Russia remains the main destination country for labor migrants from Uzbekistan. 80% of the total volume of migrant remittances comes from this country. Contrary to expectations, the war between Russia and Ukraine has not caused a substantial outflow of migrants from Central Asia, but it has heightened risks, particularly for those working in the informal sector.

To take a closer look at the risks associated with labor migration, measures Uzbekistan can take to protect its citizens abroad, and the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war on Central Asian migrants, interviewed Zeynal Hajiyev, sub-regional coordinator for Central Asia at the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

In the first part of the discussion with, Zeynal Hajiyev shared the role of migrants in supporting countries with climate change adaptation, the significance of establishing legal migration routes and who stands to gain from stereotypes about migrants.

— To which countries, apart from Russia, do Uzbeks go to work?

— In addition to Russia and Kazakhstan, migrants choose countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, South Korea, Japan, and Turkey. There’s been a notable rise in the number of migrants, both legal and illegal, heading to the United States, Canada, and various European countries. Poland, in particular, has seen an increasing influx, with at least 35,000 Uzbek migrants estimated to be working there, and possibly more.

Approximately 1.8 million migrants were engaged in labor migration in 2022, according to official statistics of Uzbekistan. However, other reports suggest a higher figure, ranging from 2.5 to 3 million. It is challenging to keep the record due to the dynamic nature of migration, necessitating a comparison of data from both the receiving party and the country of origin. One of the strategic goals of the IOM’s activities in Uzbekistan is to facilitate the most accurate accounting of migrants.

— I have heard Japan does not have migrant workers since expats there have to be paid more than national employees.

— This is slightly misinterpreted, as migrants are in demand everywhere. Labor shortage is particularly notable in countries like Japan and those in northern Europe, facing an aging population and low birth rates.

The other thing is that each country has its own regulations, which may complicate access to their labor markets. What truly matters is not just the number of migrants but the conditions created for them. Recently, the United Kingdom has been gaining popularity as a destination for migrants from Uzbekistan. We are talking about several thousand people in organized seasonal work. Departures are facilitated with the support of the Agency for External Labor Migration and private employment agencies. Hiring is legal and training is executed alongside. Later, the migrants return.

international organization for migration, migrants, zeynal hajiyev, interview

We need to engage more with migrants since in labor migration, they acquire specific skills and knowledge that can be applied back home. This, for example, applies to “green technologies.” In the process of labor migration, individuals interact with technology and innovation, which can be utilized domestically if conditions are established accordingly. This represents potential for the development of the state and society.

— How many people had to return from Russia and Ukraine due to the war? What encourages them to do so?

— When Russia’s war against Ukraine started, we expected a significant migrant outflow. We anticipated sanctions would potentially affect Russia’s economy with a high inflation and a depreciation of the ruble exchange rate. We forecasted a decrease in remittances from Russia.

However, the reality turned out slightly different. The Russian economy seemingly adapted quickly to the new conditions. With the remaining need for labor resources, many migrants continued to work. The ruble stabilized in 2022.

If I am not mistaken, approximately 130,000 migrants from Uzbekistan returned home in the first three months of 2022. Though, later, migration started to recover, and we have even noticed an increase in migration to Russia from Central Asian countries in absolute numbers.

international organization for migration, migrants, zeynal hajiyev, interview

This was also attributed to the departure of many migrants from other countries, such as those in the Caucasus region, Ukraine and Moldova, when the war broke out in Russia. Additionally, the mobilization of Russian citizens and some leaving the country created job vacancies, subsequently filled by migrants from Central Asia.

Contrary to expectations of a decline in remittance levels, the opposite occurred — the volume of remittances to Uzbekistan doubled. While it accounted to $8 billion in 2021, it reached $16 billion in 2022.

It’s important to note that not all $16 billion are solely the remittances of migrants from Uzbekistan. A significant number involved relocants who came to Uzbekistan for banking operations. Nevertheless, this influx contributes to Uzbekistan’s economy.

However, in 2023, a decline has been observed. The ruble started to depreciate, albeit slightly, but it is still recorded. In the first six months of 2023, the volume of remittances decreased by 20% compared to the same period in 2022. Nonetheless, it still represents a substantial amount of money.

international organization for migration, migrants, zeynal hajiyev, interview

— How has the war between Russia and Ukraine changed the behavior of migrant workers from Uzbekistan and affected their working conditions?

— We have not conducted an in-depth study of the impact of the war on migrants from Uzbekistan. However, there are changes, particularly in the structure. While not in decisive numbers, more men have started to return home after the war began and more women leave Kyrgyzstan for labor migration. Although the situation in Uzbekistan requires further study, I wouldn’t be surprised if Uzbek families are discussing the possibility.

Men are apprehensive about being involved in military operations or engaging in construction and other work in the war zone. Of course, these risks should be voiced in the work with migrants, especially in pre-departure training. This does not imply that the war had a large-scale impact — migrants keep working, though the risks associated with being recruited for military and reconstruction work persist. Individual cases have been identified, though not extensively studied.

— Does IOM engage in efforts to prevent the recruitment of migrants for military and reconstruction work in war zones?

— Unfortunately, we have limited opportunities within Russia, including those related to financials due to sanctions regimes. Our work in Russia primarily focuses on assisting the most vulnerable groups, although it is severely restricted.

international organization for migration, migrants, zeynal hajiyev, interview

Nevertheless, when such instances arise, of course, we do provide support. However, we believe that the main focus should be on pre-departure training for migrants, encouraging them to legalize their relationships with employers.

— What are your forecasts for changes in the situation with labor migration to Russia?

— I do not anticipate a significant decrease in the number of labor migrants, although there are certain trends. This is primarily attributed to the depreciation of the ruble.

I talked to a taxi driver in Tashkent who mentioned that until 2023, he earned around $2,000 in Moscow. However, his earnings dropped to $1,000, making it unprofitable for him to stay there. He could earn a similar or slightly lower amount here, but with his family.

international organization for migration, migrants, zeynal hajiyev, interview

Certainly, not all migrants can take this route. Considering that up to 800,000 labor resources enter the Uzbek market annually, migration will remain as an option for citizens naturally. Even with the current high rates of economic growth, not everyone can be accommodated with a job.

Migration will continue to be a component of Uzbekistan’s employment policy. This underscores the necessity of working on the professional and legal training for migrants and establishing more bilateral labor relations with destination countries. While progress is being made, it is crucial to foster increased collaboration with the private sector. This is due to the private sector’s flexibility to overcome the constraints of heavy state bureaucracy.

For instance, Europe consistently requires labor. When the war erupted, Ukrainian migrants in Poland left for military service, creating vacancies. Central Asia swiftly responded. Migration serves as a litmus test, reflecting numerous changes. Of course, in this context, risks for migrants escalate, underscoring the critical need to establish more legal and secure routes.