Uzbek and Tajik migrants in Russia, September 2008. (Credit: Fred. S/Flickr)
Uzbek and Tajik migrants in Russia, September 2008. (Credit: Fred. S/Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0) (via:

When we consider that over three percent of the world’s population lives outside their country of origin, and almost half of them from less developed countries, the importance of examining migration more closely becomes apparent.[1]

This is particularly true for situations in which immigrant populations are at substantial risk of radicalisation. With this in mind, I will examine the problems posed by the large number of migrants from Central Asia currently living and working in Russia, touching upon four topics:

  1. The relationship between migration, violent extremism and social exclusion
  2. The facts about Central Asian migration to Russia
  3. Socio-cultural aspects of the migrant diaspora within Russia
  4. The role Islam plays in radicalisation

The relationship between migration, violent extremism, and social exclusion

Despite high-profile terrorist incidents carried out by Central Asian militants, including the April 2017 St. Petersburg metro bombing, the January 2017 Istanbul nightclub attack, and the June 2016 Atatürk airport bombing, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) remarks in its World Migration Report for 2018 that there is no clear evidence that Central Asian religious, economic, or political causes are responsible for “exporting” terrorism.[2]

Sergey Abashin, a leading Russian expert on Central Asian affairs, concurs, arguing that “no single factor explains why an individual would decide to join an extremist group. Many appear to have experienced isolation of some type, and this may explain why recruiters have targeted those at the margins of societies, including people working abroad.”

Abashin emphasises that “each case of radicalisation should be analysed on its own, without generalisations.” For example, although the third largest contingent of foreign fighters for the so-called Islamic State, including women and girls, comes from Central Asia, it is important to acknowledge that “of the three million Central Asian migrants in Russia, only around 5000 have gone to Syria.” Nevertheless, it remains a fact that violent extremist groups are targeting and recruiting migrants in Russia. “Migrants are not radicalised alone, but through and with social networks. The internet plays a big role; recruitment is relational rather than done in isolation.” [3]

Central Asian migration to Russia: Facts

According to data for 2015, there were 616,000 residence permit holders from Kyrgyzstan; 138,000 from Uzbekistan; 100,000 from Tajikistan, and 85,000 from Kazakhstan.[4]  But making sense of this information requires a closer look at the socio-demographic processes underway in the Eurasian portion of the former Soviet Union.

The UN predicts that by 2050 the population of Russia will decrease by 30 million, to 112 million. The population of Kazakhstan could also shrink considerably over the same period, decreasing by 1.7 million to 13.1 million. The average age of the Russian population will also increase, creating more pensioners even while the number of youth and working-age citizens declines.[5] Bearing this in mind, Russian demographic policy for the period leading up to 2025 recognises the need to attract migrant workers, while taking into account their need for social adaptation and integration.[6]

Within the smaller nations of Central Asia, by contrast, the opposite situation prevails. The population of Tajikistan is projected to swell from 8.1 million in 2014 to 10.4 million by 2050, including a working-age population of 6.6 million; that of Turkmenistan from 5.1 million in 2013 to 6.8 million in 2050; and that of Kyrgyzstan from about 5.5 million to 6.7 million.

Even before these population increases materialise, unemployment is already a significant problem. In 2014, 640,000 people were out of work in Uzbekistan; 471,000 in Kazakhstan; 241,000 in Tajikistan; and 206,000 in Kyrgyzstan. While Kazakhstan and Russia had the lowest levels of unemployment in the region in 2013, at 5.2% and 5.5% respectively, Kyrgyzstan’s rate stood at 8.4% and Tajikistan, the highest, at 11.6%, with rural residents suffering the most from this lack of jobs. Even if economic development were to accelerate in this region, none of these nations countries would be able to employ all of their working age citizens.[7]

Nor would greater employment in Central Asia translate to economic security. In absolute terms, Russia and Kazakhstan offer the highest average monthly wages, at $689 and $526 respectively. By contrast, Tajikistan offers the lowest average monthly wage at just $81, while the average in Kyrgyzstan is $155. Together with unemployment levels, these discrepancies in pay largely explain migration trends throughout the region.

