What happens when mobility is hampered, remittances are decreasing and migrants unable to leave or return? The COVID-19 pandemic shows the vulnerability of Kyrgyzstan’s remittance-dependent economy: its impacts could be long-lasting for the most disadvantaged, environmentally-fragile and remote communities.
For a country such as Kyrgyzstan, the COVID-19 pandemic means much more than a complicated public health situation. Given the multiple socioeconomic and environmental challenges this landlocked, mountainous Central-Asian country is facing, the current situation raises several issues. The economic situation of mountain households depends on multiple forms of mobility including rural-urban commutes, pastoralism, internal migration and seasonal international migration. The disruption of such mobility patterns poses concerns for the country and the effects thereof are still to be felt.
Environmental migration from mountain areas
It is increasingly recognized that some migration and mobility trends are fueled by environmental issues, even though they always result from the accumulation of multiple factors. Although the literature on the region remains scarce, environmental migration has been identified as particularly common in Central Asia. The mountain areas of Kyrgyzstan are among the hotspots of environmental variability and risks given the many hazards threatening them. Landslides, floods and related events are projected to increase in the high mountain regions under the effect of glacier retreat and changing rainfall patterns. Although these hazards are rather common in mountain areas, they will be more frequent and intense as the cryosphere continues to decline. The number of glacial lakes is also likely to increase. Glacial lake outbursts may trigger landslides and floods, which threaten human and animal lives as well as land and infrastructures, and therefore constitute severe risks for nearby communities. Slower-onset hazards such as drought and desertification may also result from the projected increase of temperatures and changing precipitation patterns.
Migration as adaptation?
Environmental risks have always been part of mountain livelihoods but the rapidity of the current climate variability and the increased frequency of disasters will put pressure on the long-standing adaptation strategies. Adaptation can take diverse forms and mobility is one of them. A 2016 IOM report explored the issue of environmental migration in Kyrgyzstan and the numerous challenges related to it. Some populations may be displaced by sudden-onset disasters such as flash floods, mudflows or landslides. Other forms of environmental mobility include more voluntary and better-planned migrations in areas prone to slow-onset hazards such as desertification. Pastoral nomadism has also constituted a traditional strategy to adapt to the pace of the seasons through mobility. Herders’ routes and yearly rhythms may be modified by ongoing environmental risks.
From the mountain communities of Kyrgyzstan, many residents move to cities to find work opportunities or work as merchants and commute between rural and urban areas. Mountain areas are also characterized by a high rate of international out-migration, mainly directed towards the Russian Federation. Although these mobility patterns are usually considered labour migration, they are also related to environmental conditions.
The literature on environmental migration suggests different ways in which migration may constitute an adaptation strategy in a community. In some cases, whole households move after experiencing climate shocks or pressures. In others, only some household members leave and the remittances they send or the knowledge they acquire may, among others, contribute to fostering the adaptive capacity of the household and possibly of the community. Consequently, some forms of migration are used as a way to stay: some members of a community migrate in order to support the rest of the community or move seasonally or for some years as a way to secure a livelihood in their home country on the long run.
In Kyrgyzstan, and especially in mountain communities, many “leave in order to allow others to remain”. Migrants sustain those staying behind through money transfers and/or by employing members of the community (in the case of migrant-entrepreneurs who create jobs in villages). Out-migration is so widespread in Kyrgyzstan that the country has become one of the most remittance-dependent countries in the world (about a third of the national GDP). As the literature develops on the possibility of using remittances sent by migrants as a way to adapt to climate change, the question remains open for Kyrgyzstan. Remittances alleviate poverty and act as a safety net for mountain communities. However, given the poverty levels among mountain communities in Kyrgyzstan, they are primarily used to cover everyday basic needs and are usually insufficient to support long-term investments. Therefore, they seem to have a low capacity to act as a vehicle for development or to foster disaster risk reduction and adaptation to climate change.
