Migration policy has become a global issue. Pro-asylum seeker graffiti, Tel Aviv. (Credit: Joel Schalit/Flickr)

“There is nothing permanent except change” wrote Greek philosopher Heraclitus. The world is currently being transformed at an accelerated rate, involving more and more of the population as globalisation intensifies and permeates nearly every aspect of our lives. One area of change that is of particular importance – due to its complexity, fluidity, and the difficulty for authorities to control or regulate it– is migration. The multidirectional flow of humans across regions has always been an integral part of global processes and the development of humanity. However currently migration patterns have been amplified and altered by war, humanitarian disasters, political repression. State borders, jurisdictions, policies, and cultural identities are all being tested by endless interactions between various groups of people. Migration is a serious challenge that governments must address due to economic, political, and humanitarian interests, as well as security concerns. Of particular interest to this paper are migratory flows in and into Europe, and migration into the Russian Federation and within the broader post-Soviet, Eurasian space.

 Migration trends

We live in the age of mass migration. The number of migrants in the world is constantly growing: according to the United Nations, 258 million people migrated in 2017, which is by 49% more than in 2000. What is particularly interesting is the fact that around 62% of all migrants are concentrated in Eurasia, though an estimated 70% of the world’s population lives in the region. This indicates that transcontinental migration channels are bit more intensive than migration within Eurasia.

The majority of migrants in the world are the so-called ‘economic migrants’: people, who changed their place of residence to earn a better living. Economic migration has a clear pattern: as a rule, the countries of origin are politically unstable states of global ‘South’ with low standards of living. In 2017, migrants from outside of Europe accounted for 10% of the European population, while two thirds of all migrants in the world live in 20 developed countries[1]. According to the UN, the top three destination countries for migrants are the United States, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. The US by far has the most immigrants in the world, at 49.8 million, while Germany and Saudi Arabia both have 12.2 million immigrants each[2]. The Russian Federation takes fourth place with 11.7 million immigrants[3]. Notably, for nearly fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, from 1991 to 2005, Russia was the second country in the world in the number of immigrants, according to the UN[4].

Sending and receiving countries have varying interests when it comes to migration. Developed countries are interested in the inflow of migrants because it helps to mitigate the consequences of demographic decline, population ageing, and labour shortages in entire sectors of a national economy. In developed countries, migrants fill empty positions in both low-skilled, low paying job sectors, as well as in highly-qualified and (primarily tech-related) labour markets. In contrast, developing countries are interested in migration as a source of income in the form of remittances. For example, in 2016, migrant workers transferred $575 billion to their countries of citizenship.[5] Migrant remittances have become an irreplaceable income source for tens of millions of households, at least partially alleviating economic issues in poorer countries.

Migration also acts as a bridge for the transfer of social, scientific, and technological achievements to developing countries[6]. Moreover, emigration to developed countries can reduce ‘demographic pressure’ on the countries of origin by opening up more job opportunities for those of working age who remain; in 2017, 74% of migrants moving abroad were of working age[7].

Based on these general observations, let us consider the nuances that are critically important for a more in-depth analysis of the situation:

