Soldiers march on the first anniversary of the signing of the decree on the annexation of the Crimea by the Russian Federation, on March 18, 2015 in Sevastopol, Crimea.
Soldiers march on the first anniversary of the signing of the decree on the annexation of the Crimea by the Russian Federation, on March 18, 2015 in Sevastopol, Crimea. © Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images

Central Asia: How Russia Sends Migrants to War

Foreign workers are being coerced or deceived into signing up for military service as Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine continues.

Dzhamal Iskhakov, a 41-year-old taxi driver originally from Tajikistan, has lived in St Petersburg for more than ten years. He received Russian citizenship three years ago. On September 29, he came to the city’s migration office to register his father’s arrival. But instead, he received a call-up notice to join Russian forces fighting in Ukraine

“I have poor eyesight, minus 19-20,” he said. “How can I do army service with such eyesight? A [migration] officer seized my passport and told me to sign the summons. I refused to sign because I know my rights.”

Reports are growing of large numbers of Central Asian labour migrants being coerced or deceived into signing up for military service in Russia, as the full-scale invasion of Ukraine continues.

On September 22, President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilisation and ordered the

call-up of 300,000 reservists to bolster Russia’s forces in Ukraine after a series of military defeats.

The move has proved unpopular. Hundreds of thousands rushed to leave the country and on October 7, Russian media reported that 67 regions had failed to fulfil their relative quotas.

Stations receiving foreign citizens for contract military service were opened in Moscow right after the partial mobilisation was announced with Russian citizenship, provided under a simplified procedure, promised to migrants who sign one-year military contract.

A part of the rushed mobilisations, persons with disabilities and foreign citizens have been among those issued with summons, with migrants from Central Asia targeted. For instance, one Kazak citizen, who arrived in Russia in 2013 for a master’s programme in Russia and subsequently received residency, reported being served with a military summons on October 2 in St Petersburg.

Russia is the main destination for Central Asian labour migrants. Millions of people from all over the region have historically travelled to Russia for work, with their remittances playing a significant part in many countries’ economies.

But this does not mean they want to serve in the conflict in Ukraine.

Kyrgyzstani Mirlan Tursunbaev came to Moscow several years ago and now works nights in a warehouse. When he heard about the mobilisation, he decided to leave.

“I had applied for a residence permit, but my life is more valuable,” he said. “My brothers and mother are waiting for me in our village. I am planning to leave soon. My relative received Russian citizenship and immediately received the summons. He has never held a weapon in his hands, and he has a fear of heights. I cannot even imagine how he will serve.”

Human rights activist Valentina Chupik told Kloop.kg that migrants were also being deceived into military service during health checks and when applying for official documents.

“They are given a pack of papers to be signed, ‘Sign here and here quickly.’ And they sign a contract for voluntary military service among this pack of papers,” she told the outlet. On other occasions, migrants received verbal or physical threats, or warnings that they could face criminal cases - for example, for possession of narcotics - if they do not sign up.     

According to military expert Vladimir Yevseyev, some enlistment actions amounted to clear infractions of the law.

“There are persons with serious health issues, but they are still summoned. We should not allow this,” he said.

However, he stressed that it would not necessarily be simple to avoid joining the army.

On September 22, Kirill Kabanov, chair of the National Anticorruption Committee of Russia, said that his team was preparing a proposal to deprive natives of Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan of Russian citizenship if they had received it in the last ten years but refused to do military service.

“People who want to avoid [service] must understand that they will find themselves in a difficult situation,” Yevseyev continued. “The criminal code of Russia was amended regarding mobilisation. If they are prosecuted, they won’t be able to get back to Russia,” he said.

In addition, authorities across Central Asia have reminded their citizens that all countries in the region have laws against so-called mercenary activities or participation in armed conflicts in other states for material remuneration.

There are some Central Asian migrants, however, are willing to take up arms for their adopted country.

Ozod, a native of Uzbekistan who works in construction in Moscow and recently received citizenship, said he had no doubts about joining up if called to do so.

“If there’s a need, I am ready to be in the war,” the 35-year-old said. “Everybody normal must understand that if we don’t fight, we’ll be at risk. So I have no fear and I am willing to go to the front. This is my duty.”

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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