Central Asia Faces a Russian Migrant Crisis

As men flee Putin’s draft, Russia’s neighbors struggle to cope.

By , a PhD candidate in anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center and a freelance journalist based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Russians arrive at the Syrym border crossing in Kazakhstan on Sept. 27.
Russians arrive at the Syrym border crossing in Kazakhstan on Sept. 27.
Russians arrive at the Syrym border crossing in Kazakhstan on Sept. 27. Stringer/AFP via Getty Images

For more than two decades, Central Asian labor migrants have traveled to Russia for work. Now, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a compulsory military draft, hundreds of thousands of Russians are heading in the opposite direction.

Since Putin’s announcement of Russia’s first military mobilization since World War II on Sept. 21, hundreds of thousands of Russian men have left the country to avoid being drafted to fight in Ukraine. The former Soviet republics of Central Asia quickly emerged as a primary destination for Russian draft dodgers looking for the nearest safe, affordable, and legal exit out of Russia. With airfares skyrocketing, Russian men have been rushing to Russia’s southern border, since they can enter Kazakhstan visa-free with only their internal passports—a mandatory ID issued to all citizens—in hand, sometimes moving farther south to Kyrgyzstan, which has the same policy. That’s a lifeline for the estimated 70 percent of Russian citizens who are not in possession of a passport for international travel.

According to Kazakh officials, more than 100,000 Russian citizens, and possibly as many as 200,000, have crossed over into Kazakhstan since the start of mobilization, many of whom have continued farther south into neighboring Kyrgyzstan. As citizens of a member state in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), Russians enjoy the right to work and reside in both countries, like other EEU members, on the condition that they register their arrival with local migration authorities. Once released, registration statistics should provide a better picture of the scale of this exodus, but it is already clear that Central Asia is confronted with an unanticipated Russia migration crisis.

For more than two decades, Central Asian labor migrants have traveled to Russia for work. Now, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a compulsory military draft, hundreds of thousands of Russians are heading in the opposite direction.

Since Putin’s announcement of Russia’s first military mobilization since World War II on Sept. 21, hundreds of thousands of Russian men have left the country to avoid being drafted to fight in Ukraine. The former Soviet republics of Central Asia quickly emerged as a primary destination for Russian draft dodgers looking for the nearest safe, affordable, and legal exit out of Russia. With airfares skyrocketing, Russian men have been rushing to Russia’s southern border, since they can enter Kazakhstan visa-free with only their internal passports—a mandatory ID issued to all citizens—in hand, sometimes moving farther south to Kyrgyzstan, which has the same policy. That’s a lifeline for the estimated 70 percent of Russian citizens who are not in possession of a passport for international travel.

According to Kazakh officials, more than 100,000 Russian citizens, and possibly as many as 200,000, have crossed over into Kazakhstan since the start of mobilization, many of whom have continued farther south into neighboring Kyrgyzstan. As citizens of a member state in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), Russians enjoy the right to work and reside in both countries, like other EEU members, on the condition that they register their arrival with local migration authorities. Once released, registration statistics should provide a better picture of the scale of this exodus, but it is already clear that Central Asia is confronted with an unanticipated Russia migration crisis.

Long perceived as a buffer zone, post-Soviet Central Asia received significant amounts of military equipment, aid, and training from the international community in order to contain the threat of a mass exodus of refugees from Afghanistan. None of this assistance, however, could have prepared the region for this unprecedented influx of people from its former colonial and imperial center.

The first wave of Russians moving abroad after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February referred to themselves as relokanty—a term borrowed from the tech industry in reference to employees relocated abroad by their companies. Aside from political dissidents, most of those who left in the first six months of the war had the social capital and financial resources for a relatively smooth and orderly relocation of their families and businesses abroad to places such as Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and—to a lesser degree—Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan welcomed almost 30,000 Russian citizens in the six months leading up to mobilization. Some gained residency in Kyrgyzstan with the sole purpose of opening a bank account to circumvent Western sanctions, while others set up shop in the country on a more permanent basis. Seeing the large number of tech workers among Russian exiles, the Kyrgyz government was quick to launch a special Digital Nomad program that allows Russian programmers and IT specialists to stay in the country without registering or having to obtain a work permit.

