Human Rights

Central Asian migrants suffer amid Russia's bungled coronavirus response

By Kanat Altynbayev

Citizens of Central Asian countries, who are stranded in Moscow after ex-Soviet states closed borders and stopped flights over the coronavirus pandemic, languish at Vnukovo airport in Moscow March 24. With flights cancelled and borders closed, many migrant workers in Russia have found themselves trapped and unable to return to their home countries. Hundreds are stranded in airports throughout the country, hoping they will be able to secure travel home. [Alexander Nemenov/AFP]

Citizens of Central Asian countries, who are stranded in Moscow after ex-Soviet states closed borders and stopped flights over the coronavirus pandemic, languish at Vnukovo airport in Moscow March 24. With flights cancelled and borders closed, many migrant workers in Russia have found themselves trapped and unable to return to their home countries. Hundreds are stranded in airports throughout the country, hoping they will be able to secure travel home. [Alexander Nemenov/AFP]

ALMATY -- Central Asian migrants in Russia, now stranded because of Moscow's haphazard response to the coronavirus pandemic, are suffering in a country where they were already made to feel unwelcome.

For weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin had been expressing little concern of a COVID-19 outbreak in Russia, and did not impose any major restrictions on movement inside the country.

However, that approach did not pan out as concern has sharply risen with 1,036 confirmed cases Friday (March 27), including three deaths, and fears the virus is widespread and unreported.

An official decree Friday has ordered restaurants, cafes and resorts closed from Saturday to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

A construction site in Almaty is shown March 24. [Kanat Altynbayev]

A construction site in Almaty is shown March 24. [Kanat Altynbayev]

The Kremlin also halted all international flights, both coming and going, from midnight March 27 under a government decree listing new measures against the coronavirus outbreak, AFP reported.

The abrupt decision trapped Central Asians both inside and outside Russia, where millions of them work.

The decree exempts special flights evacuating Russian citizens from abroad and flights authorised by the Russian government. The new measures do not apply to domestic flights within Russia.

Putin Wednesday (March 25) postponed a vote on constitutional reforms and urged Russians to stay home to contain the coronavirus.

Russia's Constitutional Court on March 16 approved a package of amendments including a "reset" of Putin's previous terms, giving him the possibility to rule into 2036 in a move that some Central Asian observers saw as taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis.

A referendum on the reforms originally scheduled for April 22 "must be postponed to a later date", Putin said, without specifying when.

The move comes after the Russian regime closed its borders on March 16.

Dire circumstances

The measures taken by the Russian government have made life difficult for residents of the Central Asian countries, who have not been able to return home since the borders closed.

On Tuesday (March 24), 100 Tajik citizens at Vnukovo, one of the three main airports serving Moscow, 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 almost tripled. Trains from Russia to Central Asian countries also were suspended.

Some 157 Kyrgyz citizens were stranded at the Russia-Kazakhstan border, according to the Kyrgyz Embassy in Moscow, as cited by on March 20.

A Kyrgyz diplomat based in Orenburg, Russia, "met with [those] Kyrgyz on March 17 and advised them to return to their temporary residences in Russia and stay there until the restrictions are lifted", the embassy said.

Meanwhile, 15 Kazakhs trying to fly home from India via Russia were confined to a Moscow airport's transit lounge, barred from going through border control, Dana Nurzhan, a Moscow-based journalist for the Kazakh television channel Khabar24, wrote on Facebook on March 20.

"Could we have imagined such a situation a month ago? That states would close borders, while Kazakhstan would try to solve the problem of evacuating its citizens from Russia? It's the new reality," Nurzhan wrote.

Migrant workers from countries such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, now unable to fly to Russia, are unable to obtain badly needed refunds on the tickets they bought from Russian airlines.

In Tajikistan alone, hundreds of thousands of citizens holding those worthless plane tickets who ordinarily would be working now in Russia are now unemployed, television channel Current Time reported.

The Russian government's untimely and inadequate actions to fight the coronavirus have already greatly impaired the Russian economy, and that is why migrant workers from Central Asia are suffering, said Bishkek-based economist Elmira Suranchiyeva.

"Many families here in Kyrgyzstan are lamenting that their breadwinners in Russia have ended up in a difficult situation: without work, without any means of subsistence and without even the possibility of returning home. It's unclear where they'll live and what they'll live on," Suranchiyeva said.

