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Emigration From Kazakhstan as an Outflow of Human Capital

«The process of emigration does not have any significant effect on the demographic indicators of the population in Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan, there is no threat of depopulation and aging of the nation», – Olga Simakova, Almaty-based sociologist, writes in her article.

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  • Kazakhstan has proven to be a leader in the Eurasian Union in terms of migration outflows;
  • However, the migration balance in Kazakhstan is ten times less than the natural growth of the population;
  • Emigration from Kazakhstan has not only a certain ethnicity, but also has acquired a specific age;
  • There is a tendency for the outflow of highly qualified specialists from the country;
  • The concept of “Kazakhstani – labor migrant” acquires stability;
  • Kazakhstan is losing the fight for highly skilled labor resources, but remains attractive to lower-skilled labor migrants.

75% of Kazakhstanis who plan to move out of the country have a professional education: every third (33%) has a higher education, almost every second (44%) has a secondary special education. Photo: tengrinews.kz

In the past few years, the topic of emigration from Kazakhstan has attracted increasing public attention. The root cause of increased interest in the topic of emigration from Kazakhstan has become a steady (over the past six years) increase in the negative migration balance. Thus, in 2018, the migration balance in comparison with 2015 has increased by 2 times, and in comparison with 2012 – by 20 times (see Fig. 1). According to the Statistics Committee of the MNE RK[1], since 2012, almost 230 thousand people have irrevocably left the country, including almost 42 thousand people in 2018.

Fig.1. The balance of migration in Kazakhstan in 2010-2018, thousand people[2]
The fact that Kazakhstan has become a leader in the Eurasian Union in terms of migration outflow also causes concern. The second place is occupied by Armenia (the migration balance is 18,500 people), and the third place is taken by Kyrgyzstan (the migration balance is 5,390 people). Whereas Russia and Belarus, by contrast, are experiencing a migratory inflow (see Figure 2).[3]

Relying to quantity indicators, of course, it is possible to draw conclusion of dramatic nature of emigration in the country which loses annually more than 20 000 people. But objectively, the process of emigration does not have any significant effect on the demographic indicators of the population in Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan, there is no threat of depopulation and aging of the nation, as, for example, in Latvia, where demographers predict that by 2050 the proportion of people over 65 will reach 60%. The increase in population in the country happens due to natural growth. The balance of migration (-29,109 people) in Kazakhstan is 10 times less than the natural increase in the population of the country (238,230 people). Moreover, even in the years when a positive balance of migration was observed in Kazakhstan (2004-2011), the migration outflow remained at the level of 20-30 thousand people annually. What is the risk of emigration for the country then?

Fig.2. International migration of population in January – December 2018, persons

According to Irina Chernykh, Chief Researcher at Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Studies (KazISS) under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, – following global migration trends, one should abandon the understanding of migration in a negative or positive light, and consider it as a natural (economic) process that does not have either negative or positive side.[4] In world practice, an understanding of migration as a “labor force export” has been formed – migrants are considered as a commodity, the main characteristic of which is its quality indicators (professional skills and competences). Therefore, competition for qualified and highly qualified human resources is intensifying not only among developed countries, but also rapidly developing countries.

In this context, two aspects of emigration are becoming more important: the qualitative characteristics of emigrants from Kazakhstan and the attractiveness (competitiveness) of Kazakhstan as an employer country.

Qualitative characteristics of emigrants from Kazakhstan

Studies has shown that emigration from Kazakhstan has not only a certain (historically established) ethnicity – according to official statistics, most often representatives of three ethnic groups area leaving the country – Russians, Germans and Ukrainians. At the same time, emigration has acquired a specific age. It is safe to say that not just Europeans and Slavs leave the country, but economically active people are leaving and taking away their minor children with them – 25% of the total emigrants’ number (see Fig.3). According to a population survey conducted by a Public Foundation “Center for Social and Political Studies” “Strategiya ” in January 2019, every second of those who express their intention to emigrate from the country is between the ages of 25 and 44.