The face of Russian exile is changing. Unlike their relatively well-off peers in the tech industry, many of the recently arrived draft dodgers are in more precarious financial situations. Hailing from smaller cities in Siberia, the Urals, and the Russian Far East, some of these young men crossed into Kazakhstan on foot with little more than a suitcase and a lack of transferrable skills or experience..

Central Asian states have kept their borders open to Russian draft dodgers since the start of mobilization, with Kazakhstan’s interior minister assuring Russians fleeing conscription that they would not be extradited to Russia. In Kazakh cities close to the Russian border, volunteers are distributing food and drink to recently arrived Russians as movie theaters, mosques, and gymnasiums have been turned into makeshift sleeping quarters. Finding temporary accommodation has become a struggle across Central Asia, with hotels, hostels, and guesthouses booked out for weeks ahead.

Many of Central Asia’s cities are already on the brink of a housing crisis with unscrupulous landlords doubling—and sometimes tripling—rental prices overnight. In Almaty and Bishkek, public discontent is rising, with reports of local tenants being forced from their apartments to make way for desperate Russians willing to pay more than double the average local monthly salary in rent.

The situation is particularly tense in Kyrgyzstan—a country still recovering from the violence and destruction caused by clashes with Tajikistan along the countries’ border that ended just a day before Putin’s mobilization decree. Before the latest surge in migrants from Russia, Kyrgyzstan’s major cities were already struggling to provide temporary accommodation to the thousands of residents displaced by the conflict. To make matters worse, many of the Kyrgyz migrants returning to the country, after spending several years in Russia, are relocating to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s largest city, putting additional strain on an already saturated housing market.

Russian exiles are having to rely on the hospitality of a Central Asian population that has greatly suffered from stigmatization, racism, and discrimination under the pejorative label of “migrants” within Russian society. In a region where hospitality toward visitors is perceived as part of the national character, Russian émigrés have encountered a welcome reception. At the same time, there is palpable sense of anger and schadenfreude among some Central Asians at having to assist their former colonial oppressors. In Bishkek and Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, local activists and mutual aid groups have therefore placed an emphasis on organizing cultural sensitivity trainings and public lectures on the history of Russian imperialism and Soviet hegemony in the region. These initiatives aim to push Russians to think critically about their country’s past and help undo some of the prejudices toward Central Asia that have been so prevalent in Russian society.

Given the immense suffering of the Ukrainian people at the hands of the Russian military, there is understandably little sympathy globally for Russian draft dodgers fleeing abroad. There has been a reluctance to refer to these exiled Russians as refugees, although the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention is supposed to also cover draft evaders who refuse to commit war crimes and acts of aggression. Regardless of whether they are officially recognized as refugees by certain states, these temporary exiles will soon find themselves in an increasingly precarious situation as repressions in Russia intensify and the mobilization drive continues. While those lucky enough to have professional or family connections abroad will eventually be able to relocate to other countries, many of the youngest and most vulnerable Russian draft dodgers may remain trapped in Central Asia.

This humanitarian crisis in the making will require assistance from the international community, as Central Asian states lack the resources and infrastructure to host indefinitely such a large refugee population. Major international organizations such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration will need to assist local governments in their emergency responses to the Russian migration crisis. While informal networks and mutual aid groups have played an incredibly important role in supporting Russian new arrivals, they are currently at capacity and would benefit from external assistance in terms of providing basic essentials and temporary housing.

With most of the European Union’s eastern border closed off to Russian travelers, EU member states could work toward resettling Russian draft evaders currently in Central Asia. Germany has already expressed a willingness to offer international protection to those fleeing Putin’s forced conscription—an important step in the right direction. With low-to-middle-income countries already hosting most of the world’s refugees, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia cannot be left alone to carry the burden of supporting an exiled population.

Yan Matusevich is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center and a freelance journalist based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

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