Xenophobia on the rise

On top of everything, xenophobic sentiment has been proliferating in Russia in recent weeks, complain some Central Asians.

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.

Ulan Omorov, who is from Tokmak, Kyrgyzstan, and is now in Moscow, said that local residents had begun to shy away from him.

"Yesterday, when I took a seat on the subway, the man sitting next to me took one look at me and immediately got up and walked away. That wasn't the first time something like that happened," he said.

Police officers have begun to stop him much more frequently on the street to check his papers, he said.

Meanwhile, Central Asia is ramping up measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, while doctors are urging people not to trust the expanding rumours and disinformation.

In the region's countries, entertainment centres, cinemas, cafés, playgrounds and computer clubs have been shuttered temporarily to keep the virus from spreading.

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15 Comment(s)

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Once again, the author of this fairly large article doesn't understand what he is complaining about. First, he says Putin's actions were inadequate. Inadequate in whose opinion? The author's opinion? And right there he describes migrants stuck at the airports and railway stations due to these very actions, practically kicked out of their workplaces. But the author claims Putin didn't take any measures to stop that work. So his actions don't suit the author either way. What kind of trash is that?


It's better to go and work in other countries, but not in Russia. It's a backward country full of nationalists. We need to go to developed countries, work there, and learn cutting-edge methods. There will be four times more money and much better conditions!


But they describe the same situation with migrants from other countries that are stranded. From India - a developed country. Obviously, they don't hire migrants there, but on Goa they just allow them to stand in a kilometer-long line and buy some vegetables during the pandemic.


The Kremlin authorities are thieves


The Kremlin - yes. It would be desirable to know whom you are talking about specifically. And other countries are righteous. That's my understanding of this comment.


China is the only hope for Central Asian countries


Jerks. When you fought fascists you needed them, and now they are your slaves, yes.


Don't the Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz have patriots proud of their nations? Why are you shaming your people as the whole world is watching? Don't you see the Russians consider you slaves, Untermensch, like Middle Age Europeans considered Negroes? As Shvonder would put it, "what a shame!" [Shvonder is one of the characters of "Heart of a Dog" by Mikhail Bulgakov]. Take the Kazakhs as an example! If they ever come to Russia, they come to do business, not to be enslaved! Or look at the Turkmens, at least! They are impoverished, but their leader wouldn't let them go anywhere so that they couldn't besmirch their nation! You can say you don't have any jobs, you need to provide for your children... blah-blah-blah... But don't breed like rabbits! The Soviet Union left you being relatively well-off nations, but in the 30 years since then you procreated so much your population has grown twofold, if not more! Where are you going to find jobs, if the population growth exceeds economic growth annually by several times! You say your rulers don't let you launch a business and oppress you... But who's to blame here? Come together as one, hunt them down with pitchforks and get a life! Trust me, I am not writing this to humiliate you - I feel sorry for you!


And who are you to condemn them?


This "hunt the oppressors down with pitchforks" is incitement and propaganda. People should be arraigned on criminal charges for this.


Late at night on December 31, about 300 migrant workers (almost 200 of them were Tajik citizens) trying to get back home were forced out of Moscow at Domodedovo International Airport. Embassy staffers and airline representatives ignored these people, journalist Galiya Ibragimova said. Last night, unidentified uniformed people told migrants they should get together because the aircraft coming for them would be landing shortly. But law enforcement came for them instead. They forced people out into the street and banned them from re-entering the airport. They don't know what to do next and where to go. "We are slaving away in Russia. We rarely have a day off. And now we are unwanted here. We were dumped like a dead weight. Why is that? Help!" said Farukh, one of the Tajiks.


The countryman from Tajikistan, Farukh, has obviously never heard of the concept of the Consulate of Tajikistan. He was obligated to register himself at this institution. In this situation, Farukh needed to contact the consulate, not the airport. The country he came from is the one that needs to organize the transportation. What dimwits.


Despicable Russia, what more can I say.


Russia is a backward and spiritually poor country


Of course, we can discuss the spirit of the country. The author of this comment probably admires the spirit of their country but is concealing the name of that strong-spirited country, even though this author feels deeply offended by Russia.