Proposed Changes to Oralman Legislation to Relax Some Settlement Rules

ASTANA – Kazakhstan may once again adjust legislation relating to ethnic Kazakhs wishing to immigrate to Kazakhstan (called oralmans, “returnees,” in Kazakh) in response to the country’s demographic goals and the needs of migrants.

According to Aslan Karzhaubayev, vice chairman of the Committee on Migration of Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, who spoke with The Astana Times on July 24, Kazakhstan has always had an open-door policy for ethnic Kazakhs wishing to immigrate. Currently, he said, more than 1 million Kazakhs live in China and Uzbekistan each, slightly fewer in Russia and about 500,000 in Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. There are also Kazakhs in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey.

In December 2013, he said, the laws regarding returning Kazakhs were changed. Most returnees, he said, come from the south, from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and they settled in southern Kazakhstan. To help even out the country’s population, in December, oralmans began to be directed to seven regions in the country’s north and west: Akmola, Pavlodar, Kostanai, West Kazakhstan, East Kazakhstan and Atyrau – areas that were experiencing population loss and where there would be more space for housing and new construction. Many of the northern areas are also places with relatively high Russian populations and lower ethnic Kazakh populations.

“But this mechanism did not work,” Karzhaubayev said. “Over the past 20 years of migration, we have seen a tendency of ‘broken families’ migrating to Kazakhstan – I mean when parents were moving without their children, because the children had to finish their education first or they were in the army.  And now, when these children finally decided to move to Kazakhstan, they have to follow the new legislation process and they cannot join their families, as they cannot choose where to live any more.” The returnees also can’t apply for citizenship until they’ve lived in the country for four years.

This caused some resentment among returnees, Karzhaubayev said, and has led the committee to draft some changes to the law.

In April, new approaches to the law were determined, which Karzhaubaiev says will be presented to Parliament in September. The changes include allowing returnees to settle anywhere they choose and get oralman status, allowing them to apply for permanent residence immediately and allowing them to apply for citizenship as soon as they have received permanent resident status and be granted citizenship as early as within three months.

On April 22, Minister of Labour and Social Protection of Kazakhstan Tamara Duissenova announced the proposed changes to the law, and in May, chairman of the Committee on Migration Salamat Amanbayev discussed other changes to the immigrant legislation, including the free movement – regardless of quotas and permissions – of “multinationals investing capital in three main industries of the country: manufacturing, agribusiness and exploration,” reported News.nur.kz. The Employment Roadmap 2020 programme plus housing benefits and access to microcredit were to be extended as incentives to promote internal migration north.

At the April 22 government meeting, Duissenova reported that if current trends continue, by 2050 the population of Kazakhstan’s northern regions will shrink by 900,000 people while the population of the south will increase by more than 5 million.

What the new approaches propose is using benefits to draw returnees to particular regions (14 are proposed), rather than forcing them to move there. If the changes are approved, then, oralmans who choose to migrate to the designated northern and western regions will receive additional benefits, such as compensation for their travel expenses and assured housing. Returnees have up to one year after their migration to the country to take advantage of these benefits. And, Karzhaubayev notes, regional governments will still have the right to decide how many returnees they are able to accommodate.

Some 5 million ethnic Kazakhs live outside of Kazakhstan, Karzhaubayev said, and some 952,000 have migrated to Kazakhstan since 1991. “In some years, more that 70,000 people moved to Kazakhstan in a short period of time,” he said. “Now we are seeing a decline – during the past three years, only 30,000 people moved to the country. So far this year, only 8,000 people have migrated to Kazakhstan.”

This migration is often described as “returning to their homeland,” but as Karzhaubayev says, most oralmans are not the children of Kazakhs fleeing the famine and collectivisation of the 1930s, but people leaving places they have lived in for centuries, the traditional spread of Kazakh settlements having been much larger than today’s national boundaries. “We don’t have any illusions that all 5 million Kazakhs that now live abroad will decide to move to the country and we don’t have a policy to regulate that. All we do is just establish good conditions for their coming back,” he said.

In addition to the fast-track citizenship process and the incentives to move to designated regions, the government has also set up four regional centres where returnees can take get help, including professional training courses.

The biggest hurdles for returning Kazakhs relate to language, Karzhaubaev said. The returnees all speak Kazakh well, he said, but Kazakhstan has many regions where Russian is the lingua franca, and often necessary for work and professional life. Literacy is also an issue. “Sometimes [oralmans] cannot write, as those coming from China use Chinese characters and oralmans from Uzbekistan use the Roman alphabet.” Returnees also face stereotypes, including that they are poorly educated or backward.

To help them adjust, four regional centres have been set up, one in Mangistau, one in Karaganda, and two in South Kazakhstan to give oralmans free access to language classes and vocational skills and other training. “As we are now focusing on new regions, we have decided to give power to regional administration to open such centres in their areas.”

“To move even from one city to another within one country is not a simple thing,” Karzhaubayev noted. “To move from one country to another is much more complicated. And if people decide to move – it’s not a spontaneous decision. They all have different reasons. Sometimes I ask myself, if I was also born somewhere outside modern Kazakhstan, would I have come back after 1991? I cannot answer this question. Some decide to move because of the economic growth of the country; some have problems with assimilation in their current countries. Some would like to preserve the language and traditions. We don’t ask why oralmans are moving to Kazakhstan. We just want to give the opportunity for these people to start a new life here.”