How Do Receiving Countries Respond to the Inflow of Russian Migrants?
June 29, 2023
  • Caress Schenk

    Nazarbayev University
  • Aleksandr Motin
    Nazarbayev University
  • Yury Slinko
    Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration
Caress Schenk and al. explore how the host governments balance their countries’ geopolitical priorities and public perceptions of the Russian migrants through a combination of rhetoric, policy, and (non-)regulation.
After Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a “partial mobilization” in September 2022, hundreds of thousands of men of military age fled Russia. The price of airline tickets shot up, if they were available at all, and many fled across any available land border. Finland closed its borders to Russian tourists when tens of thousands with tourist visas entered within the first two weeks following the mobilization call. Countries that allowed Russians visa-free entry (such as Turkey, Serbia, and most countries of the former Soviet Union) were the only options for many fleeing. For those who only had internal Russian passports, the list of countries that would allow them entry was restricted to fellow members of the Eurasian Economic Union (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan). While these countries generally did not restrict the entry of Russian citizens, they have responded in various ways to the large inflows of people.

Amid a brutal war and difficult conversations about decolonization and collective responsibility, the flow of migrants fleeing mobilization has been highly politicized in public discourse. Our ethnographic and interview research shows that those leaving after September, along with those who left Russia following the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, are a mixed group that ranges from anti-Putin political activists and those critical of Putin’s regime to IT remote workers who may have any number of diverse opinions about the war and the Russian political regime.

The sheer scale of the outflow from Russia requires host countries to respond. Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey had adjusted their policies regulating entry, stay, and access to bank accounts, providing signals as to where migrants are welcome and where they are not. These decisions illustrate how the migration flow is politicized and show the host governments’ maneuvering around the issue of migration flows.


Georgia has been one of the largest recipients of those fleeing Russia, in no small part because its migration policy allows Russians to stay in Georgia up to one year without a visa or residence permit. In September 2022, over 222,000 Russians entered Georgia. Yet, while it appears to be a comparatively easy place to be granted visitor status, gaining long-term residence (that is, longer than one year) may remain difficult.
The current Georgian government is considered pro-Russian by some accounts; however, the government’s response toward migrants has shown a degree of ambivalence.”
The Tbilisi headquarters of the Russian organization Emigration for Action, 2022. Source: Facebook
The official narrative on the influx of Russian migrants, on potential secondary sanctions from the West, and on relations with Russia in general emphasizes that law-abiding individuals are always welcome in Georgia, that a war with Russia must be avoided at any cost, and that the economic prosperity of Georgia should come first.

In response to Vladimir Putin’s announcement in May 2023 that direct flights to Georgia, which had been suspended since July 2019, would be resumed and Georgian citizens could travel visa-free to Russia for 90 days, Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili suggested introducing visas for Russian citizens. This surprising move, risking Russia’s ire, indicates how sensitive the issue of migration in Georgia can be. In the past year, tensions between the ruling party and the opposition have grown, including over Russian migrants. There have even been protests over Russian influence, demanding limitations on Russian visitors. Given these concerns, exacerbated by significant increases in the cost of living and rent prices related to the influx of immigrants, tensions are likely to grow ahead of the parliamentary election scheduled for 2024.

While Georgia is a relatively attractive destination for Russian migrants, in practice border controls are somewhat unpredictable. Several high-profile opposition figures as well as ordinary Russian visitors have been refused entry without explanation. In some cases, those denied entry then manage to enter through a different border control point or wait for a new shift of border guards. Stories of those denied entry have broad resonance among the emigrant community and cause some not to leave Georgia out of fear they won’t be allowed to re-enter the country.

Another leverage point the Georgian government has used to manage migrant populations is long-term residence permits, which allow permit holders to stay in the country longer than one year. According to recent statistics, just over half of residence permit applications from Russians were accepted in the first three months of 2023 (versus a 69% acceptance rate in 2022), even for those individuals who have real estate investments in the country. Rejections of work permit applications are even higher — as many as 60%.

Once migrants enter the country, they have little interaction with the state, since they do not have to register at their place of residence, and many migrants do not bother to pursue a residence permit.