  1. Despite the seemingly high numbers of international migrants (those crossing national borders) the number worldwide is stable and relatively low at 3.4%; more than 96% of the world’s population remains within their countries of origin[8]. Thus, the overwhelming majority of migration is internal and related to rapid urbanisation and other domestic factors.
  2. The most significant migration corridors are logically located in Eurasia and the Americas: within Asia (63 million people); within Europe (41 million people); Latin America to North America (26 million people); Asia to Europe (20 million people); Europe to Asia (7 million people). The Western and Eastern hemispheres are also connected by significant ‘bridges of migration’: Asia to North America (17 million people) and Europe to North America (8 million people). By comparison, Africa to Africa migration is at 20 million people, and Africa to Europe, 9 million people. Thus, world migration is not as chaotic as it may seem, if one considers that migration processes fit well into civilisational zones of influence, interconnected by powerful migration ‘highways’.
  3. Shifting national borders and the dissolution of former blocs can also impact the way we view international migration. As previously mentioned, Russia has the fourth largest migrant populations, most of which come from former Soviet Republics[9]. The post-Soviet space still exists as a bloc in phantom form – a ‘migration space’. Preservation of the historically inherited migration space is an important task for former empires that continue their phantom existence and sphere of influence. The hope to recreate a lost (civilisational) unity based on well-established socioeconomic relations drives many geopolitical integration projects not only in the Eurasian space.
  4. Usually it is clearly delineated which countries are ‘sending’ and which ones are ‘receiving’. Currently though, we are witnessing that these designations can be somewhat problematic given the multidirectional flows of migration. Russia is the country of origin for many EU-bound migrants, particularly those headed for Germany. At the same time, Russia is one of the top receiving states from other countries.
  5. The roles of certain states in migration processes also change depending upon the context. For example, Kazakhstan has recently become a receiving country within the space of the Eurasian Economic Union, and Poland is undergoing the same process of shifting from a sending to receiving country within the European Union space. Major projects, aimed at the use of migrant labour, help the countries to move up in the ‘migration hierarchy’, providing the most successful ones with additional levers of socioeconomic and cultural influence in the world. Before our eyes, cross-border migration is increasingly relevant within the international relations sphere, as the fight between countries for human resources and cultural influence may now be more important than the fight for natural resources.

The European context 

Repressive regimes in the Middle East, the civil wars in Libya and Syria, actions of terrorist groups and conflicts across parts of Africa and South Asia constitute a series of large-scale catastrophes that have provoked one of the most serious refugee crises since the World War II. According to data from UNHCR, in early 2016 the number of forced migrants worldwide exceeded 65 million. Only 5% of them made their way towards Europe, overwhelmingly through the Mediterranean and Balkan corridors[10].

The EU had faced influxes of refugees before, especially during the early to mid-1990s following the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian war. However, the refugees now seeking asylum in the EU are mainly of non-European origin (Arab, African, Afghani, etc.), which has been raising questions of integration, and in the worst cases, exposing latent xenophobic tendencies. Many entered the EU illegally, violating the border control regime with the ‘assistance’ of human traffickers, who kept developing new routes to circumvent the authorities. Moreover, more recent members of the EU (Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltic states) had to act as receiving countries for the first time, although previously they had been a source of immigrants. That said, the refugees still regarded Germany, France, the UK, and the Scandinavian countries as the major countries of destination.

In absolute terms, the situation was as follows: in 2015, about 2.7 million people migrated to Europe. In early 2016 no less than 20.7 million foreign citizens lived in EU countries (about 4% of the total population), and around 19 million people migrated within the EU (mostly citizens of Romania, Poland, Italy, Portugal, and the UK). In 2015, Germany reported the arrival of over 1.58 million migrants; over 630,000 migrants entered the UK, over 363,000 arrived in France, 342,000 in Spain, and 280,000 in Italy[11]. Even though the proportion of migrants among the EU population is not particularly significant, the legal framework regulating migration processes is seriously problematic. Olga Gulina, Head of the Migration Policy Institute in Berlin, stated:

Numerous directives, agreements, multilateral arrangements, acts of national legislation of the EU Member-States create an illusion of a strong functioning system of migration management. However, the influx of humanitarian migrants in 2014 – 2016 shows, that the sense of stability and strength of migration management within 28 EU states is illusory and the existing legal documents with their inherent legal mechanisms and instruments are quite far removed from the needs of the EU Member-States[12].

Regulations on entry into the EU Member States, being approved for asylum in an EU country, and combating human trafficking fall within the purview of EU law in accordance with the Treaty on the European Union Functioning. Additionally, the procedure of return and readmission, as well as integration initiatives, are subject to standardisation under EU law. The Schengen area countries may impose restrictions on free movement of people, goods, and services in the following cases: in the need to undertake activities requiring special control and security measures for up to six months; in the  In cases requiring immediate action[13]; and in case of a threat to the Schengen area operation. Before November 2017, these rules had been applied only 92 times, 56 of which occurred between 2014 and 2017.