Migrants from Central Asia have maintained an impressive remittance rate. For 2016, the total volume of remittances sent by migrants from Russia to Kyrgyzstan was $1.7 billion, ranking third among the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), after Uzbekistan with $2.7 billion and Tajikistan with $1.9 billion.[8] If we compute remittances in terms of GDP, Kyrgyzstan occupies second place (30%) in the CIS after Tajikistan (50%). In Uzbekistan, by contrast, which has a much more developed economy, migrants’ remittances account for only 5% of GDP.[9]

If we compare the remittances sent by migrants to direct foreign investment, over the past year the volume of FDI in Kyrgyzstan’s economy was $654.6 million. Thus, migrants transferred to their homeland almost three-fold more than foreign businesses and banks invested in the country.[10]Over the past five years, Kyrgyz labour migrants have transferred back home an amount equivalent to one-and-a-half times the GDP. This amount is almost equal to the total revenue in the country’s budget for 2016.[11]

To sum up, these statistics demonstrate that migration can be a win-win situation. More generally, they also suggest that migration between Central Asia and Russia appears to be motivated by the same factors as in other parts of our world or, as the IMO report puts it, “a dynamic and multidimensional process driven by unequal power relationships interacting across four primary dimensions – economic, political, social and cultural – and at different levels including individual, household, group, community, country and global levels. The overall process results in a continuum of inclusion/exclusion conditions characterised by unequal access to resources, capabilities and rights, which then leads to inequalities.[12]

Socio-cultural aspects of the migrant diaspora in Russia

Let’s add to this picture of migrant life in Russia some obstacles to socio-cultural adaptation I observed in the Central Federal District of Russia.

First, the overwhelming majority of legal migrants are affected by restrictions on their potential employment, which lead them to take on work that is both less profitable and more difficult. As a result, they live under poor conditions, receive much lower wages, and suffer both exploitation at the hands of employers and violations of their human rights from all quarters. Russian businesses, from small to large, simply desire cheap labour, and, with few exceptions, do not invest their excess profits into social projects aimed at integrating migrants into society. Moreover, such employers assume no responsibility for providing health insurance or access to social services for their migrant employees.[13]

Second, migrants have their own languages, customs, and values, resulting in a worldview that differs markedly from that of the average Russian. This difference, in turn, is revealed in behaviours that make migrants stand out, making it easier to discriminate against them. For example, in the sphere of renting or purchasing housing, advertisements often contain ethnic restrictions that exclude them. And the less opportunity immigrant minorities have for integration into the everyday life of their communities, the greater their ‘insularity’. In a sense, migrants live an island existence, cut off from the rest of society.

Third, Russian experts have determined that migrants’ primary diasporic identification is not with their homelands, but Islam. Nationality becomes a secondary feature.[14] This also explains the significant role mosques play. They are not just places for praying, but also provide migrants with help in finding a job or housing. At the same time, migrants who do not participate actively in such religious activity are held up as an example of what can happen when strict adherence to tradition is abandoned. Islamist recruiters frequent mosques, halal cafes, and bazaars to spread warnings about such rootless behaviour. This message reinforces the role mosques play in making it easier for migrants to function in Russian society, even as they are divided from other Russians culturally.

The role Islam plays in radicalisation

Religious radicalisation and extremism among Muslim migrants result from the interplay between negative life experiences, insufficient governance, the xenophobia directed their way, and extremist indoctrination connected with violence by external Islamists.

Bearing this in mind, my recommendation for policymakers coincides with the one provided by the IOM report:

“To conclude on a positive note, it may be possible also to conceive migration as part of a potential solution to violent extremism. There is a real risk that focusing on migration and displacement only as a cause or consequence of violent extremism will simply exacerbate the threat. This focus may become an excuse to restrict the entry of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees; to limit their rights; to force people to return to unsafe situations in their home countries. A focus on solutions, in contrast, can show how a rights-based approach to migration and displaced persons can be an integral component of the global effort to prevent violent extremism. Policymakers have to promote the positive aspects of migration, rather than merely focusing on the low potential risk of importing violent extremists when offering opportunities to migrants and protection to refugees.”[15]



[1] Naronskaya Anna, Polyakova Victoria, IMMIGRANT INTEGRATION IN CONTEMPORARY RUSSIA, Proceedings of INTCESS 2017 4th International Conference on Education and Social Sciences 6-8 February 2017, Istanbul, Turkey,, p 663

[2]International Organization for Migration, IOM World Migration Report 2018, Geneva 2017, Chapter 9, Radicalization among Central Asia’s migrants, p 11, p

[3] Sergey Abashin – Central Asian Migrants in Russia: Will there be a Religious Radicalization?, Central Asian Program, 24 April, 2017,

[4] Statistics are drawn from the IOM World Migration Report for 2018. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan are particularly dependent  on migrant labour, 29.05.2017,,


[6] IOM, p 177.

[7] Ryazantsev, p 17.

[8] See FN 5.

[9] ibid

[10] ibid

[11] ibid

[12] IMO, p 216


[14] Ж.С.Сыздыкова, Проблемы социально – культурной адаптации мигрантов из Центральной Азии в Российской Федерации, Аналитическое управление Аппарата Совета Федерации, АНАЛИТИЧЕСКИЙ ВЕСТНИК No 19 (676), Процессы в миграционной сфере и перспективы евразийской интеграции: опыт регионов, стр. 30.

[15] IOM, chapter 9, p 42