Monday, January 5, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Migrant Workers’ Exit from Russia Creates Problems for Their Homelands

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 5 – Migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus who have been living and working in the Russian Federation are returning home in ever increasing numbers, a trend that may ease ethnic tensions in Russia but one that is creating increasingly serious problems for many of their countries of origin.
Among the most serious are declines in transfer payments, which in many cases have formed a significant portion of the GDP of these countries, increases in unemployment, and a rise in both crime – many of the Gastarbeiters were in Russia illegally and thus may be more willing to operate outside the law – and nationalism, given Russian xenophobia.
And all of these trends are likely to undermine the ability of the often fragile “labor exporting” regimes in these countries to maintain order, especially if the former “importers” of their workers continue to suffer from the effects of the world economic crisis and impose additional restrictions on the importation of labor.
If the consequences of the presence of Gastarbeiters in Russia have attracted a great deal of political commentary and media attention, the impact of their departure – either temporary for the holidays or more permanently because of economic problems – on their homelands have received much less.
A useful exception to that is an article in Kazakhstan’s “Gazeta” today in which Dmitry Pertsev discusses the impact of the return of Gastarbeiters from the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan now and in the coming year to the Central Asian countries of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (
Over the next few months, Pertsev writes, these three countries face the difficult task of finding employment for or coping with the unemployment of “millions of their fellow citizens who are [now] forced to remain at home,” a task he points out that these “exporter countries” in practice “do not have any experience.”
The numbers of people involved are enormous, with unofficial experts suggesting that there may be as many as three million Uzbeks working abroad and as many as 800,000 Kyrgyz and two million Tajiks going abroad for work each year. (The Uzbek figure is the overall total, while the latter two are annual figures.)
Worse, they have either sought to deny that the problem exists – the strategy of the Uzbek authorities – or asked that Russia and Kazakhstan, the two major “importing” countries not only continue to absorb their labor exports but also improve the legal situation of migrant laborers more generally.
But even if many in these regimes are in denial about the problems ahead, there are five obvious challenges they are going to have to try to meet, Pertsev suggests. First, they are going to have to try to do more to promote local employment possibilities, however limited those may in fact be.
Uzbekistan has tried to build up its smaller textile factories, Pertsev continues, but so far, “the rate of development of [this sector] has not been able” to keep unemployment among returning Gastarbeiters low. The situation in the other two countries is even worse, with “national industry practically having ceased to exist.”
Second, these countries are going to have to deal with the financial and social consequences of “a sharp growth of unemployment.” On the one hand, they will have to find resources to provide some social support to this group; and on the other, they can expect a rise in crime and radical political activism among those who see no other way to defend themselves.
That trend, the Kazakhstan commentator argues, is likely to make the Fergana valley again “a focal point of tensions” and possibly a source of conflict not only within these three countries but among them. Indeed, various commentators have recently suggested that border conflicts there are likely to intensify in 2009.
Third, these regimes are going to have to find some substitute for the transfer payments that those who had been working abroad had sent back, payments that in the case of these three countries constituted upwards of 10 percent of GDP for the countries as a whole and far more in particular regions.
Fourth, these governments are going to have to do what they can to see that the returnees, as many as 60 to 70 percent of whom had become used to working illegally, will now obey the laws of their homeland, something that is going to be difficult given the difficult economic straits in which they will now find themselves.
And fifth, all of these countries are going to have to find ways to become part of the international legal space governing the treatment of migrants. Uzbekistan, for example, has not signed the UN conventions or ILO agreements in this area, and it, along with the other two, has not pressed for a CIS-wide agreement on labor flows.
That is going to have to change if the region is to remain stable, Pertsev argues, but as he does not say, it is entirely possible that the former “importers” of labor from Central Asia and the Caucasus may now be the ones dragging their feet, given that the current economic and ethnic situation in their countries would make that approach popular at home.

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