28.02.23 Review

Tactical migration: The levels of labour migration grew in 2022, but are still far below pre-pandemic levels. The Russian authorities are seeking to use these migrants as resources for their war

Labour migration in Russia grew substantially in 2022 compared to 2021 levels, yet this was just 85% of pre-pandemic levels. Despite the strength of the ruble, which has been a significant stimulus for the influx of migrant workers, the war and a shrinking economy appear to have slowed the recovery of migration inflows. This is likely to have exacerbated the strain on the Russian labour market in the second half of the year, against a backdrop of increased defence orders, mass workforce emigration, and mobilisation. Meanwhile, the Russian authorities have continued to apply a classic colonial approach towards labour migrants. According to a report by the Memorial Human Rights Centre, the situation for migrant workers in Russia continued to deteriorate over the past year, primarily as a result of a number of practices of voluntary and forced recruitment for the war in Ukraine.

The number of migrant workers arriving in Russia at the end of 2022 was 33% higher than the figures recorded in 2021. (in absolute terms, this number increased by 847 thousand people). In the second quarter of last year, the number of new arrivals reached a six-year high, despite international sanctions and the decline of the Russian economy. Analysts from ‘Finexpertiza’ were able to reach this conclusion based on migration statistics from the Russian Interior Ministry.

The low-base effect and recovery growth both contributed to this substantial increase. In 2019, the number of migrant workers was 4.09 million, while in 2020, after the start of the pandemic, it had dropped almost fourfold, to just 1.08 million. Only 2.6 million labour migrants entered Russia in 2021, as economic activity began to recover by the middle of the year.  This recovery continued in 2022, but even with intensive growth, it was unable to reach the level of 2019, reaching only 85% of the pre-pandemic level (3.47 million). This is despite the fact that Russia's GDP in 2022 had grown to 100.6% that of 2019, according to official data. Thus, the war, sanctions, and a shrinking economy in 2022 are likely to have contributed to the insufficient recovery rate of post-pandemic labour migration. 

Perhaps this lack of labour migration would have been even more acute, if the ruble had not been as strong as it was this past year. Migrants are extremely sensitive to fluctuations in the ruble's exchange rate; as it falls in value, the labour market becomes less appealing for them. When the war began, the ruble depreciated at a record-breaking rate. According to ‘Memorial’, by early April 2022, 60,000 migrants had returned to Tajikistan and a further 133,000 to Uzbekistan. According to 40% of Uzbek returnees who reported to the Agency for External Labour Migration under the Uzbek Ministry of Employment and Labour Relations, the reasons for their return were unemployment and exchange rate volatility. However, by May, when, despite most expectations, the ruble had begun to grow stronger, the number of Tajiks coming to work in Russia outnumbered those returning home. In July, when the ruble had strengthened to a multi-year high, the intensity of labour immigration returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

Against the backdrop of a continuing decline in Russia's working-age population — the low-birthrate generation of the 1990s is entering the labour market, people who are against the war left the country in droves, and mobilisation — and the fact that the overall level of labour migration in 2022 was lower than pre-pandemic levels explains both the record-low level of unemployment that the Russian authorities have publicised so proudly, and the labour market tensions that became increasingly apparent in the second half of the year, when the defence sector was both ramping up production and increasing employment.

Consequently, the Russian economy is in desperate need of migrant workers, however, the Russian state treats them in a colonial manner. According to a new report from the ‘Memorial Human Rights Centre’, the situation for migrant workers in Russia has only deteriorated as a result of the war, and there has been a significant increase in violations of their rights by the state. Over the past year, the government has attempted to entice migrant workers to participate in their war in Ukraine. According to the report, there are no figures on exactly how many Central Asian citizens are fighting on Russia's side, but a Ukrainian source estimates that there were approximately 6,000 of these combatants prior to mass mobilisation. 

