The ‘Migration Paradox’ in the former Soviet Union

When we talk about illegal migration and border control we tend to think about ‘Fortress Europe’, Schengen being torn to pieces, and the controversial patrol of the border between Mexico and the U.S. In fact, it’s a global phenomenon. Hannah Danilovich, in her research presented at the Interdisciplinary Labour Studies Group of Middlesex University, has shown that the member states of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), most of them once part of the Soviet Union, face similar problems. In the core of Eurasia, labour migration confronts a bundle of policies aimed at depriving workers of essential rights, preventing their free circulation, and milking money out of their meager incomes.

The ‘paradox’ is that the CIS is a political entity where internal circulation of workers should be unfettered. The CIS also overlaps with the Eurasian Economic Union, which links Russia with many former Soviet republics. As one would expect, Russia is the most popular destination. Unskilled, or rather, menial labour is required. Russians do not work for such meager pay, but even small remittances make a big difference to places like, say, Tajikistan, the top-world remittance receiving economy, where this source of revenue represents 52 per cent of its GDP. And that’s only the ‘trackable’ remittances, says Danilovich.

Notwithstanding filling a gap in the labour market, immigrants in Russia face a hard time. In fact, says Danilovich, it’s easier for a Mexican to move to the US than for a Tajiki to do so in Russia. Regulation for work ‘patent’ is more stringent and requires a number of expenses, among which anticipating income tax payment to the state and buying a medical insurance, that migrants can barely afford. In the UK, the Prime Minister has suggested that migrants who do not speak English might be expelled. In Russia, patents are also conditional to passing a demanding test of Russian language, culture and history. With such strict measures corruption is rampant, but irregularity keeps workers in a grey zone, as much, or more, as it would happen to irregulars in the European Union or in the United States.

In the CIS, the question of migration constrains any project of true economic integration, much as it allows Western right-wing politicians to challenge the viability of the European Union. The politics of migration, one aimed at rendering these workers more precarious while denying them citizenship, seems to be based on a set of ideas and policies that, ironically, can easily cross the borders of very different political entities, throughout the world.