Fig.3. International migration of the population – January 1, 2019 by age groups, persons.

In 2017, people with higher education made up 29.9% (11,290 people) out of the total number who left Kazakhstan, that is, almost every third emigrant had a higher education. At the same time, out of total number of those who entered the country, only every sixth had a higher education – 17.5%. The results of a population survey, confirm the given statistics. ¾ Kazakhstan citizens who plan to move out of the country have a professional education: every third (33%) has a higher education, and almost every second (44%) has a secondary special education.

Fig.4. – Socio-demographic characteristics of Kazakhstan citizens who plan to emigrate % (according to the population survey, January 2019)[5]
Moreover, there is a tendency for the outflow of highly qualified specialists from the country. According to Ludmila Belova, director of recruiting company “Smart Solution Personal”, in 2018, while searching for a financial director for transnational company, they faced a situation where out of 15 candidates, 40% mentioned that they are no longer in Kazakhstan or consider leaving, therefore, they are not ready to deal with work in the country.[6] The northern regions of Kazakhstan have faced a different situation, when their former specialists after emigration occupied high rank positions in the regional administrations of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation or at Russian enterprises, thereby confirming their status as highly skilled and competitive employees.

According to experts, educational migration possesses a serious problem for Kazakhstan. Based on various sources, 70-85 thousand students from Kazakhstan study in foreign universities. And this number is increasing every year. At the same time, the question of returning after graduation remains open. Retrieved from the youth organization AIESEC in 2018, 42% of graduates changed the status of a student to work visa. According to the figures of the focus group studies, among those who intend to go abroad for studies, both young people and their parents most often stick to the “study-permanent residence” strategy. According to a survey conducted by the Kazakhstan research organization BRIF Research Group as part of a study on youth trends (summer 2017), about 42% of Kazakhstan citizens aged 15 to 29 years plan to either go abroad for studies or go for a permanent residence or both at the same time. Among those who are planning to study abroad, almost 70% would like to stay in that country in the future.[7]

Northern and industrial regions, such as Pavlodar, East Kazakhstan, Karaganda regions, are subject to greater emigration pressure, and the southern regions of the country are to a lesser extent.

But despite the presence of negative trends in the socio-demographic structure of emigrants, it would be wrong to say that they have acquired a massive, gross nature.
According to a population survey, nowadays, only 10% answer affirmatively on the question of whether they would like to move to another country.[8] For comparison, in Latvia this figure in 2018 was 34%.[9]

Attractiveness of Kazakhstan as an employer country

Nonetheless, it was precisely the growth of emigration rate that forced to look at Kazakhstan in the context of attractiveness as a place to study, work and live. A population survey suggests that people with a low level of optimism, and who are often worried and insecure about the future of their family and children are more likely to emigrate.

According to Kazakhstani analyst Marat Shibutov, in the early 2000s, there was a steady stereotype regarding migration in Kazakhstan that it is a labor-deficient country and a country with a high level of income.[10] Therefore, the country was considered and continues to be regarded as an economically prosperous country and a recipient of labor. But, according to experts, over the past few years, the economic situation in the country and, in particular, the labor market has changed markedly. Accordingly, labor and migration behavior and attitudes of the population have changed. In addition to irrevocable emigration, labor migration from Kazakhstan is gaining momentum. This is evidenced by several factors:

First, according to the presidium chairman of the “Transparent Tariff” Association of Kazakhstan, Peter Svoik, – Kazakhstan is a periphery in the global economy, and therefore it has to supply metropolises with its best personnel. This is an objective regularity. In turn, Kazakhstan acts as a metropolis for less developed countries, and also becomes the center of attraction for labor migrants from there.