'Memorial' has identified three major strategies employed by the Russian government to recruit migrant workers into the armed forces. The first is the recruitment of migrant workers who have acquired Russian citizenship: foreign nationals who have acquired Russian citizenship are required to serve in the Russian armed forces, according to 2013 amendments to the law ‘On Military Duty.’ According to 'Memorial', since the start of the Russian full-scale invasion, Ministry of Defence representatives have contacted young men from Central Asia who have obtained Russian passports, threatening to strip them of their citizenship if they refuse to serve in the military. There have also been cases where people over conscription age have been summoned to the military recruitment office and have been threatened with deprivation of their citizenship. 

The second strategy has been to recruit migrants by promising citizenship and good pay. Recruiters have given assurances to migrants that their citizenship applications would be processed within three months of signing a military contract. Moreover, a law was passed in September 2022, which reduced the processing time for citizenship applications from one year to three months. Representatives from the Defense Ministry also offered prospective soldiers a monthly salary of up to 200,000 rubles, which is significantly higher than almost any other job available to migrant workers. In July, it was revealed that the Wagner PMC had been advertising high-paying security guard positions on social media in Central Asia. When a call was placed to the number on the advert they were offered the opportunity to participate in Russia’s combat operations in Ukraine. Those interested were invited to the Wagner PMC base in Molkino, Krasnodar. 

The third strategy has involved the recruitment of incarcerated migrant workers. According to family members, convicts were promised early release and financial compensation. Some were even tortured to obtain their consent. By the end of 2022, there have been documented cases of the deaths of Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek citizens recruited from Russian prisons.

The situation has only deteriorated since the announcement of mobilisation. A number of migrants from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan were summoned despite not having Russian citizenship. The Moscow authorities opened a recruiting station in the Sakharovo migration centre. Some Tajik and Kyrgyz citizens with Russian passports were barred from leaving Russia in early 2023 because they were on mobilisation lists. Moreover, it has been revealed that Russian authorities have been recruiting Central Asian migrant workers to rebuild Ukrainian cities and construct military fortifications along the front lines. In early 2023, there have been a number of complaints from citizens of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan who have not been paid for their work in the occupied territories.

Thus, as in other spheres, there is a clash between the government’s migration policy and economic logic. The need for unskilled labour in Russia will no doubt continue to grow in the coming year, due to the ‘simplification’ of the economy, the growing role of the defence industry in the country’s economy, and the further reduction of the labour force as a result of both natural causes and ongoing mobilisation. At the same time, the competitive advantage of a strong ruble will weaken. The threat of forced recruitment is unlikely to have a significant impact on the decision of Central Asian workers to find employment in Russia, but it may become an additional factor in favour of seeking employment elsewhere. 

The importance of migrant workers for the Russian economy is illustrated by the fact that in 2022 there were 11.8 million foreigners registered in the migration database. This statistic includes both initial registration and the renewal of registration of those who have been living in Russia for a number of years. 

40% of such cases occurred in Moscow and the Moscow region, while 12.8% occurred in Saint Petersburg and the surrounding Leningrad region. Krasnodar Krai (2.7%), Irkutsk Oblast (2.3%), Sverdlovsk Oblast (2.2%), Amur Oblast and Primorsky Krai (1.8% each), and Tatarstan (1.6%) round out the top ten regions most popular with labour migrants. 

Citizens of former post-Soviet republics make up the majority of those arriving in Russia for work. Uzbek citizens ranked first among those who came last year, accounting for 41.9% of the total number of migrants, or 1.45 million people. Tajikistan contributed 28.4%, or 986.7 thousand people. Kyrgyzstan came in third with 16.2%, or 562.6 thousand people. Armenia (4.7% or 163,800 people), Kazakhstan (3.3% or 114,500 people), and Azerbaijan (2.7% or 95,100 people) also contributed significantly to the total number of migrant workers. However, in addition to these CIS countries, the top ten includes Turkey (0.5%, or 17.1 thousand people), China (0.3%, or 11.8 thousand people), and Vietnam (0.26%, or 9 thousand people). Despite being close to the top just a decade ago, the number of people coming to Russia from Ukraine to work has dropped to a record low (just a few thousand people).