Before 2014, Member States reintroduced passport and border control at internal borders for periods up to 14 days only in exclusive cases such as: large-scale international events, visits of high-ranking politicians and/or other persons requiring increased security measures, terrorist attacks etc. Border control regimes inside the Schengen area, established by France, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway due to the threat of illegal migration, are in effect at the moment[14].

The decision of the Council of Ministers to establish a distribution quota of forced migrants by the EU countries according to GDP, population size, rate of unemployment, and the number of previous asylum applications triggered intense debates inside the EU. As O.Gulina noted:

“This concept of ‘humanitarian migrant’ distribution was met with protest. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron has stated that such an approach is ‘outside the interests of Great Britain’. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has warned on introducing ‘limitations of the competence of Brussels on the subject’. Poland and Hungary refused to receive the number of humanitarian migrants in accordance with their quota, and the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Miloš Zeman, has said that ‘such system is a complete nonsense’”[15].

Given the crisis of EU migration law, the solution to problems of the uncontrolled inflow of forced migrants was offered in the Agreement on Combating Illegal Migration, signed by the EU and Turkey on 18 March 2016. Under the terms of the agreement, all illegal migrants that had arrived to Greece from Turkey, should be returned to Turkey. In exchange, for every Syrian migrant returned to Turkey, one of the EU countries would receive one Syrian refugee from Greece. Turkey is blocking waterways and land routes for illegal migrants on their way to Europe, and in return receives two transfers jointly amounting to 6 billion EUR, one in 2016 and the second in 2018[16].

As a result, the UN and international NGOs criticised the EU for disregarding the norms of humanitarian law. At the same time, the agreement led to a significant decline in illegal migration from the Turkey-Greece route. It is interesting, that the EU addressed the migration crisis using a technique commonly exercised to bolster national sovereignty. In other words, through administrative law mechanisms the EU legalised the discrimination of foreign citizens. This indicates that the executive power in the EU has recently increased, to which euro-skeptics, human rights defenders, and euro-optimists are all reacting negatively.

The migration crisis in general, and more specifically the discussion on the distribution of asylum seekers, took an unexpectedly heavy toll on the EU, which was reflected in debates at the national level. This strain was exemplified by the case of Brexit.  On 26 July 2016 the UK held a referendum on its membership in the EU, where 51.2% of voters were in favour of the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU.

The migration crisis strengthened the position of Euro-skeptics and regionalists, and caused an increase in nationalist sentiments, which trumped the notion of freedom of movement in the EU territory. This very well could lead to a revision of individual countries’ migration legislation in favour of strengthening the authority of national states. At the same time, during three years the population of Germany has increased by over 1.5 million people, of mostly Syrian, Afghan, Albanian, Iraqi, Nigerian, or Eritrean origin and the country now has to deal with issues of integration. It remains to be seen how successful the measures to integrate refugees into European society are. Considering the fact that most of the terrorist attacks on the European continent over the past 14 years were committed not by refugees, but by second generation EU citizens[17], the integration policies should be planned and implemented over a period of 20-50 years.

Recreating unity: Migration in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Eurasian Union

Migration processes in the former Soviet space have a specific character and require separate consideration. However, data from the International Organization on Migration (IOM) and the UN do not differentiate the post-Soviet space as a separate region within Eurasia. This complicates statistical analysis, as the IOM and UN data often contradict the statistics of regional migration services.

A distinguishing feature of this region is the desire of Russia to preserve a single economic, social, political, (and consequently migration) space within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, specifically those that act as the main sources of migrants. Citizens from the CIS constitute the majority of migrants in Russia. The number of CIS citizens exceeds 78% of all foreign citizens arriving to Russia; 85% of CIS migrants staying in Russia for a long period of time (more than 9 months per year but less than 5 years of constant residence), including work reasons; and 94% of all foreign citizens with a temporary or permanent residence permit in the Russian Federation territory[18]. Thus, migration to Russia is still primarily from countries within the post-Soviet space, which resembles the transnational migration of citizens inside the European Union.

