Movements and Migrants in Central Asia*
Movements in Central Asia have become large-scale and permanent, involving all social groups, rich and poor, women and men, young and old. They move around their own countries and among countries. Some go for several weeks or months and come back, while others live far from their place of birth for years, only occasionally visiting their homelands. Still others leave forever, breaking all ties. Some travel in search of a new homeland, so to speak. Others go to make money, study or receive medical treatment. Still others go for fun and excitement.
All this movement has come as a surprise to experts and politicians. I still remember the debates in the Soviet Union in the 1980s as to why the people of Central Asia were reluctant to travel outside their region. Even then officials and academics in Moscow, observing the beginnings of the demographic decline in Russia itself, were planning to relocate people from borderlands with an excess labor force to the central regions of the then still-unified country.
These plans failed, because few people wanted to leave their homes. Only organized and, in fact, involuntary labor recruitment and military labor brigades partly solved the increased need for labor power. The weak affinity that Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz felt for voluntary mobility was proclaimed, on their part, an inherent and incorrigible attachment to family, community, and the hot climate.
However, all these explanations were put to shame only a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when millions of people from the titular Central Asian nations felt an irresistible urge to hit the road, leaving and, sometimes, literally abandoning their homes.
Let us try and make sense of these circumstances, to understand why movement in the region has suddenly become a vital life strategy among a considerable number of people.