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Attempt to Reverse Migration Rivers of Kazakstan

In recent years, Kazakstan has seen many technical specialists, economists and teachers leaving the country and fewer potential workers coming in their place.


A screenshot of Oralman film directed by Sabit Kurmanbekov

На русском Қазақша

The negative balance in 2017 reached its worst in the last decade – 37 thousand people left the country. Moreover, the situation in 2018 got even worse: 4,500 people departed from the country in two months. This is 32 per cent more than in the same period of 2017. The government relies greatly on the repatriation programme. How justified is it?

This year’s late June, minister of labour and social welfare of Kazakstan, Madina Abylkassymova, said that the current migration laws of Kazakstan do not meet the needs for economic, social and demographic development of the country as they do not encourage adaptation and integration of migrant workers and oralmans [returnees]. Also, Abylkassymova said that the state planned to enhance the work permit system, to improve the quota system and mechanism of employment of foreign nationals, and also to simplify the entry rules for business purposes. In conclusion, the minister made a loud statement that these measures will attract 40 thousand qualified specialists to the country per annum. Just then she focused on oralmans, 20 thousand of whom, according to Madina Abylkassymova, would enter the country every year.

North – South

“I am Yermek. I am 37. I came here (village of Shygys, Eastern Kazakstan – author’s note) in 2011 from Uzbekistan. It was hard to find a job in Uzbekistan, and I wanted to go back to my motherland, so we prepared all documents and came here. When I just arrived, there were problems in the village, but now everything is fine. I work on the market and I don’t earn enough money. I cannot go to the city because I don’t speak Russian, which is a must there,” a citizen who settled down in the village told about himself.

Arguably, Yermek is an average oralman among a million of other oralmans who have come back within 27 years: he came from Uzbekistan, just like 61 per cent of all oralmans, he has general secondary education, just like 55 per cent of returning ethnic Kazaks. Around 25 per cent, according to open sources, have vocational secondary education, 12 per cent of oralmans have a university degree, and 8 per cent have no education at all. What distinguishes this man from the majority is his placement in the east of the country, not south. Southern Kazakstan is a densely populated region in the country with excess working population, respectively. However, despite the financial problems, it’s easier for oralmans to live in southern regions because they have no language barrier there.

Level of education of oralmans entering Kazakstan in 2017 (%)

General secondary education – completion of grades 10-11.

Source: Ministry of national economy of the Republic of Kazakstan

“The first problem oralmans face is the language barrier. Post-soviet Kazakstan has not switched to the state language in full, and over a half of population still speak Russian. In northern and eastern regions, fewer locals speak Kazak,” activist Ulan Shamshet, who was a committed advocate of oralman interests in the past, and now is the editor of news and analysis portal AlmaKZ, said.

Meanwhile, the expert of the World Economy and Policy Institute, Serik Beisembayev, noted that Chinese Kazaks find it very difficult to adapt.

“Oralmans from Uzbekistan are people from the Soviet Union. So, they have relatively fewer differences from Kazaks of Kazakstan. I think this group has adapted successfully. Oralmans from China are different. People there lived outside of the Soviet Union, they don’t speak Russian, they write in Arabic script,” Serik Beisembayev said.

The language barrier is just one of the problems in the repatriation programme. Despite the fact that the state committed itself to returning the oralmans from the southern region to the northern one, there has been no progress. Thus, according to statistical data as of late April 2018, only 203 persons moved to Northern Kazakstan region from other regions, although the relocation quota covered 3,445 people. Housing and employment are the cornerstones of both resettlement programme and ambition plans of the state to close the gap of specialists.

The first cornerstone is housing. Currently, along with the quota for relocation, subsidies are provided to cover housing rent for 12 months. A returnee has to cover rental costs at the end of 12 months. The point is that here one cannot find cheap housing compared to the south.

The second cornerstone is employment. In April 2018 the oblast website otyrar.kz quoted the manager of regional employment and social programmes coordination office, Sergei Yakovenko, who provided the visual statistical data.

“There are 89 able-bodied persons among the returnees. 26 persons have been employed, 24 are on maternity leaves, two housewives, nine persons are going to become self-employed, and 28 persons are unemployed,” the portal quoted Sergei Yakovenko.

Why is it so complicated? There is always an opportunity to engage in farming, but according to expert Ulan Shamshet it’s difficult to find a niche in the north.

“Northern regions are traditionally engaged in crop farming, grow wheat. However, all land is occupied by private farms, many land plots belong to local landowners. Is the land enough for all, can the government provide livelihoods for people? Many programmes in our country are proclamatory, having no system approach. Moreover, the lack of direct elections of local governors does not guarantee optimal promotion of state programmes as the akims of regions, regional centres and villages can change every year,” Ulan Shamshet said.

Bureaucratic barriers

Oralman film directed by Sabit Kurmanbekov

Despite the problems admitted by the government, the funds are still being allocated; highly-skilled specialists keep on immigrating to Russia, Germany and the United States, while the government statements don’t go beyond administrative decisions: soon it will be possible to return to Kazakstan not only with a family, but alone, and the citizenship procedure is promised to be expedited. The government seems to deserve praise if it wasn’t for major blunders.

“The biggest problem faced by oralmans is still the same, it is the citizenship. Those who received the oralman ID in 2007-2009 cannot apply for citizenship.  People can have the status of oralmans for a certain period only. Now the law does not provide for the prolongation,” Muratkhan Kenzhekhan, a journalist of Didar newspaper, who has long covered the problems of oralmans, said.

