Human Rights

Sealed borders strand Central Asian migrants in Moscow's airports

Caravanserai and AFP

Citizens of Central Asian countries wait for flights to get back home at Moscow's Vnukovo airport on March 24. [Alexander Nemenov/AFP]

Citizens of Central Asian countries wait for flights to get back home at Moscow's Vnukovo airport on March 24. [Alexander Nemenov/AFP]

MOSCOW -- For the past week, Ayomuddin Kamolov has slept on the tiled floor of a Moscow airport, hoping to get a flight to his native Tajikistan.

He is one of hundreds of Central Asian migrant workers stranded in the Russian capital's airports after countries throughout Eurasia, including Russia, sealed their borders and grounded flights to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Their plight became even worse and more open-ended with a government decree effective on midnight of Friday (March 27) halting all international flights.

"My flight was cancelled, and the company promised me a hotel. But in the end I got nothing," Kamolov told AFP in a busy terminal at Vnukovo, one of the three main airports serving Moscow.

Moscow's Vnukovo airport is shown March 24.[Alexander Nemenov/AFP]

Moscow's Vnukovo airport is shown March 24.[Alexander Nemenov/AFP]

Authorities at Vnukovo had done little to protect public health.

Despite overcrowding and poor hygienic conditions, none of those waiting for up to several days had received disinfectant gel or surgical masks to protect against COVID-19, the 29-year-old said.

Nobody performed medical checks either, he added.

Hundreds of thousands of men and women from ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia live in Russia where they often work low paid jobs to escape unemployment and feed families back home. In doing so, they have endured abuse and beatings from Russians who depend on them to clean bathrooms and subway stations, drive buses and construct their buildings.

But hundreds are stranded after Uzbekistan and Tajikistan grounded almost all incoming flights.

On Tuesday, 100 Tajik citizens at Vnukovo were stretched out on foam mats between baggage carts loaded with plastic-wrapped suitcases and crates of bottled water.

Return flights were leaving sporadically, and the price of some seats had nearly tripled. Trains from Russia to Central Asian countries have been suspended too.

"We are waiting for the nightmare to end," said Sakhib Narzullayev, a 21-year-old student hoping to return to Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

Beyond a row of check-in counters, 50 passengers were waiting for a flight to Uzbekistan.

One of them, 21-year-old Ikbol, who works for a food delivery service in Moscow, had been at Vnukovo for six days.

This situation for the migrants has been made worse by the spread of Russian disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.

Unpaid salaries

Similar scenes have reportedly played out in Yekaterinburg in the Urals, where hundreds of Kyrgyz citizens were stranded, and at an airport in Novosibirsk, Siberia.

The mass return of migrant workers from Russia poses a threat to economies in Central Asia reliant on remittances from family working abroad.

Migrant workers from Central Asia are feeling the full impact of Moscow's floundering economic strategy, with many losing their jobs and unable to find new ones.

Ikbol, the courier from Uzbekistan, said he had not been paid his most recent salary and was worried he would not be paid at all.

"Here in Russia, factories are starting to close, and we don't know how long it will last," Kamolov said.

"What are we going to do if we can no longer feed our families?"

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What an outrage


Uzbekistan organised several charter flights to Moscow. Where have these people been? Don't they read newspapers or watch TV? If they are not following the news, there's no one to blame except themselves now. They should contact the Uzbek embassy; there will be flights on April 20. They need to register at the embassy. Otherwise, they will be wandering till summer.


What do they need this impoverished and unreliable Russia for?


Because there is nowhere else for them to work and feed their own families. Russia is the richest available country.


Then going to Europe is better. The salaries are way higher than they are in backward Russia. And the people are more refined.


You are probably the smartest cookie; they can't wait to see you in Europe.