A. Executive Summary
Kyrgyzstan is a parliamentary republic with extensive presidential powers. It is a Central Asian state that was part of the former Soviet Union and became independent in 1991. With an area of 199,945 km2, this landlocked country shares borders with China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. According to the World Bank, the population totalled 6,400,000 million in 2019, of which 34% resided in urban areas of the country and 66% in rural regions. The country is rich in mineral deposits, arable land, pastures, and forests, and possesses significant coal reserves as well as oil and natural gas deposits. The main sectors of the country’s agriculture and economy are: livestock breeding; the cultivation of cotton, fruit, and vegetables; and cereals, tobacco, and wool production.
Kyrgyzstan has a young population, with over 50% being under the age of 30. In addition to Kyrgyz, who make up roughly 75% of the population, the country is populated by various ethnic groups including Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Tatars, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Koreans, Uighurs, and Germans who were exiled from the Soviet Union in 1941. This diversity is also found in the languages spoken in Kyrgyzstan: while the country’s official languages are Russian and Kyrgyz, spoken by most of the population, a sizeable minority speaks Uzbek. The majority of the population is Muslim (90%) and 8% belong to the Orthodox Church. Other religions make up the remaining 2% minority, of which approximately 500 are Catholics.
Kyrgyzstan has a per capita GDP of 1,328 USD and the population heavily depends on remittances. According to World Bank estimates, remittances from migrant workers account for roughly 30% of the country’s GDP. The country has a poverty rate of 6-7%.
It is estimated that approximately 700,000 Kyrgyz citizens work abroad. International labour migration mainly flows toward the Russian Federation and the Republic of Kazakhstan, where Kyrgyz migrants are employed in manual labour and entrepreneurial activities. About 30,000 migrants also work in countries outside of the Commonwealth of Independent States, such as Germany, the United States, Turkey, and others.
In Kyrgyzstan, Chinese migrant workers occupy about 77% of the jobs provided by the annual migrant labour quota. This category of migrant workers mainly occupies the jobs left vacant as a result of the outflow of Kyrgyz citizens abroad. As reported by the Migration Data Portal, the number of Kyrgyzstan’s international migrants in 2019 totalled approximately 200,000 people. In general, 75% of migrants are men and women under the age of 35, and more than half of these migrant workers of both sexes have families (roughly 60%).
There was a total of 3,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Kyrgyzstan in 2019, while 353 Kyrgyz refugees were in host countries. The main countries of origin of migrants and asylum seekers in Kyrgyzstan are Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Many of these migrants continue their journey to the Russian Federation and Europe. According to the UNHCR, as of January 2019, Kyrgyzstan hosted 333 refugees, of which 187 refugees were recognised under the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 2002 Kyrgyz Refugee Law, while the remaining 146 refugees were recognised on an individual basis under the UNHCR mandate. The refugees originated from Afghanistan (223), Syria (77), Ukraine (19), and other countries (14); 137 refugees were women, while 196 were men. In the same year, the country hosted 109 asylum seekers. Asylum seekers came from Afghanistan (34), Turkey (31), Syria (14), Uzbekistan (10), and other countries (20).
B. Country Profile
I. Basic Information
Kyrgyzstan is a parliamentary republic with extensive presidential powers. It is a Central Asian state that was part of the former Soviet Union and became independent in 1991. With an area of 199,945 km2, this landlocked country shares borders with China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. It is a member state of the UN, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the OSCE, and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). According to the World Bank, the population totalled 6,400,000 million in 2019, of which 34% resided in urban areas of the country and 66% in rural regions.
The country is rich in mineral deposits, arable land, pastures, and forests, and possesses significant coal reserves as well as oil and natural gas deposits. The main sectors of the country’s agriculture and economy are: livestock breeding; the cultivation of cotton, fruit, and vegetables; and cereals, tobacco, and wool production. As Kyrgyzstan is predominantly dependent on agriculture, climate change increases the vulnerability of the population, especially those living in rural areas.
Kyrgyzstan has a per capita GDP of 1,328 USD and the population is heavily depends on remittances. According to World Bank estimates, remittances from migrant workers account for around 30% of the country’s GDP. The country has a poverty rate of 6-7%
Kyrgyzstan has a young population, with over 50% being under 30 years old. In addition to the Kyrgyz, who make up roughly 75% of the population, the country is populated by various ethnic groups such as Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Tatars, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Koreans, Uighurs, and Germans who were exiled from the Soviet Union in 1941.