Banks, however, have introduced several hurdles for Russian migrants, such as procedures that set premium prices on services, restrict certain operations in foreign currencies, and limit money transfers. In all these banking transactions, Russian clients may face requirements that vary from one bank to another, from branch to branch, or even between workers at the same branch. In addition, due to the rapid growth of nonresident deposits in Georgian banks, the National Bank of Georgia significantly increases the liquidity requirements for such transactions.
The Georgian government aims to minimize public attention and reassure its citizens that migration is under control despite record influx numbers, high inflation, and skyrocketing rent prices.”
Data on border crossings is made public only at moments of increased political attention — for instance, immediately after the September mobilization and when Russia resumed visa-free travel for Georgians.

While opposition voices occasionally propose tightening restrictions on Russian citizens, the main pressure on migrants comes from practices on the ground. Internal regulations of government agencies and in the private sector are signals that the new arrivals pose a political challenge, even if the official migration policy has barely changed.
Line to a currency exchange point. Kazakhstan, 2022. Source: VK

When Russian men escaping mobilization flooded across Kazakhstan’s borders in late September, many wondered whether these migrants would find themselves at risk, since Kazakhstan, as an ally of Russia, might choose to extradite such draft dodgers.

These fears turned out to be unfounded: on September 27, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called the situation with migrants a humanitarian issue and directed that these people who were in a “hopeless situation” should be helped. Within days, additional citizen services centers were set up to issue individual identification numbers (IINs) for state ID cards.

Public opinion, on the other hand, was divided. While some touted an ethos of Kazakh hospitality, others feared that Russians, known for their colonial attitudes, would show disrespect to Kazakhstan. Others were frustrated by the immediate economic impact, namely the doubling and tripling of rent prices in large cities. Some isolated pro-Russian voices saw the Russian draft dodgers as traitors.

Because Kazakhstan shares a 7,000-kilometer border with Russia with multiple border checkpoints, entering Kazakhstan from Russia is relatively easy. Many of those who crossed the border passed through without intending to stay. On October 4, Kazakhstani officials announced that out of more than 200,000 Russian citizens who had entered Kazakhstan since September 21, 147,000 had already left.

In January 2023, the government announced a new rule that would allow Russian citizens to stay no longer than 90 days out of each 6-month period, unless they obtained a visa or residence permit. Until then, Russians had been able to make a “visa run” to the nearest border crossing, re-enter Kazakhstan right away, and stay for another 90 days.

Some migrants continue to make such border runs, hoping they will be let in despite the newly-introduced restriction, while others either commit to Kazakhstan by getting a residence permit, or move to another country.
Obtaining a Kazakhstani residence permit requires a work contract, which prompted the emergence of informal schemes in which Russians would obtain work contracts in exchange for a small fee and the payment of the requisite taxes.”
While some migrants welcomed this solution, others felt that it put them in a legal gray zone and was therefore too risky. 

To set up a bank account, a foreigner must apply for a state ID number. Even prior to the September mobilization, many Russians applied for a Kazakhstani IIN while still in Russia as a way to secure access to international finance. At the time, IIN applications could be processed online, though by the end of May 2022, this option was no longer available. In March 2022, 11,000 IINs were issued to Russians, compared to just 1,000 the month before. This pace kept up and even increased throughout the summer.

In late September 2022 the number of IIN applications peaked at 13,000 in a single day. This hike may be explained by the chaos and uncertainty of the initial days following the mobilization, when many Russians who entered Kazakhstan applied for an IIN just in case, because they did not know how long they would stay there or what their longer-term plans were.

As in Georgia, statistical data on migrants trickled out in occasional statements made by officials, but no comprehensive statistics are publicly available. These selective uses of statistics by officials hint at issues they believe may be sensitive to the public.

