Currently, Central Asia is among the largest labor-exporting regions in the world. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan rely very much on remittances sent by their citizens working abroad. According to the World Bank, remittances comprise about 28.4% of the GDP of Kyrgyzstan making it the second country in terms of remittances to GDP ratio, while Tajikistan is the third on the list with a ratio of 26.7%. For Uzbekistan, this ratio in 2020 reached 12.1% [World Bank, 2020]. This is not the case, however, with other two countries in the region (Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan), whose remittance to GDP ratio is less than a percent.
It is extremely difficult to figure out the number of labor migrants from Central Asian states permanently living and working abroad due to various reasons. The official statistics are not so relevant since the great bulk of the labor migrations is done illegally and it is practically impossible to track their movement. Many of them indicate a false purpose of travel at the border and are sometimes involved in seasonal jobs crossing the border multiple times so that they end up being considered as permanent residents in neither of the countries. Since many of them work illegally and do not pay taxes, they also stay out of reach of fiscal authorities. Nevertheless, some very rough estimates of the number of migrants are available. For instance, it has been estimated that the number of labor migrants from Uzbekistan working in Russia is very likely to range between 2.1 and 2.6 million people [Upl.uz, 2019; Journal.tinkoff.ru, 2019]. In fact, in 2019 the number of migrants passing through Kazakhstan heading towards Russia was estimated at around 2.6 million, making it the sixth-largest migration corridor in the world [UN DESA, 2020]. Extrapolating this data to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and taking into account the remittances and GDP amounts, we can state that the total number of labor migrants in Russia coming from Central Asia is very likely to be within the interval of 4-4.5 million. Supposing that Russia is the destination country for roughly 80% of all labor migrants, like in Uzbekistan [Upl.uz, 2019] we can calculate that approximately 4.8-5.4 million people from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan spent most of their time in labor migration abroad. This is 9.5-10.7% of the combined 50 million population of these three countries, which can be as much as 25-30% of the working-age population. These are very significant figures for developing countries of Central Asia. Although these emigrant populations are economically active and make valuable contributions to the GDP, they drop out of all other aspects of the social life of their home countries.
The scale of labor emigration from Central Asian states is so large that it might well affect the spatial distribution of the population and urbanization process, among other things. As it was already mentioned, labor migration from Central Asian countries is largely untracked neither in home countries nor in the main destination country, which is Russia. However, it was estimated that at a worldwide scale nearly 40% of international remittances are sent to rural areas, indicating the rural origin of a significant share of labor migrants. [Ifad.org, 2017]. If we extrapolate this figure to the case of Central Asian migrants, the number of labor migrants originating from rural areas of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan might be around 1.8-2 million. As for destination countries, it is well known that large cities are the main attractors of labor migrants. For instance, in 2020, nearly 60% of the labor migrants in Russia were working in Moscow and St.Petersburg [Econs.online, 2020]. In other words, apart from being a driving force of cross-border movement of people, the international labor migration also works as a scheme of rural to urban population movement. Does this mean that large-scale labor migration from Central Asian countries to some extent hinders the urbanization process that would take place there if migration were not an attractive option for rural residents? Could it be that some share of urbanization in Central Asian countries is being exported with labor migration? In any case, it is impossible to tell it with certainty and empirical methods are irrelevant here. However, we can state that labor migrants from Central Asia typically fit the profile of people relocating from rural areas to cities. For instance, in one of the surveys conducted in 2020, it was found that the majority of the labor migrants (62,4%) are men. The average age of the labor migrants was found to be 37 years. Construction and various types of services were the main sectors attracting labor migrants [Econs.online, 2020]. This correlates very well with the socio-demographic trends in the main labor-exporting countries of Central Asia as they are rapidly passing through a transition from an agricultural society to an industrial urban society. Some two decades ago, agriculture was the main economic sector in Central Asia that employed the largest share of labor in these economies. In 2001, agriculture employed more than half of the labor in Tajikistan (58.7%) and Kyrgyzstan (52.9%). Some 38.2% of labor in Uzbekistan, 34.4% in Turkmenistan, and 35.5% in Kazakhstan worked in agriculture. By 2019, the share of agriculture in total employment dropped to 44.7% in Tajikistan, 19.3% in Kyrgyzstan, 25.7% in Uzbekistan, 20.7% in Turkmenistan, and 14.9% in Kazakhstan [World Bank, 2019]. One of the clear signs of successful transition from an agriculture-based rural economy to industry and the service-based urban economy is the rapid concentration of population in large cities. When we look at the urban demographic trends of Central Asian states, one thing that stands out is the small number of large urbanizing areas. For instance, having a population of 2.6 million people, Uzbekistan’s capital city Tashkent is home to 14.6% of the country’s population [World Bank, 2019a]. However, the second-largest city of Uzbekistan, which is Namangan, has a population of only 626 thousand people [Citypopulation.de, 2020]. In contrast, Kazakhstan, which is significantly smaller than Uzbekistan in terms of population, has already three cities with a 1 million-plus population that have seen tremendous growth over the last two decades. Among other things, these large cities function as centers of concentration of internal migrants mainly from rural areas.