Most Kyrgyz speak Kyrgyz, a language belonging to the north-western group of Turkic languages, and the official language of the country along with Russian, while a substantial minority speak Uzbek. The majority of the population is Muslim (90%) and 8% belong to the Orthodox Church. Other religions make up the remaining 2% minority, of which approximately 500 are Catholics.
II. Internal and International Migration
During the years following Kyrgyzstan’s independence, population migration was dynamic. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, international migration grew considerably: labour migration, in particular, became increasingly popular and today has reached significant numbers. It is estimated that there are between 350,000 and 700,000 Kyrgyz citizens working abroad. International labour migration mainly flows towards the Russian Federation and the Republic of Kazakhstan, where Kyrgyz migrants are engaged in manual labour and entrepreneurial activities. In addition, as many as 30,000 Kyrgyz migrants work in countries outside the CIS such as Germany, the United States, and Turkey. Within Kyrgyzstan, Chinese migrant workers occupy about 77% of the jobs provided by the annual migrant labour. This category of migrant workers mainly fills the jobs left vacant as a result of the outflow of Kyrgyz citizens. As reported by the Migration Data Portal for 2019, the number of international migrants to Kyrgyzstan totalled approximately 200,000 people.
The dynamics of internal migration in Kyrgyzstan are characterised by rural-urban migration, with people moving from economically disadvantaged regions of the country to more prosperous areas. Among the most common destinations for rural residents are the capital city of Bishkek, the province of Chui, and the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad for the inhabitants of the southern regions of Kyrgyzstan. Internal migration accounts for 60% of the country’s migration, with the remaining 40% moving internationally. As in many developing countries, rural-urban migration is a strongly increasing trend. Moreover, migrant settlements around the capital city of Bishkek have led to the creation of informal settlements on the outskirts of the city, where basic infrastructure and services are often lacking. While according to the Constitution, the absence of a residence (propiska) cannot restrict the rights and freedoms of citizens; in reality, a residence is one of the conditions for access to guaranteed social services. This exacerbates the challenges that internal migrants face in accessing their rights.
According to various estimates, the number of Kyrgyz emigrants is between 650,000 and 1,000,000 people: thus 12-17% of the Kyrgyz population lives abroad. Although these migratory flows consist mainly of young men, the number of women has increased in recent years, making Kyrgyzstan an exception among Central Asian countries of origin. In the Russian Federation, for example, about 40% of migrants arriving from Kyrgyzstan are women. Whereas in Kyrgyzstan, Tajik and Uzbek women make up less than 20% of the total number of migrants in the country. Poverty, unemployment, and low wages are among the main causes for Kyrgyz migration abroad. Particularly in the case of women, the desire to increase their income and provide economic support for their families is an especially strong factor.
In general, 75% of Kyrgyz migrants are men and women under the age of 35, and more than half of migrant workers of both sexes have families (around 60%). Among the destinations with the highest number of migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan are the Russian Federation (roughly 600,000), Kazakhstan (115,000), Turkey (14,000), Korea (15,000), and other countries (30,000). Recently there has also been an increase in migration to the Middle East. Bilateral agreements on labour migration have also been signed between Kyrgyzstan and Korea. For Kyrgyz populations in rural areas, labour migration is a major source of livelihood, and countries such as the Russian Federation are generally among the preferred destinations. Migrant workers can enter the Russian Federation without a visa. Within the Russian Federation, there is a significant number of Kyrgyz who are already well integrated in the country and who provide assistance to newcomers to find work and suitable accommodation.
III. Emigration and Skilled Migration
According to data from the Migration Data Portal, as of the total number of people who have emigrated from Kyrgyzstan is roughly 733,000. Since Kyrgyz independence in 1991, the majority of these emigrants have been Russian speakers. The number of Kyrgyz people involved in migration is steadily growing. While over 64% of the emigrating population has an average level of education, 52% have no vocational training. The highest number of registered Kyrgyz emigrants is in the Russian Federation, totalling roughly 640,000. The main destinations for emigrants among non-CIS countries are Turkey, the US, and Italy. According to data from the State Migration Service of Kyrgyzstan, the number of Kyrgyz citizens registered in non-CIS countries in 2018 was: 30,000 in Turkey; 15,000 in the United States; 5,500 in Italy; 5,000 in Germany, 5,000 in Korea, 3,000 in the United Arab Emirates, and 2,000 in England.