This similarity between the EU and post-Soviet space becomes even more obvious regarding the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Comprised of the Russian Federation, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia, the EAEU is a supranational body formally established on 1 January 2015. Similar to the European Union, the Eurasian Economic Union is an international organisation that provides for free movement of goods, services, capital and labour, as well as coordinating economic and social policy management.

The EAEU is similar to the European Economic Community, a precursor of the European Union, in regards to its structure, goals, and objectives. Migration processes in the EAEU are regulated by a new branch of international law, the Law of the Eurasian Economic Union. ‘Labour migration’, Section 26 of the Treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union, defines the general principles of regulating labour migration issues within the EAEU Member States. The section consists of Articles 96, 97, and 98[19]:

Article 96 defines the procedure and forms of cooperation among the Member States in the area of labour migration, as well as introduces the concepts of ‘labour activity’, ‘Member-State worker’, and ‘family member of migrant workers’. Moreover, Article 96 declares the cooperation of Member States in facilitating organised recruitment of migrant labour. According to this definition, only a formally employed and documented migrant can be legally recognised as a migrant worker.

Article 97 affirms the principle of free access to the labour market for migrant workers from EAEU Member States. It also provides guarantees to family members of migrant workers to stay in the Russian Federation under labour contract. Article 97 allows migrant workers and their families to remain in Russia for the ‘long-term’ under labour contract only.

Article 98 establishes a broad range of rights for EAEU workers and their family members that, with proper implementation, can significantly improve conditions for migrant workers in Russia, such as ensuring access to social and public services. Apart from providing socioeconomic guarantees, Article 98 is also meant to protect migrants’ civil rights (protection of property, the right to free cash transfers, the right to obtain information from the state and employers), and supports effective mechanisms for protecting labour and social rights. The provisions of Article 98 of the EAEU Treaty correspond to the spirit of the UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, dated 18 December 1990, and is formulated in accordance with the highest international standards of protecting the human rights of migrant workers[20].

Meeting migration challenges in the Russian Federation

The importance of migration to social, economic, and political life within Russia cannot be overemphasised. The country’s geostrategic position, large swathes of territory, uneven economic development across its regions, and its participation in integration associations in the post-Soviet space have a great impact on the intensity and direction of migration flows. Over the past 10 years, Russia has been in the top five leading countries receiving external migration: in 2017, over 17 million foreign citizens entered the country and over 15.7 million people were officially registered as migrants[21]. The inflow of migrants into Russia is vitally important for the country, particularly its economy. According to experts, the working population will decrease by at least 11 million people by 2030[22].

With the decline in the national labour force, an ageing population, and drop in population in the regions of the Far East, Siberia, and Central Russia in particular, the country’s most important strategic goal is to provide for the growth of population through migration. The objectives through 2025 are laid out in the State Migration Policy Concept, and their key performance indicators are used to assess the efficacy of state authorities in the sphere of migration policy. However, the priority objectives have not been reached. In 2016, only 5% of participants of the government program on domestic relocation assistance chose the Far East as the region of residence[23]. The dynamics of internal migration and socioeconomic development patterns in Russia demand more effective measures for the radical redirection of migration flows to worker-insufficient and underpopulated regions.

The scale of external migration is a serious challenge for the Russian government, especially for state institutions implementing legal and administrative regulations. Maintaining the balance of interests between different legal actors (federal and regional authorities, CIS countries authorities, political groups, business lobby groups, federal ministries, locals and migrant communities), national security concerns, and economic development requires continuous improvement of migration policy. Since 2002 achievements in this area have been: establishing an independent Federal Migration Service; introducing quotas to attract foreign labour; introducing work patents for foreign citizens and reforming the current patent system; tightening administrative responsibilities for foreign citizens; adopting the State Migration Policy Concept; passing the quota reform; and, in 2016, abolishing the Federal Migration Service.

