Tajik migrant workers are desperate to return to Russia and the jobs they lost during the coronavirus pandemic, but skyrocketing prices for plane tickets are preventing them from going.
Large crowds of people have gathered outside the central air ticket office in Dushanbe every day since late March, when Russia reopened its borders to Tajiks.
Russian officials only permit Tajiks to enter Russia directly via air -- but the number of flights is restricted and the cost of a seat on a plane often unaffordable.
Thousands of families in Tajikistan faced severe food shortages after Russia closed its borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Many could not pay their rent or make ends meet.
But despite the much-celebrated resumption of regular flights to Russia on April 1, only a handful of Tajiks have managed thus far to buy plane tickets to return to their jobs.
People complain about a lack of “concrete information” on the prices and availability of tickets, as the paucity of flights has put seats on the planes in great demand.
That has led to an unprecedented upsurge in airfares despite a government pledge to keep the prices under control.
Tajik authorities initially announced that tickets for flights to Russia would be sold only at one ticket office in the capital, Dushanbe.
Several people outside the ticket shop said they came from villages in the southern Khatlon and northern Sughd provinces. For some, it took a whole day to travel to the capital. Many came with their bags packed for Russia, although a large number of them eventually had to return to their homes after not being able to get a plane ticket.
Several people told RFE/RL on April 5 that they had been waiting at the ticket office for a week.
“When I first came here on March 31, officials put our names on a waiting list. They told us that the first 80 people might get tickets for the following day and that the others should come on April 4,” said Jamshed Boimurodov, a migrant worker.
When Boimurodov returned on April 4, he was told the tickets had sold out until the end of the month.
The next day, a shop began offering plane tickets to Russia for anyone willing to pay up to three times more than the original price.
A one-way flight from Dushanbe to Moscow on Somon Air costs about $349, a fixed price the airline agreed to with the government.
A World Bank survey said a significant portion of Tajikistan's 9.5 million people were forced to eat less, with many skipping meals entirely and some even going hungry.
The government also imposed a price cap of $500 for a return ticket from Tajikistan to Russia to protect people from unaffordable prices.
As one ticket-seeker said: "The reality is completely different from what official websites and state television say."
“I just saw the prices that the ticket office is offering,” he told Current Time TV, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “They start at $525 for later dates. If you want to fly earlier, you would have to pay [about] $1,200 per ticket.”
Several other men came out of the ticket office also complaining of high prices.
“I was told there are no tickets for May, either, and the fares are between $525 and $1,050, depending on the date,” said a would-be buyer. “It’s far too expensive for me.”
"I asked the price for any Dushanbe-Moscow flight, without asking for an exact date. They said it’s $1,200. When I asked them why it’s so expensive, the cashier said, 'It's an instruction from above,'" said another.
For Tajiks, “an instruction from above” usually means an order from the authoritarian government that has the ultimate say in virtually all matters in the tightly controlled Central Asian country.
RFE/RL contacted officials at the Air Service Agency, who insisted the tickets are being offered at $349 apiece.
The agency said it has held a meeting with representatives of the State Security Committee, the Transport Prosecutor's Office, and private airlines to discuss ways to resolve the situation.
Running Out Of Options
Munira Davlatova, one of those standing in line for days, says people are extremely frustrated after waiting so long and with the ambiguity surrounding the the price of tickets and scarcity of flights.
“Authorities should tell people what the situation is,” Davlatova said.
Even the original price of $349 was too expensive for many people to afford. Davlatova said some people had to sell their livestock, while others took loans from banks in order to buy tickets.
Umarjon from Sughd (who would only give his first name) said his brother and two cousins put together “all their savings” so he could go Russia. The plan is for Umarjon to send money from his earnings in Russia so they could then buy tickets and join him.
On his shoestring budget, Umarjon said he can’t afford the airfare if it goes up even by $20.
“We raised just enough money for the ticket and for a [mandatory] Russian work permit,” he explained.
I suppose this is what hunger and hopelessness do to you.”-- Umarjon, prospective migrant laborer
Unable to purchase a ticket at the official price, Umarjon is going back to his village for now. Asked what he’ll do next, the 33-year-old father of two said he is “running out of options.”
Umarjon lives with his family in the same house as his younger brother and their elderly mother. With the two siblings’ seasonal work in Russia, the family had enjoyed a relatively comfortable life.
But the pandemic changed everything.
Over the summer, the brothers and their wives worked at an apricot farm.
In the fall, they picked cotton, earning just enough money for food, bills, and firewood to cook and heat their home.
Since December, Umarjon was taken on different odd jobs, such as repairing homes or unloading goods at bazaars.
Like many Tajiks, the family experienced a shortage of food over the past year as the country struggled with the economic impact of the pandemic.
A December World Bank survey said a significant portion of the country’s 9.5 million people were forced to eat less, with many skipping meals entirely and some even going hungry.
More than 30 percent of the respondents in the Listening To Tajikistan survey said they had reduced the amount of food they eat compared to pre-pandemic times. More than 5 percent said they had to go hungry because they couldn't afford food.
According to a World Food Program report released in September, 27.4 percent of the population lives in poverty and 11.8 percent in extreme poverty, making Tajikistan the poorest of the 15 former Soviet republics.
In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, another remittance-dependent country, migrant workers have no problem entering and working in Russia because it is a member of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Remittances are also vital for fellow Central Asian state Uzbekistan, where millions have eagerly been waiting for the borders to reopen.
The Uzbek government recently pledged millions of dollars to create jobs, organize training courses and workshops, and to help start-up companies as part of a major plan to tackle unemployment.
But with no clear pandemic-related aid or support programs from the government, the situation in Tajikistan has gone from bad to worse in the past year. Food prices rose further during the winter, which was unusually cold, with temperatures plunging to minus 15 degrees Celsius.
Umarjon fears the hardship has taken a toll on his family's mental health. The formerly laid-back adults have become easily irritated, he said.
“I noticed that we snap at each other a lot. I know it’s wrong, I know,” he added hastily. “But I suppose this is what hunger and hopelessness do to you.”
Umarjon said he feels “guilty and inadequate” at not being able to provide for his family “the way they deserve.”
“You feel you’ve lost your dignity when you wait for hours on the corner of the street or bazaar waiting for someone to hire you for a job,” he said.
Umarjon and millions of Tajiks believe the only way out of hunger and poverty is to go to Russia for work.
“I hope the ticket prices will go down in a few weeks,” he said. “Or perhaps we’ll be allowed to travel to Russia by bus, as we did before. That was much cheaper.”