Is It Possible to Stop the Flow of Migrants to Russia?

If citizens of Russia believe that a country whose population consists of 24% pensioners is capable of giving up migrants and letting pensioners clean courtyards, drive buses or work at construction sites, they should realize that they will have to pay for this. Not a single country has managed to find a solution to the migrant issue.

Recently there have been several rallies in Moscow and other cities (Kaliningrad, St. Petersburg, Lipetsk, Bryansk, Vologda, Petrozavodsk, Syktyvkar, Ufa etc.) in favor of introducing a visa regime with Central Asian countries. Participants in these events demand that the State Duma revise the law on citizenship and suspend its program on accepting guest workers from Central Asia.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said recently that this year Russia may allow CIS citizens to enter the country only on foreign passports. Can Russia resolve this very important problem and regulate this endless flow of migrants? The opinion exists that heated debates about the migration problem are a result of fanning up national and cultural intolerance in an attempt to find political dividends. According to the Russian media, Russia passed the peak of pure immigration (entry minus exit) in 1994. The number of guest workers is decreasing and the whole problem comes down to an attempt to play the Russian card in politics, and that's it. Could you comment on this opinion?

Migration is a problem for any big country because it inevitably gives rise to a number of complications, such as overcoming cultural barriers, adaptation and sometimes competition for jobs. Indeed, 1994 saw the peak of migration to Russia – over 800,000 migrants in one year. They were not guest workers but Russians or Russian-speakers from former Soviet republics that have become independent. In the early 2000s the flow of migrants was about 50,000-80,000 people per year. Later, the migration flow began to increase because the growth of the Russian economy demanded labor, especially unqualified and low paid labor that was so convenient for Russian business. In 2011-2012 the migration flow reached 300,000 people per year. It is important to consider the change in the approach of calculating the number of migrants. Earlier, migrants had been considered those who arrived in Russia for permanent residence. Starting from 2011, all those who lived in Russia for more than nine months were registered as migrants. According to this approach the number of migrants increased by one third. If we use the old method of counting migrants, there would be about 200,000 per year.

Regrettably, this figure only reflects the official statistics. According to experts, the illegal migration that is not reflected in the statistics amounts to about four to five million people per year. Considering that about 70 million people are employed in this country, that's 8% of the workforce.

So, there is no doubt that the problem exists. We should discuss it and find ways of resolving it but at the same time we shouldn’t deprive Russia of the workforce it needs.

Advocates of the law on the visa regime with the CIS countries believe that an uncontrolled flow of migrants to Russia from Central Asia and Southern Caucasus is threatening the economic, political and cultural security of the country. There is also the opposite opinion, that Russia does not have a mobile workforce and that considerations of prestige encourage people to give up low paid, dirty jobs, while the demographic decline and collapse of vocational education create many vacancies in the production industry, where Russia cannot do without migrants. What is your opinion about this? Does Russia need guest workers or not?

I agree that the workforce in Russia is at a very low mobility level. Primarily, this is linked with enormous costs. The choice of jobs may be bigger, but housing is bound to be more expensive. It is important to increase the mobility of the Russian population. This task is directly linked with the development of an affordable mortgage and an ability to rent municipal housing. But even if all institutional conditions are considered, Russians will still not take low paying jobs.

There is one more serious problem – the size of the able bodied population is rapidly decreasing in Russia. According to expert estimates, this number will drop by about 800,000 people per year. The maximum decrease is expected to take place in 2015 – 2016. So, there is no doubt that Russia will not be able to manage without migrants in those jobs that are not taken by the native population (utilities, transport and construction). This is especially true of large cities.

This raises the following question. If we need guest workers, do we need so many as we have now?

If they find jobs, they are needed by the market. This is a criminal, semi-shadowy market with very low salaries, but it needs them. All Central Asian migration is based on a very clear approach – people only go to Russia if those in charge tell them that there are jobs.   

So, what can we do about the numerous problems that accompany the presence of guest workers in this country? I’m primarily referring to their adaptation, their attempts to oust the native population and higher crime rates.

Every coin has two sides. The presence of cheap labor has negative aspects and the only solution here is to reduce these aspects to the minimum by analyzing the experience of countries that have faced the same problems – France, Britain and the United States. I don’t know about these statistics regarding higher crime rates among migrants. This is a big myth. Of course, they are committing crimes but again this is a problem of statistics. When they say that 40% of crimes are committed by non-Muscovites, they do mean non-Muscovites rather than migrants. In other words, this figure includes Russian citizens that have come from the regions.

I think the problem is not rooted in the crime rate. It comes from society’s strong xenophobia. Ethnic and cultural differences are a fact that is uncomfortable for many people. As for migrants ousting the native population, I can say that few of them bring their families to Russia.

Do you think the proposal on coming to Russia with foreign passports makes sense? Will it resolve the problem?

For the time being I don’t understand how to combine the introduction of visas – a very corruption-prone procedure for the CIS – with the needs of the flow of guest workers into Russia. This is a complicated task. If it is possible to bribe customs officers and the police, why would there be any difficulties with getting foreign passports? No doubt, the overheads will grow. It will probably be possible to get rid of the poorest guest workers who won’t be able to pay for their visas. But that's it. If the state wants to know how many guest workers have crossed the border, they should be able to present migration cards, without which they cannot come to Russia.

I think that the issue of passports may be subject to discussion, but it won’t prevent illegal migrants from coming to Russia.

But still, is Russia likely to go for it? What would you say in response to the opinion that the only way out is to completely close the Russian market to unqualified labor from Asia, including complete cancellation of all migrant quotas?

I’m not ready to speak on behalf of the Russian authorities but I’d ask a number of questions to the advocates of such measures. For instance: “Who will clean our cities?” We may try taking this step but I’m afraid after this the residents of Russian cities will protest against dirty streets and courtyards.

If citizens of Russia believe that a country whose population consists of 24% pensioners is capable of giving up migrants and letting pensioners clean courtyards, drive buses or work at construction sites, they should realize that they will have to pay for this. If citizens are not ready to consider the economic realities and be guided by common sense, thinking that these kinds of people should not walk along our streets, they should be prepared for a sharp increase in the cost of living and utilities. Society should think twice before making this choice. In the late 1980s we had the experience of countering alcoholism, and it cost the budget 20% of its revenues.

What steps should the authorities take to resolve this problem?

It is necessary to get rid of slave labor of migrants that live in appalling conditions and accept any terms of abusive employers. I think the following measures should be taken:

1) Complete legalization of migration, including a full social package (medical insurance and pension contributions) and guaranteed protection of migrants’ rights. In this case the labor market will become more civilized and will consist of workers that receive full salaries, rather than one third of them. The number of guest workers will decrease by itself. Businesses won’t need them on a large scale if they have to pay them higher salaries. Moreover, the existence of legal migrants will help the authorities to prevent the emergence of ethnic ghettoes, which I think is very important.

2) A tough attitude toward employers that use illegal labor. But this suggests another complicated problem, because these people pay for themselves. Therefore, the solution of the migration problem is rooted in Russian government institutions. A super-corrupt country cannot pursue an effective policy as regards guest workers with every official pursuing his own interests.

Importantly, not a single country has managed to find a solution to the migrant issue. The problems of receiving societies are so diverse that a simple solution does not exist. It is essential to conduct a balanced and sensible search for mechanisms to help normalize the situation, refraining from any extreme measures.

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