Russian migration policy and Central Asian female migration

Russia is one of the main destinations for migrants in the world. In 2019, it stood fourth globally both as a destination (around ten million migrants) and as the country of origin for immigrants (IOM 2019: 26). Migrants from Central Asia constitute the largest portion of the migrant workforce, mostly employed in unskilled jobs. Given the varying methods and purposes of registering foreigners, Russia’s responsible agencies provide a range of figures on the number of economic migrants.5 Labour migrants’ economic output is estimated as representing 10.5% of the Russian economy (Ryazantsev 2016).

Russia’s immigration and citizenship legislation underwent significant transformations following the collapse of the Soviet Union (Ivahnyuk 2009; Malakhov 2014; Abashin 2017). Whilst the citizenship regimes and immigration laws changed and evolved across the entire post-Soviet space, a historically determined attachment to documents persisted. Documents were viewed not just as identity documents, but also as guarantors of authority, a mechanism for the production of political subjectivity (Reeves 2013a: 154) and a means to population control in which ‘national security’ was an essential component of policy developments (Heusala 2018).

Currently, Russia maintains a visa-free regime with members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS); thus, almost all migrants from Central Asia can enter Russia legally. Central Asian labour migrants must obtain several documents, however, to remain legal in Russia. These include, but are not limited to, a migration card, a temporary residence registration and a patent (work permit), which necessitates health, Russian-language and Russian history/ law certificates, all acquired at a significant expense. Citizens of Kyrgyzstan, a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, are theoretically on equal footing in terms of labour rights with the local population. Furthermore, since 1995, Russia and Tajikistan have agreed upon dual citizenship, allowing many Tajiks to obtain Russian citizenship simultaneously.

Complex and constantly changing rules also render retaining legal permits an arduous task for migrants. Moreover, a large number of migrants are employed in the informal sector. Researchers have often critically assessed the development of Russian migration policy. For instance, Kubal (2016) argues that Russian migration policies produce insecure and legally ambiguous migration statuses through inconsistent and arbitrary law enforcement. Moreover, the less-than-complete implementation of these rules by Russian authorities discourages migrants from becoming ‘legal’. Abashin (2014) states that even migrants who do not violate any law are often perceived as having done so since migrant status typically connotes illegality.

The informal document market amongst migrant workers continued to thrive in the mid-2010s, the period when our cases evolved. This market enabled migrants to adapt to the restrictive legal environment through the production of ‘clean fake' Russian, Kyrgyz and Tajik passports, residency documents, various certificates and work permits (Reeves 2013b; Dave 2014). In order to become ‘legal’, migrants resort to various semi-legal and outright illegal practices of legalisation through middlemen (posrednikt) (Dave 2014). In 2015 and 2016, Russian authorities introduced new rules regarding work permits for everyone, which amongst others meant that migrants needed to provide fingerprints. Whilst these and other steps limited the possibilities of forging documents, the informal document market nevertheless continues to survive and operate, albeit more cautiously and at higher prices.6

Complicated legalisation procedures and high fees for work permits push migrants further into the shadow economy (Heusala and Aitamurto 2017). Experiences with the Russian system of labour migration led researchers to question its unintentionality. For instance, Schenk (2018) argued that these legal ambiguities should be viewed as a key feature of migration governance since they keep the number of documented migrants low so that Russian officials can deploy the population’s antimigrant sentiments and generate informal benefits (kormushka). Attention has also been paid to the characteristics of the globalised economic conditions, where the Russian shadow economy and pathologies in the migration regime are linked to questions regarding global economic competitiveness and to foreign policy goals in the Eurasian space (Heusala 2017: 1).

Since the early 2000s, labour migration from Central Asia has been primarily male dominated.7 However, tendencies in recent years reveal a growing share of female migrants. Women constitute at least 38% of migrants from Kyrgyzstan; this figure stands at 15% to 20% amongst migrants from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan

Central Asian female migrants ’ transnational social spaces 119 (Rocheva and Varshaver 2017). Whilst construction sites, farms and similar areas where physical strength is required primarily employ men, female migrants can find jobs predominantly in trade (supermarkets and shops), catering (restaurants, hotels and food factories) and domestic (care) and cleaning services.

In her study on the implications of migration for Russian social policy, Linda Cook provides an account of both de jure rights and de facto access amongst migrants to social services, including healthcare access for migrant women and the rights of migrant children to schooling. She points out that reliance on informal health documentation plays a prominent role in migrants’ lives (Cook 2017: 137-139; see also Kashnitsky and Demintseva 2018).

Women from Central Asia represent the most vulnerable group. They endure the worst living conditions and face major problems in terms of accessing medical services (Tyuryukanova 2011). Gorina, Agadjanian and Zotova (2018) found that female migrants from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan earn lower salaries compared with male migrants. Amongst Central Asian migrants in Russia, there are consistently more divorced and widowed women and fewer single women than men (Rocheva and Varshaver 2017). From existing research, it seems that (both male and female) migrants' sexual and reproductive behaviour is characterised by limited access to information about risks (Weine et al. 2013; Rocheva and Varshaver 2017). Kazenin et al. (2019) found no significant differences in the reproductive strategies of female migrants from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, a member state of the Eurasian Economic Union and a non-member, respectively. Agadjanian and Zotova (2011) explored sexual risks amongst Central Asian women associated with migration. In a survey conducted in 2011 amongst Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek female migrants, around 19% had a partner or lived in a civil marriage (Agadjanian and Zotova 2011). We may assume that a significant number of female migrants accompany their spouses in migration.

The overwhelming majority of migrants, regardless of gender, rent so-called koiko-mesto (a single bed-sized space) in shared flats. Often, women and men share separate rooms in apartments. High housing prices in large cities do not allow couples to rent a separate flat. At best, a couple can rent a room of their own (in a flat) if both are working and can afford the extra expense. Children typically remain in the home countries with extended family members, unless the parents plan to stay in Russia for an extended period of time. Although this might have changed recently, only in very rare cases have parents brought their children with them (Alexandrov et al. 2012).

Whilst local Russians treat migrants from the Slavic countries of Belarus and Ukraine either neutrally or positively, individuals from the non-Slavic Muslim-majority countries of Central Asia with a poor command of the Russian language are perceived as alien and unwanted in Russian society. Periodic polls indicate consistently high rates of dislike and xenophobia against Central Asian migrants (Levada 2019). Racism specifically targeting Central Asians is rampant in today’s Russia (e.g., Reeves 2013a; Round and Kuznetsova 2016; Mukomel 2013). Simultaneously, we must note that Central Asian migrants, especially female migrants, are mistreated not only by the local population but also at times by fellow migrants (Agadjanian et al. 2017), including experiencing sexual harassment (Agadjanian and Zotova 2011). Three out of the four women we interviewed also faced abuse from other labour migrants.

Occasional cases emerge in the Russian media of Central Asian women abandoning their toddlers or authorities taking custody of children from presumably careless parents. This gives the impression to many locals that female migrants come to Russia to give birth to ‘anchor babies’ in order to claim welfare benefits for their children, and resulting in possible abandonment when faced with financial or other difficulties.8 As Rocheva’s (2014) study of Kyrgyz women's reproductive choices demonstrates, a child born on Russian soil is not automatically eligible for future citizenship and migrant parents cannot claim welfare benefits (so-called maternal capital, a lump sum of money provided by the Russian government to stimulate childbirth) unless one or both parents are Russian citizens. Furthermore, the difficulties migrants face in using Russian public healthcare services have led them to develop their own medical infrastructure (Kashnitsky and Demintseva 2018).

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