Migration management was subsequently transferred to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia, which established the Central Office for Migration Issues. The new intrernal policies include changing the enforcement practices of migration authorities and establishing a new vision of priorities, which will affect the legal status of foreign citizens living in Russia. At the same time, certain powers – with respect to labour migration, adaptation and integration of migrant workers, harmonisation of international relations, and organising legal support of migrant workers –  are actually delegated to the constituent entities of the Russian Federation under the general control of the newly established Federal Agency for Nationalities of the Russian Federation. The state increasingly supports socially oriented NGOs working with migrants. Their number is growing, which changes the role of civil society in resolving issues caused by migration.

At the same time, the perception of migration as a threat to Russian national security has led to state structures functioning within the ‘fight against illegal migration’ viewpoint. According to the changes introduced in the Code of Administrative Offences in 2013-2015, heavier penalties for violating administrative laws resulted in a travel ban for more than 1.65 million migrants, mostly CIS citizens[24]. Such a large-scale enforcement of restrictions with respect to foreign citizens inevitably affected the Russian labour market: the number of migrants, who received a travel ban in 2016, exceeded the number of labour migrants employed in Russia under the work permit.

‘The fight against illegal migration’, along with the continuous and unpredictable reformation of Russia’s migration legislation, has resulted in migrants losing trust in government authorities. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of migrant workers cross the border legally, as citizens of countries that have a visa-free entry into Russia. Migrants acquire ‘illegal’ status largely due to the difficulties with the legalisation of their employment and implementation of work functions[25].

The number of migrant workers in Russia increased in 2017, amounting to at least 4.8 million people.[26] The number of migrant workers is still growing along with the revenue from the taxes. During ten months in 2017, the Russian Federation received over 42.8 billion rubles only in the form of permit fees for legal employment in Russia[27]. At the same time, changes in the migration regulation prevent the country from resolving the following systemic problems: informal employment of migrants; illegal and shadow migration; legal gaps in the family members’ status (of CIS citizens); insufficient access to healthcare, education, legal support, and social protection for migrants; complex naturalisation procedures; and inadequate implementation of international law.


In a global world, migration is often associated with a number of stereotypes that are not always accurate. If we take a close look, the average number of international migrants worldwide has been consistent over decades. International migration processes are far from being chaotic. Rather, they take the shape of transcontinental ‘highways’. Migration often acts a test for the effectiveness of a society’s economic, social and cultural ‘effectiveness’. Migration is also often discussed in the context of crisis or as a threat that requires a response. Possibly, it is this very discourse that makes it more complicated to solve issues related to receiving, adaptation, and the integration of migrants. Affected by this framework of negativity, political leaders of the EU and the Schengen area are inclined to introduce administrative measures at the national level, rather than use international legal mechanisms. Such management of migration processes thus revives the logic of ‘national sovereignty’, which complicates social and political integration in the European space.

In contrast is the landscape of migration in the post-Soviet space beyond the EU. A single labour market still exists, and the freedom of migrant movement among the national states is a part of political reality, in which large reintegration projects often contradict the practices of migration policy regulation. Understanding migration as a ‘threat’ to national security interferes with economic development of Russia, undermines its position as a receiving country, and leaves a number of systemic problems unresolved.

Despite the differences in the sphere of migration process regulation in the CIS and EU space, the accumulated experience of migration policy development should be analysed in more detail and creatively reinterpreted within a dialogical framework. United by the Eurasian space, Russian and Europe could jointly contribute to the development of a new migration policy paradigm that would be effective, humane, and safe.


[1] UN DESA  – International Migration Report 2017. Highlights http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/publications/migrationreport/docs/MigrationReport2017_Highlights.pdf p.17

[2] UN DESA  – International Migration Report 2017. Highlights. http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/publications/migrationreport/docs/MigrationReport2017_Highlights.pdf   p.6, fig. 3

[3] Ibid.