Secondly, according to the estimations of the State and Public Policy and Law school, AlmaU’s dean, Askar Nurshi, there is a structural reconstruction of the labor market — new professions are emerging. The education system of Kazakhstan does not always have time to respond to the needs of the labor market, which creates an excess of labor resources in one sector and a shortage in another. The existence of this problem is confirmed by the director of the recruiting company “Smart Solution Personal” Lyudmila Belova, pointing out that Kazakhstan, on the one hand, is excessively resourced, but at the same time, the country lacks really high-quality human capital, which in the past was replaced by expats.

Thirdly, such a concept as “Kazakhstani-migrant worker” gains steadiness. According to statistics from the Eurasian Economic Commission, the number of Kazakhstanis moving to work in the EEU countries increased threefold from 2012 to 2018 – from 34,374 people to 111,874 people. Also, after the opening of a visa-free entry for 30 days to South Korea, the flow of labor migrants moved in this direction. On October 15, 2018, the South Korean Foreign Ministry announced 11,561 illegal migrants from Kazakhstan.[11] The share of remittances from these countries shows a trend to increase.

Fourthly, non-operating “social elevators” and the presence of a “glass ceiling” reduce the country’s value for professional and career growth while moving up the career ladder. According to the president of Public Foundation “Center for Social and Political Studies” “Strategiya” Gulmira Ileuova, Kazakhstan has a flat, uninteresting economy, where people reach the “ceiling” already at the age of 35, when a person is witnessing his/her professional and creative forces flourishing. These people are looking for a “place in the world”, who want to invest and realize their potential. But the opportunities and conditions that the labor market in Kazakhstan provides them are not sufficient to unlock their creative potential. In particular, according to the BRIF Research Group survey, nowadays, impressions and experience are more valuable for young people than material well-being. Educated young people are looking for self-realization, and political component is not so important for them. If a country cannot create satisfactory conditions for self-realization and freedom, the risk of irrevocable or labor migration in search of favorable conditions for one’s own development will increase.

Fifth, in public opinion there is a negativization of the country’s image, which acts as an additional argument in favor of emigration. Stereotypes about the low quality of life and social injustice in the country are gaining stability. Also, psychological discomfort creates uncertainty in the development of the domestic political situation for medium and long term prospects. It should be noted that the outflow from the country is not only among European and Slavic ethnic groups. Against the background of the government’s policy on attracting ethnic Kazakhs from other countries, in the ethnic structure of emigrants, Kazakhs are ranked 4th in number — their share is about 5%. It also draws attention to the fact that migration of Kazakhs from China and Russia to Kazakhstan, where, according to various sources, 2 to 3 million Kazakhs live in total, during the years of independence, amounted to no more than 10 percent of the entire diaspora.[12]

Sixthly, on September 14, 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an executive order approving the new version of the state program on resettlement of compatriots to the Russian Federation, which since 2013 has become indefinite. In the new edition, the compatriots can choose the territory of settlement, not focusing on the vacancies of employers. Also, the concept of the territory of the settlement was expanded, to which the new edition could include the entire territorial subject, and not just part of it. And the number of regions participating in the program has increased to 48. If we compare the time frame for approving a new version of the program and the dynamics of emigration from Kazakhstan, starting in 2013 (see Fig. 1), a positive correlation can be noticeable. This allows us to conclude that the Program to a certain extent stimulates emigration attitudes, especially of Russians, in Kazakhstan. At the same time, according to Russian officials, the effect of the Program is several times lower than expected.

Main conclusions

What measures should Kazakhstan take to stop emigration? Experts give rather pessimistic forecasts regarding emigration processes in Kazakhstan. Given global migration trends and labor market barriers that exist within the country, it is impossible to stop emigration from the country. Kazakhstan, as a developing country, will remain a labor donor in favor of more developed countries.

The expert discourse, as well as the results of sociological research, show that the attractiveness of Kazakhstan as a country for life and work is ambiguous, especially for youth groups. And the replacement of the working age population, which occurs, including by means of lower-skilled labor migrants, taking into account the demographic pit of the mid-1990s, increases the risks for Kazakhstan’s labor market, both, for long and medium-term perspective. Objectively, Kazakhstan is currently losing the battle for highly skilled labor resources, but remains attractive to lower-skilled labor migrants from developing countries.