Soon after the September mobilization in Russia, Kazakhstan announced plans to introduce a Kazakh language requirement for those seeking citizenship. Language is a contentious element of national identity in Kazakhstan, and many see casting off the Russian language, spoken by many citizens as the main language of communication, as necessary for a successful and independent national identity.  Decolonial discussions are common among the population in Kazakhstan, though they are not acknowledged by the regime and can at times join together with conservative nationalist voices. While it is unclear whether a sizable number of Russian emigrants would seek Kazakhstani citizenship, the move to prioritize the Kazakh language in the new policy was welcomed by many who want to limit the influence of the incoming Russians.           
A Russian businessman interviewed in Istanbul, 2022. Source: YouTube

In Turkey migration policy is primarily focused on the nearly 3.6 million refugees and asylum seekers from Syria. Because Turkey has not traditionally seen itself as a migrant-receiving country, passing its first asylum law only in 2013, and because the number of Russians is small compared to that of Syrian refugees, Ukraine War-related migration has not become a politically contentious issue.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Turkey, unlike Western countries, did not ban air traffic to and from Russia and has rapidly become a popular destination among migrants. Russian citizens are primarily perceived as tourists, which helps to achieve President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent promise to boost tourism in Turkey.

Russian citizens can stay for up to 90 days without a visa, and short-term residence permits (ikamet) for up to 2 years can be granted to tourists who rent or own housing. In 2022, the number of residence permits shot up tenfold from the previous year to reach over 150,000. The procedures also became more bureaucratic and securitized, requiring additional documentation such as income confirmation and biometric data collection .

In February 2022, unrelated to the war in Ukraine, the migration services stopped issuing residence permits in 781 neighborhoods (mahallas) in large cities, that were perceived as “Arab enclaves” because of large numbers of Syrian refugees who settled there. However, in July the number of closed mahallas almost doubled, to 1,169, and included resort districts popular among Russians and Ukrainians (Antalya, Alania, etc.). In response,
“Many Russian migrants purchased fake rental contracts for housing in other districts, while in fact they continued to live in the closed neighborhoods.
In December 2022, many Russians reported that local migration offices began rejecting applications for residence permits en masse with no explanation. The denial rate remains extremely high.

According to the Turkish rental law, rental fees must be paid in Turkish lira, and annual increases are limited by the government. Due to these limitations, rent prices did not spike as they did in Kazakhstan; however, landlords often ask for 6 – 12 months’ prepayment or a 2- or 3-month nonrefundable deposit and set informal fees that go beyond the government price limitations.

Given the demands of landlords coupled with the high rate of denials for residence permits, many Russians began engaging in foot-dragging practices. Such strategies have included applying to one of the busier migration offices (ensuring a later appointment date) or “forgetting” a document (which allows for an additional 30 days to produce it), which could earn them up to 6 or 7 months of legal residency, since foreigners are considered to have legal status the entire time they are waiting for a decision on their permit.

Banking is another area where migrants may face unexpected rules and fees and also created informal workarounds in response. Foreigners’ applications to open accounts are frequently denied or require initial deposits of 10,000 – 100,000 lire ($500 – $5,000, large by Russian standards). These restrictions have fostered a market of informal intermediaries who help Russians, for a fee of around $200, to communicate with bank managers and open an account.

The Turkish government is generally tolerant of these informal practices. Even those foreigners who overstay without seeking a residence permit are often treated with leniency. Denials of residence permits are thus a rather symbolic strategy that aims at limiting the official number of Russians legalizing their status, but in practice allows them to remain.


Official responses in Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey have shown at least some pushback against the flow of Russian migrants alongside a general reluctance to politicize Russian migration or, more generally, the respective governments’ responses to the war in Ukraine.
Such strategies might stem from these governments’ desire to signal, to whomever in the international community may be interested, that their countries will not simply be safe havens for any and all Russians fleeing the consequences of the war.
These governments’ sometimes ambivalent strategies could also be a response to domestic public opinion.

Public alarm over increased migration from Russia likely stems from a mix of decolonial movements in the case of Georgia and Kazakhstan, the ongoing geopolitical consequences of Russia’s actions, general fears of migrants typical of any host society, and the more concrete exigencies related to rising rent or food prices. 

In practice, symbolic measures such as selective border controls, residence permit policies, and changes in citizenship requirements may pacify public opinion to some degree, but their impact on migrants varies. The less-regulated spaces where migrants might expect to find opportunistic landlords and banks often reveal points of tension between the official policy and public reception. While these governments work to actively depoliticize migration flows, actual practices demonstrate the complex and varied experiences of migrants and the public alike. 
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