[4] IOM World Migration Report 2018 https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/wmr_2018_en.pdf p.18

[5] IOM WMR 2018 p.30

[6] Report Materials ‘Migration context of the 21 century’: Vishnevsky A. G., Doctor of Economics., Director of the Institute of Demography NRU HSE – International Labor Forum, Saint-Petersburg,March 15-17, 2017

[7] UN DESA Migration Report 2017 p.17

[8] IOM WMR 2018 p.13

[9] International migration and stable development of Russia — М., PH «Delo», 2015. – p.7

[10] Malakhov V.C. Migration crisis: International cooperation and national strategies. – RIAC, November 2016. – p.4. – http://russiancouncil.ru/upload/MigrationCrisis-Policybrief10-ru.pdf

[11] Eurostat http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Migration_and_migrant_population_statistics#Further_Eurostat_information

[12] Olga Gulina, Legal regulation and migration management formalization in the European Union (part 1) http://legal-dialogue.org/ru/legal-regulation-management-migration-european-union-part-1

[13] Olga Gulina Legal regulation and migration management formalization in the European Union (part 1): http://legal-dialogue.org/legal-regulation-management-migration-european-union-part-1

[14] Olga Gulina, Legal regulation and migration management formalization in the European Union

[15] Olga Gulina Legal regulation and migration management formalization in the European Union (part 2): http://legal-dialogue.org/ru/legal-regulation-management-migration-european-union-part-2

[16] http://ru.euronews.com/2016/03/24/eu-turkey-refugee-deal-what-s-next

[17] Malahov V.C. Migration crisis: International cooperation and national strategies. – p.9 http://russiancouncil.ru/upload/MigrationCrisis-Policybrief10-ru.pdf

[18] Migration situation in the Russian Federation for 10 months 2017: Internet-portal CIS http://www.e-cis.info/page.php?id=26158

[19] The Treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union http://docs.cntd.ru/document/420205962

[20] Single report on migration in Kyrgyz Republic, Armenian Republic, Tadzhik Republic and Russian Federation — p. 13 http://rce.kg/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Edinyj-doklad-final.pdf

[21] Data of Main Department of migration issues of Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia https://мвд.рф/Deljatelnost/statistics/migracionnaya/item/12162186/

[22] Demitceva E.B., Mkrtchan N.V., Florinskaya J.V. Migration policy: diagnostics, challenges, suggestions. – Center of strategic developments, 2018.  – p. 8

[23] Demitceva E.B., Mkrtchan N.V., Florinskaya J.V. Migration policy: diagnostics, challenges, suggestions. – Center of strategic developments, 2018. – p.20

[24] Vlasova N.I. Legal status of migrants and its impact on labor market/ Report Materials, International Labor Forum, Saint-Petersburg, International Conference «Labor mobility and migration issues», March 16 2017.

[25] Social and cultural adaptation of migrants, prevention of international tension and development of international cooperation in Saint-Petersburg— SPb, 2017 — p.57

[26] Data of DGM Ministry of Internal Affairs RF: https://mia.rf/Deljatelnost/statistics/migracionnaya/item/12162171/

[27] Migration situation in the Russian Federation during 10 months in 2017: Internet-portal CIS: http://www.e-cis.info/page.php?id=26158

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the original author(s) and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views and opinions of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, its co-founders, or its staff members.
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Andrey Yakimov
Dr. Andrey Yakimov is an anthropologist, expert on migration legislation, economic migrants and ethnic minorities. He is also project coordinator in Promotion of Awareness Raising and Social Enhancement Projects Charitable Foundation PSP-Foundation (St. Petersburg, Russia) and co-author of a set of policy recommendations, called the St. Petersburg State Subprogram ‘Implementation of the Concept of the State Migration Policy of the Russian Federation in St. Petersburg in 2016-2020’.