At the same time, it is not correct to assess the current outflow of human capital from Kazakhstan as critical and irreplaceable. Experts agree in opinion that the point of a non-return is not passed yet, and migratory risks can be minimized by competent communications strategy within society and carrying out adequate socio-economic and educational policies in the country.

Recommendations

  1. It is necessary to reconsider approaches for studying migration issues. First, accept it as a natural economic process. Secondly, use economic and socio-psychological approaches to the study of human behavior in the analysis of migration processes.
  2. According to experts, emigration issues do not require a special state policy. Changes in migration policy will not have the desired effect, since the problem is a systemic one. The main attention of the state should be directed to addressing issues related to improving the economic and financial climate in the country, developing human capital and improving the image of the country for internal audience.
  3. The creation of a positive image of the country for life, study and work, and the consolidation of this image at the level of socio-psychological attitudes, is of great importance to the citizens of Kazakhstan.
  4. It is necessary to put in order the system of statistical accounting of migration processes. In the absence of official statistics or mistrust on them, there is a risk of different interpretations and discussions, speculations and manipulation of statistical indicators. Statistical data should be in open access, which will allow experts and scientists to analyze data and build forecasts for decision-making.
  5. Also, according to experts, it is necessary to assess the regulatory impact of measures taken by the state earlier on migration issues and the development of society in the social and economic spheres.
  6. If we talk about the so-called competition for people, then, according to experts, the state does not need to be dispersed on all age groups, but concentrate its efforts on the youth segment. The most promising direction is considered to work with the younger generation up to 15 years old. Among young people over 15, support should be provided to those who have accumulated certain experience, talent, ambition, etc. – their share, as a rule, does not exceed 10-15%. In other words, these are the people who are now referred to as a creative class and who can create high added value.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.


[1] MNE RK – Ministry of National Economy of the Republic of Kazakhstan

[2] Statistics. Statistical Bulletin. 3/2018. – Astana, 2019 // www.stat.gov.kz

[3] Socio-demographic indicators. Statistics of the Eurasian Economic Union. January – December 2018: Statistical Bulletin / Eurasian Economic Commission. – Moscow, 2019. – p. 10. // http://www.eurasiancommission.org/

[4] Emigration from Kazakhstan: outflow of human capital. Transcript of the round table dated 13.02.2019 p. www.agkipr.kz.  

[5] Public Foundation, “Center for Social and Political Studies” “Strategiya”. www.ofstrategy.kz

[6] Emigration from Kazakhstan: outflow of human capital. Transcript of the round table dated 13.02.2019 p. www.agkipr.kz.

[7] Dmitry Kazakov. Youth trends: Enhancing the emigration of young people from Kazakhstan. // Publication of 12/22/2017. http://www.brif.kz/blog/?p=3230

[8] Public Foundation, “Center for Social and Political Studies” “Strategiya”. www.ofstrategy.kz

[9] Kristina Khudenko. We are dying, we are leaving, but we are satisfied more than ever. Politicians and scientists discussed demographics. // Publication from 12.02.2019, https://inosmi.ru/social/20190212/244556354.html

Emigration from Kazakhstan: outflow of human capital. Transcript of the round table dated 13.02.2019 p. www.agkipr.kz

[10] Emigration from Kazakhstan: outflow of human capital. Transcript of the round table dated 13.02.2019 p. www.agkipr.kz.

[11] More than 11 thousand Kazakhstanis are staying illegally in South Korea: the Foreign Ministry calls upon illegal immigrants to return. // Publication of 15.10.2018. https://newtimes.kz/

[12] Nuriddin Sultanmuratov. Repatriation policy: a big dilemma for Kazakhstan. // Publication of 09/05/2017, https://www.asiakz.com/