discrimination.
Thirty years have passed since Kyrgyzstan became independent, but when it comes to labor migration to Russia not much changed until Kyrgyzstan’s 2015 accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Even then, challenges remain.
The number of labor migrants in Russia is still increasing due to the slowdown in economic growth, unemployment, and low wages in Kyrgyzstan. Labor migration is a highly important issue on the government level. According to the World Bank, in 2014 remittances were the equivalent of 30.3 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP, making it the world’s second-most remittance dependent economy after Tajikistan that year. The World Bank estimated that in 2015 Kyrgyzstan received $1.7 billion in remittances. Approximately 80 percent of Kyrgyz migrant workers send remittances to their families. The Kyrgyz State Service for Migration states that the number of migrants in 2018 was around 640,000 people. The Kyrgyzstan Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), carried out in 2018 by the National Statistical Committee of Kyrgyz Republic as part of the Global MICS Program, indicates the number of children left behind by parents over the last four years: from 239,100 in 2014 to over 277,500 in 2018.
According to my research, the government of Kyrgyzstan does not officially post data on migration and the only sources people can refer to are local media and reports from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation. Different media sources estimate that in 2019 the number of migrants increased to 800,000 people. However, as RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, argues, according to the official data of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia, in 2019 more than 1.55 million Kyrgyz citizens were officially registered in country. Considering that about 20,000 of them are students and tourists, it’s estimated that the number of Kyrgyz migrants in the Russian Federation has exceeded 1 million and moreover, this number does not count migrants that are not registered or are undocumented.
In 2015, with Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), a lot of things have changed for Kyrgyz labor migrants. Before the accession to the EAEU, the first and the hardest problem for migrants was the legalization of their status in Russia and obtaining documents for work and residence. The second problem that Kyrgyz migrants faced was related to their social insecurity, including limited access to the healthcare system. The possibility of seeking medical care in Moscow for Kyrgyz migrants was limited not only due to low income but also due to a lack of insurance and information about the Russian healthcare system. Before the accession to the EAEU, citizens of Kyrgyzstan that went to Russia for work could only be in the country for seven days without registration. Furthermore, in order to get a permit to work, migrants needed to pass an exam on the history of the Russian Federation and the Russian language.
Membership in the EAEU resulted in various simplifications for labor migrants. The Eurasian Economic Union is an international organization for regional economic integration. The organization’s main goal is to provide free movement of goods, services, capital, and free movement of labor. The agreement simplified the process for member state migrants by removing the history and language exam requirement and extending the period of time that migrants could be in Russia without registration up to 30 days. It also released migrants from the requirement to obtain permits in order to get a job.
The EAEU has also provided member states’ migrants social and medical services. According to research by the Tian Shan Policy Center:
The provisions of the contract provide for the delivery of free ambulance and medical care (emergency and non-emergency types) to workers and their families, regardless of the availability of a medical insurance policy. The possibility of medical evacuation of the patient for his rescue and preservation of his health is also provided, the expenses of the medical organization for the provision of emergency medical care to the working members of the Member States are reimbursed at the expense of the budget of the state of employment.
Moreover, diplomas of higher education from each member state now have full recognition, which means that there is an opportunity for people who have higher education to work in higher-paying, more specialized fields and earn higher salaries doing so. A last, but not least, change in migration policy is that the period of temporary stay for a migrant worker is determined by the duration of the respective employment contract. In the event of early termination of the employment agreement after 90 days from the date of entry into the territory of the member state, a worker has the right to conclude a new employment agreement within 15 days without leaving the country.
These simplifications have relatively increased the flow of migrants. According to the Federal Migration Service of the Russian Federation and Migration Board of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation, in 2014, before Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the EAEU, there were 553,675 Kyrgyz migrants; in 2018, that figure increased to 638,735 people.
Despite the simplifications in migration regulations under the EAEU, the problem of deportation, “black lists,” and the violation of human rights still exist. For instance, in 2018 13 Kyrgyz women were reportedly “rescued from slavery” at a sweatshop in Ryazan, Russia. According to Sputnik, the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kyrgyzstan reported that the migrants’ passports were taken away and they were forced to work in a sewing workshop. People were forced to work 20 hours a day. They were sometimes forced to work at night and fined 5,000 Russian rubles ($85) if they returned late after short lunch breaks. It was reported that about 100 migrants from various countries worked in the sewing workshop, including 13 Kyrgyzstanis. They came to work through a Kyrgyz “intermediary” who allegedly collected them near the Bereket market in Bishkek and brought them to Ryazan.
In another case the following year, four years after Kyrgyzstan joined the EAEU, 73 migrants working in Khabarovsk were detained and beaten by police. As a result of this incident, two Kyrgyz citizens were hospitalized. As a representative of the Kyrgyz diaspora said at the time: “They came and without explanation put everybody despite the age, presence of Russian passport, into a police car, and drove away to the police station. All of them have been brutally beaten with a baton for several hours. According to the victims, registration documents of some of them were torn to pieces by police officers.”
As Lira Sagynbekova states, even though there are some simplifications in migration policy, “Kyrgyz labour migrants report that they cannot easily register for temporary residence. They depend on questionable private agencies and services that accommodate this need” or on “intermediary” agencies that collect people and use them as an irregular workforce in sweatshops just as happened with the 13 women in Ryazan. In addition, membership in the EAEU did not solve a critical problem faced by Kyrgyz labor migrants, that of police arbitrariness and brutality.
Having entered the Eurasian Economic Union, Kyrgyzstan was able to receive considerable relief when it comes to the registration of migrant workers. However, this relief was able to solve only the formal part of the registration and stay of migrant workers, but not the substantive and procedural parts of migration and working in a foreign country. Problems such as human rights violations in sweatshops, illegal residence, police brutality, and discrimination faced by Kyrgyz migrants still remain. The new regulatory laws of the EAEU have not resolved, and in some instances even exacerbated, the already poor legal situation of migrants.