Over the past decade Russia's labour market has attracted millions of seasonal workers from Central Asian republics. The increase in labour migration to Russia has led to a large increase in the number of social and cultural “outcasts” in Russian society. The number of migrants from Central Asia has grown over the last ten years and corresponded with the boom in the Russian economy during 2000s. The improvement in the Russian economy was the primary incentive for unemployed Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Tajiks to seek out job opportunities in developing Russian cities.
According to media reports, more than 3.2 million Central Asian workers were resident in Russia this January. A significant number of them work illegally in the service and construction industries. These labour migrants are one of the most vulnerable groups of people in Russia when it comes to exploitation and abuse at the hands of their employers and even the Russian police. Many cases of mistreatment go unreported because these workers do not want to bring attention to their illegal status in the country. The average migrant worker is a young male aged 20 to 30 years old, who moves to Russia alone and leaves his family at home. Most of them come from Central Asia's impoverished rural provinces and many have only a poor command of the Russian language.
Russia’s Civic Assistance Committee, which has been investigating the integration of seasonal workers into Russian society, stated that the majority of Central Asian natives find themselves in conditions that could be described as “factual slavery”. Migrants have to deal with “intricate laws for temporary stay, massive violation of fundamental rights, hostile law enforcement and hate crimes against ethnic groups”, according to the Committee. A study on human trafficking and labour exploitation confirmed the “number of migrant workers in a situation of slavery at around 600,000, or 20 percent of all migrant workers in Russia”.
Once in Russia, migrants from Central Asia mostly work on construction projects and in market places, often on a seasonal basis. It’s very difficult for Central Asians to register and receive proper documentation in Russian cities. A lack of documentation means that they do not have access to health care or other social services. Being undocumented also makes migrants more vulnerable to abusive employers, who routinely exploit Central Asian labourers. Russian employers often prefer to hire illegal workers because of they can pay them lower wages.
Central Asian migrants also face discrimination in the housing market and unfair treatment when they attempt to access social services. Often they are abused by the Russian police and are subject to violent attacks, including hate crimes committed by far-right nationalist groups. Xenophobia against migrants in Russia is a widespread phenomenon and more than half of Russian citizens admit to perceiving non-Slavic workers negatively, according to Levada Center polling agency. However, the Sakharov Centre and hate crime watchdog “Sova” believe that negative sentiment against migrants in Russia has largely disappeared from the public view since the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine.
In such a hostile environment, migrants tend to look for protection by uniting with other minority ethnic groups from Central Asia, or with people who share the same religion of Islam. Likewise, Central Asian natives experience a change in their identity while they are away from their homeland that disrupts social order and family life in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyz Republic. Many begin to practice religion in Russia. Even if they didn’t practice in their homeland, evidence shows that on many occasions migrants“find their religion” in Russia. Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz who may have nominally attended the mosque in their home countries, begin to affiliate themselves more closely with religious institutions in Russia as a means of socialising with others, including Muslims from the North Caucasus and other Russian regions.
Eventually, Islam becomes an important part of daily life for many of these migrants because it allows them to create a new identity and, at the same time, feel as if they belong to a community that can understand and support them. In this search for identity Tajik, Kyrgyz and Uzbek seasonal workers often find themselves in an unusual environment that makes it easy for North Caucasian jihadist networks to recruit them.
Recruitment of migrants in Russian cities has become a big concern in Central Asia. In November 2014, the director of the National Security Committee of Tajikistan complained that the majority of Tajiks now fighting in Syria, were recruited while working in Russia. One Tajik state security official specifically referred to a mosque in Moscow that according to him has been one of the main recruitment locations.
The very same mosque has also been reported on by media outlets after public accounts that it was being used for alleged recruitment of Central Asian migrants by Salafi jihadist networks. The case of the Tajik citizen Nusrat Nazarov, who joined ISIS after leaving Al Nusrah, has shown that Russia's capital has turned into a hotbed for recruitment of migrants by radical elements. Nazarov's sibling told the press that it was Moscow where his brother was radicalised: “My brother Nusrat said that in Moscow he had met Chechens at the mosque on Mira prospekt who opened his eyes to pure Islam. Everyone who comes from Moscow now says that Chechens come to the mosques and construction sites to explain migrants that they have to go to Syria where the caliphate is. In the Islamic State they are promised both money and freedom”, said the Tajik militant's brother.
It was reported by some that close to 2,700 Russian nationals and approximately 2,000 Central Asians were fighting in Syria. However, it is difficult to verify the exact number of fighters in the conflict zone. In the absence of alternative figures, experts and researchers widely use available data from official sources. New figures from the Russian president suggested that up to 7,000 recruits from Russia and post-Soviet states are taking part in the Syrian conflict. Official numbers suggest that recruitment activities have contributed to the growing presence of Russian and Central Asian nationals in Syria. Meanwhile, reports from Russia remind us that marginalised Central Asian labourers are continuously lured in by Islamic fundamentalist narratives that have been promoted among Russian extremist groups. Recruiters in Russia’s mosques and on the internet promise migrants employment in Syria and a better standard of life.
To tackle this trend, policy makers in the West can cooperate with regional counterparts to address underlying concerns. Firstly, European, Russian and Central Asian governments as well as global organisations could come together to implement policies in the post-Soviet states which would develop better conditions and a better social environment for migrants in Russia. Improvements are necessary to modify Russia's state registration system for guest workers because it is a barrier for migrants who are seeking access to medical care, housing and education. European and Central Asian governments should encourage Russia to remove its administrative obstacles for seasonal workers and to decriminalise its labour market which would promote more transparency.
The complexity of existing concerns is also exacerbated by the fact that the Russian Federation doesn't appear to have a state policy or programmes to promote integration of migrants into the society. Russian NGO Civic Assistance Committee told ECFR that there are only six social centres in Moscow where migrants can learn the Russian language. The longevity of these assistance programs has come under question due to a shortage of funding in light of the financial crisis in Russia. Brussels could step in to support Russian NGOs that are providing essential knowledge and services to Central Asian migrants. The EU could also team up with Central Asian governments to bolster the voices of moderate Islamic leaders in both Russia and Central Asia to counter extremist religious propaganda. The EU and Russia can also be productive in Central Asia where international development initiatives have been implemented to reduce widespread poverty in the weakest states – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Marta Ter is a researcher at Observatorio Eurasia and she is the coordinator of an awareness-raising campaign on Human Rights violations in the North Caucasus, in the NGO Lliga dels Drets dels Pobles.
Ryskeldi Satke is a contributing writer and researcher with news organizations and think-tanks in East and Central Asia, Turkey, EU and the US.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.