The main factors driving emigration from Kyrgyzstan are: high unemployment and lack of jobs, especially among young people; the low level of development of the social security system. The main pull factors for emigration are the strong demand for labour in destination countries and, consequently, the attractive migration policies of these countries.
Kyrgyzstan’s most populous region, Osh, is also the part of the country most affected by emigration. As a result of limited employment opportunities and an insufficient number of jobs, Osh accounts for 35% of all Kyrgyz emigrants.
IV. Forced Migration (internally displaced persons, asylum seekers, refugees, and climate displaced persons)
The total number of refugees and asylum seekers in Kyrgyzstan in 2019 totalled 3,000. Many of these migrants continue their journey to the Russian Federation and Europe. The main countries of origin include Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Some groups of asylum seekers in Kyrgyzstan register with the Kyrgyz Ministry of Labour, Employment, and Migration. Others are registered through the UNHCR, and then granted refugee status either through the Kyrgyz government or the UN agency. According to the 2020 report of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), a military conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010 displaced over 300,000 persons and 90,000 refugees, mainly women, children, and elderly ethnic Uzbeks, who fled to the border with Uzbekistan. Although a large proportion of those displaced returned to their places of origin, 170,000 of them were still displaced in 2011. Since then, however, little information is available on their conditions. In 2013, some 5,900 IDPs were registered. In 2018, roughly 4,700 persons were displaced by environmental crises. In 2019, another 770 new IDPs were registered due to a conflict on the border with Tajikistan.
According to the UNHCR, as of January 2019, Kyrgyzstan hosted 333 refugees, of which 187 refugees were recognised under the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 2002 Kyrgyz Refugee Law, while the remaining 146 refugees were recognised on an individual basis under the UNHCR mandate. The refugees originated from Afghanistan (223), Syria (77), Ukraine (19), and other countries (14); 137 refugees were women, while 196 were men. In the same year, the country hosted 109 asylum seekers. Asylum seekers came from Afghanistan (34), Turkey (31), Syria (14), Uzbekistan (10), and other countries (20).
Refugees recognised in accordance with the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees and the 2002 Kyrgyz Refugee Law enjoy basic rights, including the right to work as well as access to health care and education. Those recognised under the UNHCR mandate, which works closely with the relevant Kyrgyz authorities, do not enjoy the same rights, as their legal status is not recognised by the government. Officially, recognised refugees in Kyrgyzstan can benefit from integration programmes covering issues of citizenship, employment, education, and healthcare, in addition to housing and employment opportunities.
With regard to statelessness, in 2020, Kyrgyzstan became the first country in the world to recognise all its cases of statelessness. More than 13,700 stateless persons in the country were recognised, including 2,000 children previously identified through the “IBelong” campaign, an initiative launched by the UNHCR in 2014.
More than 60% of Kyrgyzstan’s total population resides in rural areas and is directly dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods. Kyrgyzstan is subject to climate change and natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and landslides. Among other things, there are significant challenges related to water resources, as well as land and pasture degradation. The natural events that exacerbate these difficulties related to water, land, and pastures are common in Kyrgyzstan and result in a considerable number of environmentally displaced persons. Artificial phenomena that create potential risks for displacement include water and soil pollution from mining. For example, in 1998, soil and water pollution in the Barkaun River forced people in the Issyk-Kul province to leave their homes.
V. Victims of Human Trafficking
Among the fundamental rights and freedoms of the person and the citizen, the Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic, recognises the rights of all persons to dignity, freedom, and personal inviolability (Articles 24 and 25). The Criminal Code of Kyrgyzstan provides for criminal sanctions for a number of crimes that violate these constitutional rights and the freedom of citizens. One of the crimes that violate personal freedom is human trafficking. In 2009, and criminal measures were introduced in Kyrgyzstan due to the widespread nature of this crime. With the introduction of the market economy, crimes related to human trafficking and forced labour in the country have increased and continue to be a major challenge, exacerbated by factors such as unemployment, social inequality, and the economic crisis.
