Massive emigration from Kyrgyzstan started in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time, ethnic Russians returning to Russia accounted for most of the outflow, but, within a few years, the search for better job opportunities had prompted many ethnic Kyrgyz to head to Russia and Kazakhstan as well. Fifteen years of labor migration has drawn not only unskilled workers from the country's rural areas, but also members of the intelligentsia and qualified specialists from urban centers.
The State Committee on Migration and Employment estimates that roughly 300,000 Kyrgyz citizens now permanently work in Russia and about 80,000 in Kazakhstan, most of them illegally. Other estimates put the number of migrants as high as 700,000, or one-seventh of the country's population.
Low salaries and limited job opportunities are the main reasons for this migration trend. Most migrants are from the heavily populated regions of Jalalabat, Osh and Batken where industrial production stopped after the collapse of the Soviet Union and inadequate land exists for farming. . In some southern regions (Kadamzhai, Uzgen), up to 70 percent of the population has left in search of work abroad, leaving only children and the elderly.
Migration continued apace after the March 2005 uprising against former President Askar Akayev. Akyikat Zholu, a non-governmental organization which works with migrant rights, estimates that the outflow of Kyrgyz migrants increased by five to 10 percent after the revolution. According to the National Statistics Committee, 30,741 Kyrgyz officially left the country in 2005; roughly half were ethnic Russians, with 6,296 ethnic Kyrgyz.
These migrants also provide a critical source of income for Kyrgyz who remain at home. So long as the economy remains weak, little incentive exists for the government to try and reverse the flow, observers who work with Kyrgyz migrants say.
In 2005 labor migrants sent home $ 299 million, more than a third of the country's budget. The Committee, however, estimates that the real value of remittances could be around $ 600 million. Officials emphasize that only with these remittances is Kyrgyzstan able to maintain the exchange rate of the som, the Kyrgyz currency, against the US dollar.
The government reports that it is developing a comprehensive migration strategy to regulate the process and improve conditions for Kyrgyz migrants abroad. The Committee, formed in September 2005, now runs six offices in Russia and Kazakhstan which provide legal and other assistance to labor migrants from Kyrgyzstan. In 2005, Kyrgyz labor migrants took part in presidential elections for the first time thanks to voting centers set up in major Russian and Kazakhstani cities by the government and Kyrgyz NGOs. The department is also developing agreements with South Korea, Canada and the Czech Republic, where communities of Kyrgyz migrants are growing.