Migrant workers praying outside the central mosque in Moscow during its construction. Photo: Elyor Nematov/IOM 2013

Exposed to Extremism: How Central Asian Migrants Become Vulnerable to Radicalization

Bishkek  One of the most keenly discussed topics at the meeting of the Almaty Process countries in Bishkek this week was the thorny subject of radicalization. Piotr Kazmierkiewicz, IOM Lead International Expert, sat down with IOM Senior Media Officer Joe Lowry to discuss the findings in a recently commissioned study entitled Assessing Risks and Opportunities Associated with Return Migration: Framework for Understanding and Identifying Needs for Interventions.

JL: We often talk about routes and journeys when we talk about migration. Is there any typical route towards radicalization of migrants in Central Asia?

PK: No, we can’t really say there’s any one path. It’s a complex journey, combining both ideological and socioeconomic factors. And then you have to add in the socio-cultural situation in the countries of destination and origin. On the economic side, you have poverty, unemployment and an inability to feed the family. On the social side you might have constant experiences of mistreatment multiplied by the subjective perspective such as feelings of injustice and an inability to make life meaningful. Ideological factors then are based on the dissemination of radical ideas by extremist groups in Russia and Central Asia, as well as the absence of possibilities for religious development in secular states.

JL: What role would you say religion plays?

PK: That’s complex too. The growing role of religious and spiritual communities and leaders is evident in many parts of the region, but there’s no simple set of comments one can make about the effect they have on social stability. The growth of interest in religion in the region is – perhaps paradoxically - combined with a low level of religious knowledge in general and the temptation to look for quick solutions in fundamentalist religious groups. Those include mainly radical Salafism popular in western Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Wahhabism in the Fergana Valley and Hizb-ut-Tahir in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In Kyrgyzstan there’s growing concern about extremists using legal religious groups as a cover. So, there’s an urgent need to address the deeper roots of the growing popularity of extreme Salafi ideas among the young. And that needs to be understood through the prism of the lack of education and job perspectives, the declining authority of traditional religious leaders and institutions, the weakening of the family due to migration, and limited advancement for women in traditional rural areas.

JL: Can you predict how likely migrants are to be radicalized? What sort of factors do you have to take into account?

A lot of it is down to the availability of income-generating activities. Steady employment and the ability to earn a wage determine whether a family member migrates or not, especially in large families where it’s often the only option. Studies have shown that there’s an incontrovertible link between the lack of knowledge of the destination country’s language and culture and the rapid growth of feelings of alienation, mistreatment by law enforcement agencies and potential radicalization. But underlying that is the complex set of linkages between the migrant’s vulnerability and economic hardships which can lead to radicalization.

JL: According to the experts you spoke to, is radicalization happening here in Central Asia, or mainly elsewhere?

Typically, radicalization occurs in Russia. Vulnerable groups include alienated youth, who have no social or community support, those with low levels of religious education and little prospect for advancement, and youngsters who get involved in crime, or hang out with criminals. Divorced and abandoned women are vulnerable, as are unaccompanied children, and other kids with no parental or state support, such as orphans, who we know are being recruited at mosques run by North Caucasian and other ethnic groups.

JL: And if they come back to Central Asia, what have you noticed?

PK: That’s not altogether clear yet. I think many of them fear discovery and repressive measures if they return so they move on to Turkey and Syria.

JL: These dynamics you’ve been speaking about, are they constant or fluid?

PK: No, there are definite changes, related to the political climate and social environment in the destination countries.  On the one hand, the removal of barriers to migration, improved economic prospects of the majority of migrants and opportunities for legal status have helped address some of the objective vulnerabilities. But on the other hand there are concerns that ideological factors could become more pronounced with the growing threat of social tensions in the wake of recent attacks in Russia, coupled with a rising interest in recruiting from migrant communities by extremists.

JL: Are Central Asian countries making any inroads in terms of deradicalization and if so, how? What else should they be doing?

PK: Central Asian countries have generally operated what we call a “security” approach to deal with the threat of violent extremism. That is, they concentrate on tracking, isolating and apprehending agents of radicalization via law enforcement agencies. Recent examples of this include legal amendments that strip persons involved in extremist activities of their citizenship, or tracking the funding of such activities. Experts note that to be successful this approach needs to be complemented by a set of integration measures which would reduce the broader socio-economic and ideological grounds for radicalization. Good practices involve raising awareness of extremist and involvement of spiritual leaders. Fairer treatment of vulnerable groups including women and children would also help, as would a raising of overall standards in religious education institutions. Lastly, and it won’t be easy, programmes have to be developed to rehabilitate and integrate former fighters and their families.