Mobility impairments and consequences
In this remittance-dependent context, what happens when mobility is hampered, remittances are decreasing and migrants unable to go or return? Less remittances or longer absences of the migrants could severely affect livelihoods and increase the level of poverty in mountain areas. Concerns are raised about the coming consequences of involuntary immobility for those who had planned a move to Russia in 2020 and cannot leave due to the global pandemic and related border closure, and about unemployment for the migrants whose economic activity has been halted and who cannot send money back home. The disruption in remittances could put additional pressure on natural resources in mountain areas if residents turn to new ways of sustaining themselves (through more intensive agriculture or increased consumption of firewood for instance). According to the World Bank, the remittances in 2020 are expected to fall by about 28% in the Europe and Central Asia region “due to the combined effect of the global coronavirus pandemic and lower oil prices”. This would correspond to the “sharpest decline of remittances in recent history”. The expected oil crisis poses a threat to the Russian economy and could put into question future migration trends to Russia. The situation might get so critical for some migrants that they will not be able to pay their rent or meet basic needs in Russia. For those who carry on their economic activity, the exposure to the virus and limited access to social support and medical benefits is another challenge.
Within Kyrgyzstan, the disruption of internal movements and commuting between rural mountainous areas and cities linked with the pandemic may also put into question crucial mobility patterns. Mountain communities are dependent on products, services and job opportunities from urban areas. Rural-urban mobility may take the shape of everyday commutes by individuals to reach markets or health facilities, or of seasonal or long-term internal migration. In their 2008 research on three mountain villages of the Jalalabad region of Kyrgyzstan, Schmidt and Sagynbekova found that approximately one-third of all labour migration from these villages were internal, “mainly to the capital Bishkek, but also to the regional centre Jalalabad or to Osh, the second-largest city of Kyrgyzstan”. In villages, most of the non-agrarian economic activity includes the small businesses of merchants, drivers or tourism. These activities all depend on population movements (from and to cities, other Kyrgyzstani regions and other countries) and are therefore at risk due to the restriction of mobility associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. For some communities, a decrease in mobility may threaten food security and general well-being, because individuals cannot work or cannot access urban areas as much as necessary, and because of the difficulty to stock up products when the financial capacity is low.
Movement restrictions do not only affect those who actually move but all those whose livelihoods are dependent on and modified by mobility. In the absence of migrants who are stranded abroad or in cities of destination and cannot go back home, those who stay behind such as spouses, children and parents see their everyday lives changed. Those who have remained in Kyrgyzstan may have to cope with a lack of labour force, an increased workload and emotional stress. In some cases, the protracted absence of migrants may reshape roles within households and empower those who don't migrate and notably women. In others, the stranded male « migrants » may resume activities previously assumed by women. In any case, movement restrictions are accompanied by an additional burden for the household members who remain. COVID-19 and related restrictions to movement complicate the livelihoods of those staying behind - notably in spring when the agricultural activity is intense and mountain communities will severely feel the lack of labour force.
Conclusions and recommendations
Mountain communities are largely dependent on mobility to cities and other countries, mostly to the Russian Federation in the case of Kyrgyzstan. When these movements are hampered or restricted, the consequences can be severe for mountain dwellers. Given the socioeconomic and environmental difficulties in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, a decrease of remittances, of access to products and services and a protracted absence of seasonal migrants may seriously put into question livelihoods, food security and capacity to deal with environmental hazards. The research on the environment-(im)mobility nexus for impoverished mountain communities should embrace the multiple ways environmental conditions may shape or transform (im)mobility on various time and spatial scales. In the context of the 2020 global pandemic, the involuntary immobility of migrants in the Russian Federation who cannot come back, of would-be migrants in Kyrgyzstan who cannot leave and of mountain dwellers who cannot circulate as much as they want and have to deal with reduced remittances and labour force is a major issue for mountain communities.
What to promote in such a sensitive context? Although it seems arduous to find solutions, the concerned governments could consider supporting the migrants in Russia (through access to healthcare, housing or other social services) and help reduce the cost of remittance services for those who can still afford to transfer money. Authorities could also help to repatriate in their home country those who wish to do so, in the safest way possible according to the public health situation. International humanitarian organizations could target mountain communities to help them cope with the current global situation by supporting adaptation to environmental change and disaster risk reduction. Without systematically addressing socioeconomic impacts, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could be long-lasting for the most disadvantaged, environmentally-fragile and remote communities. Moving forward, it is essential that socioeconomic recovery integrates the environmental risks and offer new opportunities for mountain communities.
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Suzy Blondin is a PhD student at the Institute of Geography of the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Her doctoral research focusses on environmental mobilities in Central Asia and especially in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan. Her work has been published in the Central Asian Survey, Mobilities and the Revue Française des Méthodes Visuelles. Since 2016, she has been involved in the maintenance of the Climig database.
This article is part of the IOM Series on The COVID-19 Pandemic, Migration and the Environment.