Nowhere to turn: The Central Asian migrants caught up in Russia’s war5 min read
As Russia nears two and half years of waging its brutal war against Ukraine, it is starting to run out of willing recruits to serve on the front lines. To solve this problem, Russia has turned to one of its most vulnerable populations: Central Asian migrants. With promises of citizenship and higher wages, many have decided to take up arms. However, many more are finding themselves in an impossible situation, having to decide between risking mobilisation or returning home to even worse circumstances than when they left.
On 21 September 2022, Russia announced a partial mobilisation of citizens, resulting in over 200,000 men being drafted into the military. At that point, the war had been going on for a little over a year and half, and since then, Russia has experienced even more losses, increasing the demand for more troops. Thousands have fled Russia to Central Asia to avoid being sent to Ukraine, but surprisingly, many more have moved to Russia from Central Asia.
In 2023, there was a nearly 72% increase in the number of migrants coming from Uzbekistan. There were similar increases in the numbers coming from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. This contrasts greatly to the significant dip in number seen in 2022 close to the start of the war. Surprisingly, the number of Central Asians receiving Russian citizenship has also grown significantly in 2023, despite the threat of conscription. Tajikistan is currently the only country that Russia will recognize dual-citizenship with, providing some protection from mobilisation; however, others from the region still think the benefits of living in Russia outweigh the risk of military service.
The price of citizenship
In the last year, Russia has continued to streamline processes to allow even more Central Asian migrants to work there, reflecting the growing need for labourers as well as new recruits. In November 2022, Russia lifted a ban on restricting the number of Uzbek workers that could be employed in specific sectors at one time. Just a few months prior, Russia passed a law shortening the amount of time needed to serve in the military before being able to pursue citizenship from three years to one.
Along with this new legislation, Russia launched an aggressive campaign to lure more men towards conscription. Signs in Kyrygz, Tajik, and Uzbek can be found across the country propagating this new streamlined path towards citizenship. Recruiters have also been targeting migration centres, mosques, and dormitories. A military recruitment office was even opened directly across from Moscow’s largest migration centre.
Recruiters have also turned to far seedier methods by targeting convicts to meet their quotas. The infamous Wagner group alone has coerced over 35,000 prisoners to fight on the front lines in Ukraine. However, it is important to note that they are not just targeting Central Asians, but seemingly anyone they can find who would be willing to fight for 6 months in exchange for an early release. Reports have shown that many prisoners are also been conscripted through more brutal forms of coercion, including torture.
Two sides to the region
Others have not needed as much coaxing. There are many in Central Asia who support the war-effort in Ukraine, especially those with sole access to pro-Russian news reports. Given that over half the population of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan regularly consume Russian media, this number might be higher than many in the West might expect. In a rare poll conducted by the Central Asia Barometer surveying Kazakh attitudes towards Russia, 87% of respondents answered that they still had positive views towards Russia despite the ongoing war.
However, others have felt strongly enough to fight for Ukraine, such as those in the Turan Turkic Legion. No matter which side they fight on, any action in Ukraine could mean potential jail time for fighting in a foreign war. Last month, a Kyrgyz citizen was sentenced to 10 years in prison for fighting for Russia in Ukraine. Similar laws are in place for citizens of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The decision to fight despite these risks starkly highlights the desperate situation that many Central Asians find themselves in.
Nothing to return to
The war in Ukraine has had deleterious knock-on effects for Central Asian countries. The economic fallout from Russian sanctions has led to rising prices and unstable currency values. This has been devastating for those in the region still recovering financially from the pandemic. Russians fleeing to the region have deepened these wounds, as rent prices have nearly doubled in the areas where they have settled. Together, these factors explain why the number of those risking the move to Russia has continued to rise.
Those who have chosen to return home have typically been met with a harsh reality. According to a study by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), “migrants admitted to having experienced numerous potentially traumatic events, elevated levels of stress, signs of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, but had little access to mental health services.” The contributing factors to this are many: lack of job security, weakened familial ties, as well as racism and hate crimes experienced in Russia. This psychological strain has likely mounted with exposure to pushy recruiters and increased pressure to send more money home amid rising costs.
This impossible situation has even led some to travel to Mexico, where they try to cross illegally into the United States. For those with Russian passports, there is no visa needed to travel into Mexico. However, those with citizenship only from one of the Central Asia countries must travel even farther south to Brazil in the hopes of making it to the Mexican border. Those who are caught face deportation and a 5-year ban from the country. In the face of these obstacles, many still find this a better option than staying in their unstable region.
As the war in Ukraine continues to drag on with no end in sight, Russia is likely to become even more aggressive in its search for more recruits. While this has so far not stemmed the wave of migration from Central Asia, this could have serious implications for those trying to weigh their options. In the meantime, more attention should be paid to how to support these migrants and how to develop more positive opportunities and resources for them at home and abroad.