20.04.23 Review

(In)visible Waves: Although the War May Not Be Evident in Labour Migration Statistics, Total Migration Turnover in 2022 was the Largest in Russian History

It is extremely difficult to reliably assess migration dynamics over time. According to experts at the Higher School of Economics' Institute of Demography in their review of labour migration, the rules for migrant registration changed frequently throughout the 2010s, as did the practice of registering foreign nationals with the Interior Ministry. The current registration practice may be considered more or less established from 2019 when over 701,000 people came to Russia. There was a significant drop of inflows due to the pandemic to 594,000 in 2020, although this was not critical; at the end of the pandemic, inflows of labour migrants rose to 668,000 in 2021 and then to a record 703,000 in 2022, thus fully compensating for the covid-related dip. It appears that the war and sanctions did not, in fact, deter migrants.

Out-migration statistics are more difficult to analyse. The number of people emigrating in 2019 stood at 419,000; in 2020, it increased to 488,000, the highest level of emigration since 1994, according to demographers. This was most likely due to the pandemic, lockdowns, and the resulting drop in economic activity. However, the figures for 2021 and 2022 appear to be another regulatory artefact. According to Rosstat's migration statistics, the number of people leaving the country fell to 238,000 in 2021 before increasing to 668,000 in 2022. This is due, however, to a presidential decree issued in 2021 that automatically extended the stay of officially registered foreign citizens in the country until the end of the year. In other words, Russian authorities stopped recording the ‘departures’ of foreigners when this related to the expiry of their registration.

As a result, the registration of departures in the second half of 2021 was delayed until 2022. According to experts from HSE's Institute of Demography , this accounts for approximately 200,000 people who were recorded in the statistics for 2022. Thus, approximately 438,000 people left Russia in 2021 and approximately 468,000 in 2022.

Based on the number of formal registrations, official statistics show a record low level of immigration in 2022, with just 35,000 people arriving (adjusted for the 2020 census, the increase was 62,000 people). In reality, this migration inflow was likely around 235,000 people, which was slightly higher than in 2021 (230,000) but significantly lower than in 2019 (282,000). According to official statistics, this migration growth compensates for approximately 40% of the natural population decline, which amounted to a decrease of 595,000 people last year. However, the latter figure excludes dead Russian servicemen whose bodies are yet to be recovered or who are still listed as alive or missing. 

However, we can safely conclude that migration was largely unaffected by the war and the effects of its associated sanctions. It appears that Russia’s migration inflows and growth could have been even higher against the backdrop of a booming economy in 2021, which was expected to continue into 2022 before gradually fading. Nevertheless, it is clear that the war and sanctions had a less significant impact on migration statistics than the pandemic.

Labour migration in Russia (registration of long-term arrivals and departures of foreign nationals), 2019-2022, thousands of people

However, official migration statistics focus on the people who enter the country and register to work in Russia. In 2022, the most dramatic and directly war-related migration processes were not classified in these categories.

2022 was a record year for the number of refugees entering Russia. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 2.8 million Ukrainian citizens have ended up in Russia since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. As we know, for many of these refugees, the corridor to Russia was their only way to leave the active war zone. At the same time, according to various estimates, in 2022, between 550,000 and 800,000 Russians left the country to escape the war and repressions. This group of migrants is also distinguished by their exceptionally high level of human capital. It is currently unknown how many of the Ukrainians who have arrived in Russia will remain and how many from this second group will return to Russia. The 2022 migration turnover (those who left plus those who emigrated) appears to be between 4.5 and 4.7 million people (labour migrants, Ukrainians, Russians who have relocated abroad), which would be the largest migration turnover in Russia's post-Soviet, Soviet, and pre-Soviet history.

Thousands of people are affected by labour migration (registration of long-term arrivals and departures of foreign citizens).