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Central Asians Prod Russia Over Deteriorating Migration Environment

Migrant laborers work at a market in Moscow in 2021.
Migrant laborers work at a market in Moscow in 2021.

ALMATY – More than three months after a deadly attack on a concert hall near Moscow prompted a crackdown on Russia’s Central Asian migrant populations, governments of the region are asking their ally for some relief.

But is Moscow taking heed, or doubling down?

Xenophobia and calls for tougher migration rules are not new to Russia, but popular demand for immediate action spiked after 11 Tajik men were arrested for their alleged involvement in the attack on the Crocus City Hall concert venue in March that left 144 people dead.

For the moment, increased pressure on migrants has taken a mostly arbitrary form – more police raids, more deportations, and multiday delays for groups of migrants arriving at Russia’s borders.

It is not so much that the law is needed because of Crocus, but rather that something like Crocus was needed to pass this law.”
-- Valentina Chupik, lawyer and migrant rights advocate

But migrant rights advocates are now focusing their attention on a new threat: a draft law that passed a first reading last month and could expand police powers over guest workers that Russia’s undersupplied labor market desperately needs.

That, in turn, would create fresh risks for Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – three Central Asian countries where billions of dollars in annual remittances from Russia keep millions of poor families afloat.

If official comments are anything to go by, all three are worried.

Law Would Make 'Defending Migrants Impossible'

Many of the proposed amendments to the tough migration legislation that Russia’s State Duma passed in the first of three readings on June 18 were drafted years ago.

But it is the Crocus attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) extremist group – the deadliest attack of its kind on Russian soil in two decades – that has fueled serious discussion of the discriminatory changes.

One ominous stipulation would require guest workers entering the country to sign a “loyalty agreement” that entails acceptance of limited rights. This document covers a wide range of points, including respect for Russian national traditions, a pledge not to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs, and an acknowledgment that foreign nationals can be deported for administrative violations.

Such an agreement makes “defending migrants impossible,” according to Valentina Chupik, an Uzbekistan-born lawyer and migrant rights advocate who has continued to work on behalf of Russia’s guest workers despite being barred from Russia herself in 2021.

Russian police rounding up hundreds of Tajik migrants in June 2023.
Russian police rounding up hundreds of Tajik migrants in June 2023.

Even more alarming, said Chupik, is the “registry of controlled persons” that the law envisages, which would allow police to impose extrajudicial house arrests on migrants and cut off their access to government services.

“Migrants can fall onto this list merely by being under suspicion of having committed an administrative detention or because their employers did not pay their tax payments on their behalf. There are at least seven pretexts for such arrests in the text, but in reality the number of pretexts can be endless,” said Chupik, who said she first saw a copy of the amendments in 2019.

“It was obvious then that its main function is police corruption. So it is not so much that the law is needed because of Crocus, but rather that something like Crocus was needed to pass this law,” said Chupik, who ran a migrant center in Moscow before Russia revoked her refugee status and banned her from the country.

Russia’s Interior Ministry originally authored the amendments. And Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev made no apologies for Moscow’s hardening stance on migration during a recent work trip to Tashkent.

After holding talks with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev on June 25, the Interior Ministry said that Kolokoltsev had “assured” Mirziyoev that there were no “political or other motivations” in authorities’ targeting of Uzbek nationals.

In a meeting with the Uzbek Interior Ministry’s leadership the same day, Kolokoltsev asked Tashkent to intensify cooperation with Russia on the exchange of citizens’ data to help reduce “negative trends” in migration and ensure the security of both states.

Kolokoltsev’s visit came around a week after Uzbekistan’s embassy in Moscow said that it had sent a note to the Russian Foreign Ministry inquiring about “additional and excessively lengthy checks” on Uzbek nationals trying to enter Russia via Moscow’s Domodedovo airport.

'A Very Sensitive Issue'

This is a clear change of tune on Tashkent’s part.

At the beginning of May, Uzbekistan’s external labor migration agency refuted reports of Uzbeks being turned back at Russia’s borders.

On May 27, however, Mirziyoev flagged migration after talks with Vladimir Putin, claiming the Russian president had “supported my proposals on this sensitive issue” during their bilateral meeting in the Uzbek capital.

The leaders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, whose countries send fewer migrants to Russia in absolute terms than Uzbekistan but are more dependent on migrants’ money transfers, have also raised the topic.

Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon called migration “a very sensitive issue for us and one of the main issues” for talks with Putin in Moscow on May 9. Earlier this week, a group of migrants from Tajikistan complained to RFE/RL’s Tajik Service of being stuck for a fifth day at Russia’s land border with Kazakhstan, which they were using as a transit country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon at a meeting in Astana in 2022
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon at a meeting in Astana in 2022

Migrants from Kyrgyzstan enjoy certain preferences in Russia over their Tajik and Uzbek counterparts, owing to their country’s status as one of five members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

But Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov said during a meeting of EEU heads of states on May 9 that the union’s agreements relating to worker mobility were not being respected. This risked “serious damage to the image of our association,” Japarov said.

These signals of frustration – and the potential ramifications of changes to Russia’s migration framework – contrasted strongly with the sunny assessment of Russian Ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova at a June 27 meeting in Moscow of the human rights commission of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), another regional grouping where Russian influence is strong.

“An analysis of the [CIS] countries' legislation showed that they are largely synchronized in terms of creating favorable conditions for the work of foreign workers,” said Moskalkova, who is under U.S. and EU sanctions in connection with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“However, [participants] noted that there remain bottlenecks in ensuring the rights of migrants that need to be resolved and that the commission will continue to work on,” Moskalkova added in a summary of the meeting. “The main goal is to offer legal protection mechanisms in which the citizens of our states and everyone located in the commonwealth feel socially protected.”

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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