Russian parliamentarians have requested that the government increase its control over Central Asian migrants, due to a supposed infiltration of these communities by Islamic State fighters. Militants disguised as labor migrants had allegedly snuck into Russia in order to destabilize the country (Izvestia, July 6, 2015). Meanwhile, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Daniel N. Rosenblum, from the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, claimed that there is evidence that 4,000 Central Asians are in Syria fighting on the side of Islamic State, and that apparently they were recruited mainly in Russia (Csce.gov, June 11, 2015). However, together, all of the Central Asian governments’ official numbers of recruits from among their citizens do not nearly add up to 4,000; and there is no clear evidence that most recruitments took place outside their respective countries. While it is indisputable that there are former Central Asian migrants to Russia among those who have joined the radical militant group, this phenomenon should not be viewed in isolation from previous radicalization trends that have taken place in the region since the Central Asian republics’ independence. The relative levels of radicalization within these societies had never been significantly high, and there is little evidence that the recent trend regarding Islamic State is much different.
Numerous studies of labor migration have consistently shown that Central Asian migrants go to Russia mainly to work and earn money to support their dependents. Guest workers understand that joining extremist groups means a radical change to their life style and even death and harassment of their family members; therefore, it generally holds little appeal. In this author’s own conversations with various migration experts in Russia during April 2015, the phenomenon of radicalization was broadly described as occurring on a purely individual basis and without widespread appeal in the migrant communities.
Central Asian governments list official numbers of Islamic State recruits from their countries as no more than 300 from each country (Asia Plus, June 26; Deutsche Welle–Russian service, April 5). These statistics—if accurate—indicate that the chances of migrants being recruited by the Islamic State are, on average, about the same as in any other part of the world. Thus, given that there are around five million labor migrants residing in Russia, it is inevitable that there may be radicalized recruits among them.
Humiliation, discrimination and poor working conditions are most often cited as the main reasons for migrants joining radical groups like the Islamic State. These, however are not the only reasons. For one thing, Russia, afraid of anything non-Slavic, makes it exceedingly difficult to build any new mosques in the country, despite the increased number of migrants from Muslim-majority countries. Moscow, a mega-city with around 800,000 registered migrants and two million Muslims, has only four mosques (Echo Moskvi, August 6, 2014). This, inevitably, drives migrants to congregate privately, away from public eyes with sometimes uneducated, self-proclaimed imams—a situation ripe for radical recruiters. Another reason may relate to the failure of state-sanctioned mosques to take a sufficiently strong stand against groups like the Islamic State. According to this author’s conversations, in April 2015, with representatives of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Russian Federation, a non-governmental organization, mosque leaders in Moscow have not condemned the Islamic State’s actions, confusing migrants further.
The humiliating conditions in which migrants work and live, as well as their decreasing incomes in Russia due to the country’s economic crisis (see EDM, January 5; February 23; July 6), might be increasing the Islamic State’s appeal for guest workers. Indeed, this has been the argument made by US Deputy Assistant Secretary Rosenblum and several recent Western publications. But one has to remember that the Russian government’s treatment of its own citizens regarding job security, fair pay, the equal treatment of minorities, health care, care for the elderly and so on has also been far from exemplary (Author’s expert interviews in Russia, April 2015). That is why, in fact, migrants do not demand better conditions for themselves. The supposed ghettoization of migrants is also not Russian government policy. Migrants might live compactly at construction and agriculture sites or near food processing facilities and markets for the duration of their work; but there is no active government policy to place migrants in separate or designated locations. Migrants simply live where they find affordable rental properties among the local population.
Thus, focusing excessively on the threats supposedly emanating from Central Asian migrants to Russia is misleading. Central Asian migrants are just one group of potential recruits for extremist organizations. But overemphasizing migrant participation is likely to lead to undesirable consequences in which law enforcement bodies in Russia and the migrants’ countries of origin will see in all guest workers as potential terrorists and target them for harassment. A similar outcome took place when the United States government started overemphasizing the issue of human trafficking for sexual exploitation in Central Asia and overfunding the response to it. However, sex trafficking was never, in fact, a major issue in the region compared to labor trafficking. And the US government’s campaign resulted in increased harassment by domestic law enforcement of females travelling internationally. Moreover, it increased bureaucratic obstacles to travel and resulted in a related rise in corruption (Migration 21st Century, Issues 26–27, November–December 2014).
The radicalization of migrants in Russia is, therefore, best seen within a larger picture. In fact, Central Asian migrants compose only one of the groups of potential recruits in Russia. Furthermore, Central Asian governments would also likely prefer a more holistic response to this problem rather than a series of short-sighted reactive approaches to a recent phenomenon. The constant threat of radicalization among Central Asian populations has existed before, and has grown somewhat after these countries became independent. But these societies’ vulnerabilities have never reached the dramatic scale so often predicted by Western analysts. Regional governments, while confirming the existence of a threat—in particular in the immediate border areas with Afghanistan—have never attributed the main source of such dangers of radicalization to labor migrants returning from abroad.