Under Pressure, Central Asia Migrants Leaving Russia Over Ukraine War

After living and working in Russia for the last decade, Tajik construction worker Zoir Kurbanov recently decided it was time to head home.

Life for many Central Asian migrants in Russia after it invaded Ukraine was not the same: wages were falling and men faced a danger of being sent by Moscow to the front.

Then, Kurbanov got an offer for jobs on building sites in Mariupol and Donetsk — cities in occupied Ukraine.

“I refused,” the 39-year-old said.

He decided to take a huge pay cut and return home to Tajikistan “because of the war,” taking up a construction job in the capital, Dushanbe.

Russia is increasingly trying to lure Central Asian migrants to work in the parts of Ukraine it occupies, or even to sign up to fight for its army.

While some 1.3 million still migrated to Russia from Central Asia in the first quarter of 2023, some are choosing to leave, rather than be coerced to go to Ukraine.

Moscow is offering high salaries, social benefits and even promises of citizenship to work in places like Mariupol, virtually flattened by the Russian army last year.

Meanwhile, enlistment offices and recruitment campaigns are trying to entice them to join the Russian army.

While there are no exact numbers on how many migrant workers have left Russia – or the numbers sent to work in Ukraine or recruited to the army – Kurbanov’s case is not an exception.

‘Police everywhere’

If offers of bumper paychecks don’t work, Russian authorities have other means of coercing migrants to the front.

“The Russian police were checking me everywhere, asking if I had done my military service,” said Argen Bolgonbekov, a 29-year-old who served in the Kygryz border force.

What starts as a document check can often escalate, he said. On the pretext of uncovering some kind of offense – real or fabricated – Russian authorities sometimes offer migrants a stark choice: prison or the army.

“In Russia, where there are problems with human rights and workers’ rights, migrants are vulnerable. It’s easier to fool them,” Batyr Shermukhammad, an Uzbek journalist who specializes in migration issues, told AFP.

Street searches and police raids of dormitories and work sites were a common feature of life for Central Asian migrants in Russia even before the war. But the invasion has added a new element of risk.

Bolgonbekov was relieved to have just been deported to Kyrgyzstan after police found irregularities with his documents.

“It’s a good thing, because over there you couldn’t walk around in peace anymore,” he said, speaking to AFP at a textile workshop in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.

Farhodzhon Umirzakov, an Uzbek who worked in Russia for six years before he was also deported, said he was “worn down” by the climate there.

“The pressure on migrants increased. We were disrespected. There were more and more raids – even in mosques people were being arrested,” the 35-year-old told AFP.

He said an Uzbek he knew was sentenced to 12 years in prison for drug trafficking and ended up in the army fighting in Ukraine.

Independent media outlets in Central Asia have also reported similar cases.

‘Russia needs soldiers’

Russia is no longer hiding its targeting of migrants for military service.

Earlier this year, lawmaker Mikhail Matveyev called for Central Asians who have recently been granted Russian citizenship to be drafted instead of ethnic Russians.

“Why are they not mobilized? Where are the Tajik battalions? There is a war going on, Russia needs soldiers. Welcome to our citizenship,” he said in a post on Telegram.

War propaganda uses Soviet imagery of the victory over Nazi Germany, in which Central Asians fought for the Red Army.

Earlier this month, the Russian region of Vladimir published a recruitment video showing two men it said were Tajik doctors talking about their decision to go and fight at the front. In the video they called on their compatriots to “follow our example.”

In another video, an Uzbek man said he joined the army because “Russia is a bulwark. If it falls, our countries will fall too.”

The campaigns have not sat well with governments in Central Asia.

Although economically dependent on Moscow, they are striving to maintain their sovereignty and regularly call on their citizens not to take part in the war.

Despite the escalating pressure, Russia “remains the priority destination” for Central Asian workers, said journalist Shermukhammad.

There is no other country where migrants can go “without a visa, speak Russian and earn money,” he said.

Kurbanov, the Tajik construction worker who recently returned home, agreed.

“If the war ends tomorrow, I’ll go back to Russia the day after,” he said.


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