Norms and Values
African Migration to Russia: What Changes to Prepare for?

The policy regarding the integration and adaptation of migrants in the Russian Federation lacks a comprehensive nature, which is most clearly noticeable in relation to African migrants, as they are very different from migrants from the countries of the post-Soviet space. This necessitates the modernisation of this component of Russian migration policy, writes Valdai Club expert Dmitry Poletaev.

Migration from African countries to Russia is still insignificant in scale and its main channel is educational migration. In 2022, according to the official estimates of the Main Department of Migration Affairs of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia and the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation, 38,885 Africans were legally staying in Russia: 1,338 of them had valid temporary residence permits, 1,994 had valid residence permits at the end of the reporting period, 319 had valid work permits, 874 had received citizenship, and 34,360 Africans studied in Russia (the largest contingents are from Egypt (15,668 people), Morocco (3,438 people), Nigeria (1,754 people), Algeria (1,458 people) and Zimbabwe (1,262 people).

Over the past five years, the number of citizens of African countries in the Russian Federation has remained almost unchanged. When compared with the 2019 estimate of up to 40,000 African migrants staying in Russia at that time, we can see that the numbers have remained about the same. Such resilience suggests that, despite its significant migration potential, with a total African population of about 1.4 billion people, Russia is not yet connected with African countries via a full-fledged migration network. Labour migration amounts to several hundred, migration for permanent residence is also limited in scale; forced migration is almost non-existent.

Migrants from Africa who have settled in Russia and received Russian citizenship are hardly noticeable and are not even represented in the political arena. The only exception is one municipal politician of the Tver region, the first black legislator in Russia, a native of Benin, and this exception only underscores the status quo: the “invisibility” of African Russians in the public space.

At the same time, migration from Africa to the countries of the European Union, including undocumented migration, is permanent and sustainable. In the Eurasian migration system, however, where Russia is the main host country, the African vector is still almost invisible.

The migration policy of the Russian Federation does not yet see those who were forced to migrate from Africa as a category for settlement in Russia. According to official statistics, only dozens of people receive refugee status in Russia every year, and there are almost no Africans among them. Therefore, for those forced migrants from Africa who could come to Russia, the prospects for acquiring citizenship through refugee status are very difficult, and information about this, quickly transmitted through migrant word of mouth, creates a reputation for Russia as a country that is inconvenient for refugees.

The attitude towards Africans in Russia has been wary for a long time, and this is partly a legacy of the Soviet era, when friendship with Africa was postulated, but the vast majority of Soviet citizens had never seen Africans in everyday life, perceived them as a curiosity and had no experience of real interaction with them. The proclaimed friendship with Africa remained a purely hypothetical concept for an ordinary citizen of the USSR. When real interaction did take place, in addition to quite natural curiosity, everyday racism often became noticeable and this situation has persisted to this day. Unfortunately, measures to adapt to the stay of Soviet and later Russian Africans, were not and still are not of a complex nature, which has led and continues to lead to everyday xenophobia towards them.

This is evidenced by the results of public opinion polls. According to Levada Center, over the past decade, 25-30% of Russians (26% in 2010, 33% in 2018 and 27% in 2021) were not ready to see people from Africa in their everyday life — they would not let them into the country, and another 25-30% of Russians (29% in 2010, 27% in 2018 and 25% in 2021) would only let them in to Russia temporarily . The building of such “glass walls” by the Russians themselves in relation to the Africans is unlikely to contribute to the desire of the latter to work and live in Russia. Apparently, the frosty attitude Russians have towards Africans is, among other things, due to their poor familiarity with the culture of the African continent, and their lack of comprehensive and periodic information about Africa in the Russian media. If in Soviet times, information about Africa was politicised, often related to the fight against colonialism and the independence of African countries, then in post-Soviet times, news and relevant information about Africa is almost absent in the Russian media.

Nevertheless, the countries of Africa are witnessing explosive growth, despite the fact that we are only observing migration from those countries to Russia on a minimal scale. By 2035 the African population could reach 1.9 billion people, and in 2050 — 2.5 billion people. Because of the increasing competition for resources on this continent and growing risks of economic and political instability, forced migration flows from Africa to Russia may become a new component of the migration situation already in the medium term, and it is worthwhile to prepare for this in advance. It is necessary to develop and improve migration legislation; improve statistical accounting and the comprehensive analysis of data on migration; to develop a system of integration and adaptation for migrants who do not know the language, culture, and life arrangements in Russia well; support the work of non-governmental organisations in the field of migration; as well as expand and develop migration policy programmes in the Russian Federation. The most important step in this direction is to improve the financing of measures to implement Russia’s comprehensive migration policy, without which the implementation of any migration measures and programmes will be ineffective.

In 2022, there was an increase in activity in building the initial migration dialogue between Russia and the countries of Africa, which in many ways reflected the important steps that the experts of the Valdai Club have already spoken about. In June 2022, the Russian-African Club was created, bringing together diplomats, public figures, politicians, businessmen, cultural figures, educators and scientists of Russia and African countries. The activities of the club are aimed at developing friendship and comprehensive ties between Russia and African countries, including work on the opening of the Museum of African Culture on the basis of the State Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow. The new museum will be a scientific and educational complex, a new platform for the interaction and communication of African students, who make up the majority of Africans in Russia. In December 2022, Cairo hosted the Forum of Alumni of Soviet and Russian Universities from the Middle East and Africa, organized by Rossotrudnichestvo and the Institute of Humanitarian Education and Testing. This gathering constitutes one of the important initial steps in building a system of work with former educational migrants to the USSR and Russia living in Africa.

In this situation, I would like to draw attention to several key points. First, the policy regarding the integration and adaptation of migrants in the Russian Federation lacks a comprehensive nature, which is most clearly noticeable in relation to African migrants, as they are very different from migrants from the countries of the post-Soviet space. This necessitates the modernisation of this component of Russian migration policy: increased funding, support for non-governmental organisations working towards the integration and adaptation of immigrants in the Russian Federation, the provision of training to journalists to cover Africa, and constructive cooperation with African communities in Russia.

Second, the intensification of work with African countries and the development of ties with them necessitates an understanding of the fact that this will entail an increase in the scale of economic, and later refugee migration from African countries to Russia, and after this an increase in the number of Russians of African descent and the number of mixed-descent Russians with some African ancestry. In this regard, countering xenophobia and migrant phobia will become an even more urgent and acute issue. In this case, Russian society, and not just the African migrants themselves, will also need to be prepared for the changing migration situation.

Third, the work with African students in Russia, already outlined within the framework of the creation of the Museum of African Culture, can become an important focal point for the development of work both with African communities in Russia and for comprehensive programmes of work with graduates of Soviet and Russian universities in African countries. As world experience shows, such work has a multiplier effect and, in addition to the development of economic and cultural projects, can help in the implementation of new Russian migration programmes.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.