According to the United States Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report 2020, Kyrgyzstan does not yet fully meet minimum standards against trafficking in persons, but is making significant efforts to identify and protect victims of trafficking. On January 1, 2019, the new Criminal Code came into force, stipulating criminal liability for crimes related to trafficking in persons. Indeed, Articles 171 and 173 of the new Code criminalise human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labour, prescribing penalties of 2 to 5 years of imprisonment when the victim is an adult. Article 260 provides for 5 to 10 years of imprisonment if the trafficked person is between 14 and 17 years old, and 10 to 15 years of imprisonment if the trafficking victim is under 14 years old.
The Kyrgyz State Migration Service is a coordinating body that prevents and combats human trafficking and includes representatives of specialised agencies, NGOs, and international organisations. This working group has implemented the National Action Plan for 2021-2024. In 2019, international organisations and NGOs assisted 72 victims of trafficking: 60 of whom were victims of forced labour and 12 of whom were victims of sexual exploitation. Of these victims, 40 were men and 32 were women.
As reported in the Trafficking in Persons Report 2020, over the past five years, Kyrgyz victims were exploited by traffickers both in Kyrgyzstan and abroad. Kyrgyz men, women, and children are mainly trafficked to Russia and Kazakhstan. They are also trafficked to a lesser extent to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Korea, and European countries. Kyrgyz migrants working abroad are among those most at risk. At the same time, Kyrgyz victims are also trafficked within Kyrgyzstan itself, particularly for use in agriculture, construction, textiles, domestic service, and childcare.
VI. National Legal Framework
The main pieces of legislation in Kyrgyzstan that govern and define the national legal framework for migration are the following:
a) The Constitution of 1994 (with the latest amendments in 2016);
b) The External Migration Law of 2000 (with the amendments of 2017);
c) The Internal Migration Act of 2002;
d) The Law on Foreigners Present on the Territory of Kyrgyzstan of 1993;
e) The Refugee Law of 2002 (most recently amended in 2017);
f) The Citizenship Law of 2002 (with the amendments of 2016); and
g) The Law on Combating Trafficking in Persons of 2005 (amended in 2018).
In 1996, Kyrgyzstan ratified the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 New York Protocol. It has not acceded to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons or the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. The 2002 Refugee Act (with the latest amendments in 2017) broadly defines refugees to include those fleeing armed or inter-ethnic conflict. Previous legislation referred to family members as “other accompanying persons,” whereas the latest amendments refer to them as “relatives.” According to the Law on Refugees, Kyrgyzstan recognises a “refugee” as a person who does not possess Kyrgyzstan citizenship and has sought asylum outside the country of his or her permanent residence due to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, politics, or membership in a particular social group, as well as armed or inter-ethnic conflict, and who, because of this fear, cannot seek protection in his or her own country.
The Kyrgyz State Migration Service is responsible for determining refugee status. In 2016, however, the territorial structures of the State Migration Service were abolished and the refugee unit was significantly downsized and merged with another unit in charge of handling ethnic returns (kairylman). This has consequently affected the quality and priority of processing asylum applications.
Citizenship issues are primarily governed by the Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic and the 2007 Citizenship Law, amended in 2016. The Law on Citizenship confers Kyrgyz citizenship on children born to stateless parents or children born in Kyrgyzstan whose parents are unknown. Children born to parents with unestablished nationality, on the other hand, can acquire Kyrgyz citizenship after the stateless status of their parents has been formally confirmed. According to UNICEF data, among children under the age of five, 97.8% were registered at birth, while 18,000 children were not registered. Indeed, in January 2019, UNICEF and UNHCR jointly organised a parliamentary roundtable in Kyrgyzstan to advocate for legislative changes to ensure that all children born in Kyrgyzstan are registered immediately after birth, regardless of the legal status of their parents.
The State Registry Service and its territorial units are responsible for registering stateless persons and making decisions on applications for citizenship. The State Registry Service is currently being reviewed and adapted to fit international standards. The main objectives of migration policy in areas of labour migration are: the unification of national legislation with international standards; the development of bilateral cooperation with partner countries; and multilateral cooperation in the regional framework. To this end, bilateral agreements on labour migration have been negotiated and signed with Russia, Kazakhstan, and Korea.
VII. Main Actors
The Kyrgyz Migration Service operates an Information and Advisory Centre that provides assistance to Kyrgyz citizens regarding employment opportunities in neighbouring countries and abroad. In 2016, the State Migration Service developed a draft concept of the migration policy to be implemented until 2030. The concept was jointly discussed and approved by the relevant ministries and departments and is currently under review. In the same year, the “Kairylman” Programme for the period 2017-2022 was developed and approved in order to provide assistance to Kyrgyz people who have returned to their native land from foreign countries.
