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Central Asian migrants' lives and challenges in Russia and Turkey
theo [dot] hagman-rogowski [at] soclaw [dot] lu [dot] se (Theo Hagman-Rogowski)
- published 19 October 2022
Since the invasion of Ukraine, Central Asian migrant workers in Russia have seen fewer job opportunities and lower salaries. Among those trying their luck elsewhere, Turkey has become a popular alternative, especially for women. Sociologists of law Rustamjon Urinboyev and Sherzod Eraliev recently published a book comparing the everyday lives of labour migrants in Russia and Turkey.
Central Asia - the region of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan - is one of the most remittance-dependent areas in the world. Money sent home from migrant workers makes up one-fourth of Tajikistan's GDP and a third of Kyrgyzstan's.
Most Central Asian labour migrants have found work in Russia. Before the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, officials estimated that Russia hosted five million Uzbek, Tajik, and Kyrgyz migrant workers, the majority in and around Moscow. The number of undocumented Central Asian migrants is impossible to assess but could be as many as those officially registered.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, work has been harder to find for labour migrants. Those finding jobs also find that salaries are lower, which affects remittance-dependent families in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Migrant workers from these countries are increasingly turning to other destinations in pursuit of gainful employment.
The Turkish capital Istanbul is one of the most popular alternatives. Turkey has a commercially oriented laissez-faire approach to immigration and a high demand for foreign labourers. Immigration and law enforcement authorities tacitly accept the presence of undocumented migrants, understanding that it may help the Turkish economy. The lax migration regime and established Central Asian communities appeal to the Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz seeking employment abroad, especially the women.
"At least 70 per cent of the migrants from Central Asia in Istanbul are female," says sociolegal researcher Rustamjon Urinboyev. "Due to their large numbers, female migrants are well integrated into the Turkish labour market, have their own social media groups, and find jobs more easily than their male counterparts. Their experiences of the Turkish migration regime are better than those of the Russian migration regime, which is male-dominated."
Migrant workers in non-democratic countries
In the spring of 2022, Urinboyev and his colleague Sherzod Eraliev published The Political Economy of Non-Western Migration Regimes: Central Asian Migrant Workers in Russia and Turkey. The book is the result of a five-year study comparing Central Asian migrant workers' experiences in Russia and Turkey. Their research is a shift away from studies centred on immigration policies in western democracies. Instead, Urinboyev and Eraliev followed Central Asian migrants in their day-to-day lives to study how they cope with everyday challenges - finding housing and a job, dealing with police officers and bureaucrats, and navigating informal and criminal settings.
"This approach gave us a nuanced understanding of how migration governance processes take place in countries that don't have a strong culture of the rule of law," Urinboyev says.
In a migration context, we consider the rule of law in liberal western democracies strong because labour laws, independent courts, and trade unions protect and constrain migrant and their rights. Though it is often a complicated and time-consuming process, the legal system and its institutions allow migrants to argue for their rights when they feel that public bureaucracies or private companies undermine them. In Russia and Turkey, the tendency is the opposite. Law enforcement is arbitrary, corruption is widespread and civil society and trade unions are weak. The state has more power to restrict migrants. But a weak rule of law can be beneficial in providing more freedom for migrant workers.
"A weak rule of law and inefficient governments makes it possible for migrants to invent alternative ways of adaptation to the host society," Eraliev says. "But regardless of the law, if it is more or less punitive, migrant workers must find ways to navigate when they face corruption, act within the shadow economy and experience undocumentedness."
Relevant for many readers
The book could be interesting to many groups outside academia. It touches on Central Asian studies, criminology, and migration, and can be a resource for international organisations on human rights and trade unions dealing with undocumented migrants.
From a policy perspective, the book shows how legal strategies to reduce undocumented migration have the opposite effect in Russia and Turkey. The more laws passed to regulate migration, the more undocumented migrants emerge.
Even economists might find new insights on migrant logic that Urinboyev and Eraliev deducted. "Economists say that migration is almost always profit maximization. We disproved that in our observations," Eraliev says. "Migrants account for many factors other than earnings and remittances when choosing where to go. Their networks and feelings for the host society are also important, as is the presence of chain migration and their possibilities to navigate the system."
Rustamjon Urinboyev is an Associate Professor and senior research fellow at the Department of Sociology of Law. He works at the intersection of sociology of law and ethnography, studying migration, corruption, governance and penal institutions in the context of Russia, Central Asia and Turkey.