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Russia: Moscow Conference Focuses On Labor Migration Between Central Asia And The West

  • Jeremy Bransten

Tajik migrant workers in Russia A three-day conference focusing on labor migration between Central Asia and Eastern Europe ended in Moscow yesterday. Organized by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and attended by representatives from CIS countries, the EU and the United States, the meeting was part of a larger effort to create an eventual "road map" to manage the flow of migrants traveling West each year -- mostly to Russia.

Prague, 25 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Every year, Russia’s permanent population shrinks by almost 750,000 people. According to government statistics, 1 million industrial jobs are already unfilled -- even though salaries continue to rise.

Economists agree that in a few short years, the country’s current economic upswing will come to a crashing halt unless the trend reverses.

On the other hand, millions of workers from Central Asia, as well as the Caucasus, Moldova, and Ukraine, are leaving their countries, in search of jobs.

It sounds like a perfect match. At least that is what the IOM believes. Many officials in the Russian government increasingly agree.

Claus Folden, the IOM’s technical coordinator, tells RFE/RL he is glad the point is getting across. The message of the Moscow conference, he says, is that the migration of workers cannot be avoided. It should, in fact, be welcomed by governments like Russia’s and facilitated.

"That's again and again what we are telling governments. And what governments, of course, nowadays understand, is that migration is a phenomenon that will not go away. And in this case -- in Russia, for instance -- you need it. So, you better start managing it. That's they key word -- managing migration," Folden says.

It may surprise some to know that Russia, after the United States and Germany, is the world’s third-leading destination for immigrants.

Currently, there are an estimated 3 to 4 million foreign workers -- mostly from the CIS -- working in Russia. Thanks to this influx, the economic impact of Russia’s plummeting birth rates and rising mortality rate has not been felt dramatically.

But it will be soon, say experts, unless Russia takes better care of the migrant workers it currently hosts and makes a serious effort to welcome millions more in the near future.

More than half the migrant workers in Russia -- primarily from Central Asia, the Caucasus, Ukraine and Moldova -- are unregistered. They live and work in often abysmal conditions, enjoy no protections from law enforcement authorities -- although, conversely, they do pay taxes.

Zhanna Zayonchkovskaya is director of the Migration Laboratory at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Economic Forecasting. She says this situation hurts both the workers and the Russian state. It feeds corruption and organized crime.

The government, she says, is preparing major changes, including a possible amnesty to legalize the status of migrant workers. But there are many obstacles. Right now, the complicated bureaucracy required to obtain work and resident permits leaves migrants at the mercy of corrupt officials. The situation with prospective employers is often not much better.

"[We are far behind] in creating [adequate] conditions for migrant workers, in the employment sector and in the housing sector. We still have very weak controls over employers and many employers do not observe even minimal standards for their work forces. Workers often live in sheds, in accommodations that haven't been adapted at all, or in cellars, so the police don't see them," Zayonchkovskaya says.

If Russia is to adopt a pro-immigration policy, she adds, key issues still need to be resolved:

"A new concept and new programs are now being prepared. I know the work is very intensive, but there are no final documents yet. I can't say officially which decision has been taken: in favor of temporary migrants or in favor of permanent immigrants. My view of course is that we should make permanent immigration a priority," Zayonchkovskaya says.

Russia, she argues, will soon require millions of new workers. The most immediate need will be felt in the blue collar sector, but not only. For Russians uncomfortable with the idea of millions of “foreigners” as their neighbors and work colleagues, she has this to say.

"Right now, for example, we are going to be forced to close schools because there are not enough students. In the first grade, there are twice as few students as in the eighth grade [on average]. And every year, [the number of new students] goes down. So we won't need so many schools. And then we won't need so many higher education institutions, and then we won't need so many enterprises. So who is going to earn money for pensions? If you explain to people that their choice is not going to be 'Are you prepared to tolerate foreign workers or not?' but rather: 'Are you prepared to have your pensions not grow or even shrink?'” Zayonchkovskaya says.

Folden, of the IOM, says Russians -- in this respect -- are luckier than their West European counterparts and should have less reason to be concerned about being able to integrate a new wave of immigrants.

"For Russia it's also a little bit different because it was [part of the] Soviet Union. And a lot of the labor migrants that are in Russia or coming to Russia are actually former fellow-citizens. And therefore, for instance, you don't have a language barrier. You have basically, in many senses, historically, the same culture," Folden says.

Managed migration could benefit everyone, he says: the destination country, the migrants themselves, and the countries they leave behind. He cites the case of Tajikistan, where the IOM is working to ensure remittances sent by migrant workers are used to maximum benefit.

"By them being abroad, they are sending their remittances back to Tajikistan and thereby stimulating the Tajik economy. And what we are doing, and other international organizations are doing as well, is also trying to target these remittances, so that they do not only go into the ordinary economy of households. For instance [one option is] making microcredit schemes so you pair, for instance, the remittances being sent back to a family with a so-called microcredit loan, so that they can make more business investments back in Tajikistan, thereby helping the economy overall," Folden says.

Demographers say that given current trends all over Europe, many countries may soon be competing for migrant workers -- quite a change from today’s general climate of hostility to immigration.

See also:

Migrant Dangers And Dreams
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