Cooperation between international organisations and NGOs has also been established in Kyrgyzstan for the development and implementation of safe migration projects. Together with the Ministry of Labour, Employment, and Migration, and with the contribution of the IOM, the migration and anti-trafficking hotline “189” has been set up.
Kyrgyz authorities pay significant attention to migration and protection issues of Kyrgyz migrant workers abroad, publishing brochures and leaflets in Kyrgyz and Russian for those seeking employment within the CIS and in other countries, highlighting the dangers of trafficking and providing the numbers of hotlines for assistance.
The Catholic Church
The Catholic Church in Kyrgyzstan has a relatively recent history. In 1994, the Apostolic Nunciature was established in the country, and in 1997, Pope John Paul II founded the Mission sui iuris of the Holy See, which was later elevated to an apostolic administration by Pope Benedict XVI. The Apostolic Administration, which covers all national territory, has its office in the capital city of Bishkek, and is managed by the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). The territory includes three parishes in the cities of Bishkek, Jalal-Abad, and Talas as well as small Catholic communities scattered throughout the country. There is also the Congregation of the School Sisters of Saint Francis, who devote themselves mainly to educating young people and assisting the sick and needy.
Caritas Kyrgyzstan is also present in the country, and as of 2019 it is a new member of Caritas Internationalis. The mission projects of Caritas Kyrgyzstan mainly focus on education, rehabilitation, and voluntary returns. As part of the efforts for voluntary returns to Kyrgyzstan, legal and economic assistance is provided to beneficiaries, as well as practical support for reintegration into the community. Caritas Kyrgyzstan also provides inclusive counselling on voluntary return and capacity-building once back in Kyrgyzstan.
International agencies, NGOs, and civil society organisations working with migrants on various levels make significant contributions to solving existing problems in the field of migration. Both IOM and UNHCR are active on the ground. As reported by IOM Kyrgyzstan, UN agencies in Kyrgyzstan officially launched the UN Migration Network to provide support to Kyrgyz authorities in achieving the goals of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM) in December 2020. The IOM is one of the main international partners on migration issues. More than 700,000 Kyrgyz citizens work abroad, making an important contribution to the country’s development. In 2020, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a large number of Kyrgyz migrants returned home, encountering various difficulties and seeking support. In response to this need, IOM launched a project in October 2020 entitled “Community stabilisation through reintegration of returned migrants in the Kyrgyz Republic and the Republic of Tajikistan during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.” In general, NGOs in Kyrgyzstan successfully implement a range of migration-related projects.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), in collaboration with international organisations, has developed the “Safe Migration in Central Asia” project to help victims of trafficking reintegrate into the community, often with small grants to enable them to set up their own businesses and develop livelihoods that allow them to remain in Kyrgyzstan and not emigrate. This five-year project, implemented by Winrock International in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, also aims to prevent human trafficking, protect victims, and facilitate safe migration. Within the framework of the project, 2,245 victims of trafficking have received assistance.
The Red Cross, the Soros Foundation, and the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED) are also involved. ACTED is a French NGO founded in 1993 to support vulnerable populations affected by humanitarian crises. ACTED provides ongoing support to vulnerable communities, ensuring the sustainability of post-crisis interventions in order to break the cycle of poverty and boost development by reducing the consequences of disasters. Interventions aim to cover multiple aspects of humanitarian and development crises through a multidisciplinary approach that is both global and local, adapted to each context. It has been present in Kyrgyzstan since 2000 in the regions of Jalad-Abad, Osh, Batken, and Naryn. While the overall objective of ACTED projects in Kyrgyzstan is development, 20% of the activities are dedicated to rehabilitation due to inadequate infrastructure in rural areas. The projects of ACTED in Kyrgyzstan include local initiatives for cultural development, community mobilisation, development of local entrepreneurship through vocational training centres, agricultural cooperatives, micro-credit, training of skilled labour and basic education, efforts to counter the consequences of natural disasters and conflict prevention. In the future, ACTED Kyrgyzstan will focus its efforts on labour migration, creating effective migration mechanisms in order to intensify socio-economic development.