Serik Beisembayev, an expert of the World Economy and Policy Institute, confirmed the existence of this problem.

“The main problem is coming from administrative and bureaucratic aspects. How do they respond to the problems of people who come back? Frequent changes in laws cause many issues to people who prepare their documents. The government frequently changes the authority responsible for this policy: migration committee, ministry of interior affairs, ministry of labour and social welfare. The problems of interdepartmental coordination complicate the process of paperwork, employment, etc.,” speaker said.

“The problems of interdepartmental coordination complicate the process of paperwork, employment, etc.,” Serik Beisembayev.

“Until now, there are facts mentioned by the minister of labour and social welfare that oralmans don’t have enough time to receive citizenship (e.g. issues with documents arise, or a person doesn’t know where to apply) and thus lose their right to citizenship despite the existing simplified citizenship procedure for oralmans. Moreover, these problems cause heavy economic losses. How much has Kazakstan lost during its independence?

Unfortunately, we will never know that for sure because the transfer of competencies regarding oralmans to another agency has affected our right to obtain information about money spent.

According to the reply to our official inquiry sent to the body responsible for the repatriation programme (Committee of labour, social welfare and migration), no information is available about the amount of money spent for repatriation.

“Since 1991, various authorities have been responsible for the migration of people – agency for migration and demography of Kazakstan, Kazakstan ministry of interior affairs, ministry of health and social development, ministry of labour and social welfare, and others. In this regard, it is not possible to [provide] information about the money spent from the national budget,” the committee replied.

However, some media outlets have written about 197,795,600 tenge allocated under the Nurly Kosh Programme (Light movement – author’s note), but no financial statements have been published. Also, the media published information that 27 billion tenge were allocated for the repatriation programme implementation in 2009-2011. However, no information about the number of houses built for oralmans, or money spent can be found, neither can it be verified.

Moreover, the contacts of centres for adaptation and integration of oralmans provided on the e-government portal are often invalid. Thus, no one answered our call to the centres for adaptation in Eastern Kazakstan and Pavlodar regions, and in Northern Kazakstan region an oralman seeking help would contact a wrong authority if he calls the number shown on the website.

Balance of migration in Kazakstan in 1999-2017 (thousand people)

From 2004 to 2012, the balance of migration in Kazakstan was positive, more people came to Kazakstan than left. However, since 2012, the flow of people leaving and coming has diminished.

Overall picture

Ulan Shamshet, who has long contacted oralmans, said that the situation is difficult for returning adult Kazaks. They often find low-paid jobs and always short on money. It’s tough on their children, as well.

“Children adapt faster and have to help their parents. Many of them live below the poverty line, so their children don’t always have a chance to study at universities and they cannot even dream of studying abroad. Children see these hardships from the cradle, but on the other hand they are making them stronger and kids try to become competitive,” Ulan said.

Quite obviously, Kazakstan won’t be able to reproduce the experience of Israel, no matter what the government declares. Top officials of Israel have said many times that Israel’s Aliyah repatriation programme has saved the state. This was not always the case. At first, the repatriation negatively affected the social and economic development. In 1949, officials decided to resettle 130 thousand new returnees. Due to major problems of their employment and establishment of basic municipal services, these districts turned into poor neighbourhoods. Later on they understood that they should be aware of their capacities: if the state, being in a difficult situation, spends billions to attract people whom it cannot fully support, there’s no point speaking about the economic contribution of returnees.

However, Kazakstan concerned with the ‘brain drain’ still doesn’t want to know the total amount spent and keeps on claiming that 20 thousand people, which cannot be supported properly, would be enough to replace the specialists who have departed. Most importantly, many promising young people leave the country. Master of social sciences Kurmet Adamov explained this fact.

Kurmet Adamov. Photo: fmo.enu.kz

“There are several reasons. The first one is the low quality of education. Let’s take China as an example. It provides grants for free study and accommodation to students who want to learn Chinese. Russia does the same thing, attracting the best of young Kazaks by offering them beneficial conditions of education and further employment. The second one is the reunification with the historical homeland. The majority of expatriates are representatives of ethnic minorities. The third one is the stagnation of economy. The fourth one is the language issue. The government’s declaration about the switch of the Kazak language to Latin alphabet encourages Russian-speaking people to depart. The fifth one is tribalism and corruption,” Kurmet Adamov said.

What can be done about it? In addition to a complete change of the repatriation programme, global changes are also needed because the consequences may be critical, according to experts.

“The problem of brain drain can be solved if we follow the “return migration” policy, when the state encourages the return of experienced specialists to the competitive environment they are accustomed to. It requires a relevant environment. First of all, a competitive political and economic environment needs to be created with social mobility mechanisms and non-existing tribalism, which encourages career development only within a certain group of people,” Adamov said.

“Second, we need to raise the living standards of people to have more middle class representatives. Third, equal opportunities mean equal access to quality education, i.e. not diploma but lifelong learning skills. Moreover, equal access to quality education must be available in all the regions of the country, not only in Astana or Almaty. Fourth, we should develop innovation economics, where the final product is not just innovative technology, but production of ideas, projects and knowledge in all spheres that have practical and theoretical significance,” he concluded.

Khadisha Akaeva – CABAR.asia School of analytic journalism alumnus  


This publication was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Norway Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect the position of the editorial team or a donor.