It is important to note that many years of large-scale labor migration from Central Asian states to Russia have already resulted in the formation of urban ethnic communities. In 2020, the total number of Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek citizens that have obtained Russian citizenship reached 100 thousand. Over the last five years, this number has doubled [Ministry of Interior of Russia, 2021]. It was found that at least half of Central Asian migrants in Russia are intending to get Russia passport [Econs.online, 2020]. Hence, we can expect that Central Asian labor migrants will become an increasingly important factor shaping the urban demographics in Russia in the near future.
Citypopulation.de (2020). Population statistics in maps and charts for all countries in Asia. Retrieved from https://www.citypopulation.de/Asia.html. Accessed on 24.10.2021.
Econs.online (2020). Labor migration during the coronavirus crisis. Retrieved from https://econs.online/articles/ekonomika/trudovaya-migratsiya-vo-vremya-koronakrizisa/. Accessed on 24.10.2021.
Ifad.org (2017). The International Day of Family Remittances. Retrieved from https://www.ifad.org/documents/38714170/40313865/International+day+of+family+remittances.pdf/ec2d0b5f-5a6d-49fe-b2d5-870330991832#:~:text=Some%2040%20per%20cent%20of,impact%20of%20remittances%20even%20greater. Accessed on 24.10.2021.
Journal.tinkoff.ru (2021). How much money labor migrants withdraw from Russia. Retrieved from https://journal.tinkoff.ru/perevod-stat/. Accessed on 22.10.2021.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation (2021). Statistics and analytics. Retrieved from https://xn--b1aew.xn--p1ai/dejatelnost/statistics. Accessed on 24.10.2021.
UN DESA (2020). Population dynamics. Retrieved from https://population.un.org/wup/Download/. Accessed on 23.10.2021.
Upl.uz (2019). The number of citizens who left Uzbekistan to work has been revealed. Retrieved from https://upl.uz/policy/9600-news.html. Accessed on 22.10.2021.
World Bank data (2020). Personal remittances, received (% of GDP). Retrieved from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/BX.TRF.PWKR.DT.GD.ZS. Accessed on 22.10.2021.
World Bank (2019). Employment in agriculture (% of total employment) (modeled ILO estimate). Retrieved from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.AGR.EMPL.ZS. Accessed on 24.10.2021.
World Bank data (2019a). Population in the largest city (% of urban population). Retrieved from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.URB.LCTY.UR.ZS. Accessed on 22.10.2021.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Kanat Makhanov is a research fellow at the Eurasian Institute of the International H.A Yassawi Kazakh-Turkish University. He holds a BA in Business Economics from the KIMEP University from 2012. In 2014 he earned his Masters degree in Economics from the University of Vigo (Spain), completing his thesis on “Industrial Specialization in autonomous regions of Spain and Kazakhstan”. His main research interests are Spatial Economics, Economic Geography, Regional Economics, Human and Economic Geography.