ALMATY -- Central Asian immigrants stranded in Russia without work and with dwindling resources because of the coronavirus outbreak are seeing their woes compounded by unlawful police persecution and widespread fraud.
Thousands of migrant workers have been unable to return home from Russia after authorities closed borders and cancelled flights to Central Asia because of the accelerating spread of COVID-19 in the country.
Russian airlines have not issued refunds for tickets of cancelled flights, sapping the cash reserves of migrants.
With work drying up because of closed businesses, many migrants also have been left without housing and income. Early on in the pandemic, many migrants slept in airports until airport staff forced them outside.
In addition, migrant workers say that police and employers have fleeced them.
Tajik migrant workers in Russia are complaining that police officers and employers are demanding payment for work permits, Radio Ozodi, the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), reported April 28. This document authorises migrants to work and pay taxes.
On April 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree stating that through June 15, migrants would be exempt from paying for or having to extend their permits and could work without authorisation documents.
A day earlier, Tajik migrants from Yekaterinburg told RFE/RL that police were arresting migrant workers from Central Asia for not extending their registration or not paying for the permit.
Bribes for permits
Similar incidents have taken place in Chelyabinsk, Tver, St. Petersburg and Moscow. Some migrants say that they are having to pay for the permits under the threat of dismissal by their employers.
Corrupt police are another group who demand bribes from migrants seeking permit extensions.
Russian police who arrest migrant workers for refusing to pay them for those bribes are violating the law, say human rights activists.
The permits are a steady source of illegal income squeezed from migrant workers, said Valentina Chupik, director of Utro Mira (Sunrise of the World), a Moscow-based human rights NGO.
The proceeds go to corrupt migration authorities and companies affiliated with them.
"Migration registration in Russia exists only for bribes, and it is directed specifically at migrants," Chupik said.
Local criminals are aggravating the situation for Central Asian migrants by preying on their precarious circumstances.
On April 19, the Kyrgyz embassy in Moscow issued a warning to its citizens about a new wave of fraud in Russia that is targeting stranded foreigners, the majority of whom are migrant workers from Central Asia.
"There has been an emergence of swindlers, who in exchange for a certain amount of money, offer to place people on a list to return to one's homeland [Kyrgyzstan], and who offer fake registration and forged passports," the embassy said.
"In light of this, the embassy is urging citizens to refrain from spreading unreliable information, and to avoid succumbing to disinformation by agitators and representatives of phony charities that allegedly support labour migration, and to populist promises or pronouncements by some unscrupulous politicians regarding the return of Kyrgyz citizens from Russia," it said.
Meanwhile, thousands of migrants are resigned to being unable to leave Russia soon, forcing them to seek help from their own governments while finding ways to cling to vanishing housing and wages.
Ulan Omorov, who is from Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan, and is now in Moscow, considers himself fortunate.
He lives with a relative, unlike many of his fellow Kyrgyz citizens, who have ended up on the streets without any support.
"Here in Moscow, citizens who lose their income receive benefits. But benefits are not paid to migrants, whom local employers have not even officially processed," he said.
"During these difficult weeks of the pandemic, no one here is accommodating us -- neither the authorities nor employers. I don't even ... go to the store because the police will take me to the station for allegedly violating quarantine," Omorov added.
Central Asian migrants being held in detention centres in Russia for not having work permits face deplorable conditions, say observers.
"About 100 Tajik migrants in a special detention centre for migrants in the Koltsovo settlement near Yekaterinburg demanded humane treatment and to be sent back to Tajikistan," Temur Varki, a BBC correspondent living in Paris, wrote on Facebook April 27.
"The situation is like this or even worse for Tajik migrants in special detention centres in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Hundreds of defenseless and forsaken Tajik citizens have ended up in Russian special detention centres in abominable conditions, without any rights or hope," Varki wrote.
Even after Russia's quarantine eventually ends and borders re-open, the prospects of Central Asian migrants being able to return home appear dim.
In April, Russia's largest airlines sharply increased ticket prices. Companies such as Aeroflot, S7 Airlines, Ural Airlines and Utair hiked fares on domestic tickets by 50% to 110%, reported Vedomosti, a business newspaper, citing their websites.
Plane tickets are now affordable "only for those who are not price-sensitive and who absolutely need to fly no matter what", Alexander Fridlyand, a professor at the State Research Institute of Civil Aviation in Moscow, told Vedomosti.
Since migrant workers do not fit into this category, they can expect to encounter even harsher challenges in Russia soon.