Urmat has signed a contract to work for a Russian company that will pay him about $120 a day to collect dead Russian soldiers on the front line in Ukraine.
The migrant worker from Kyrgyzstan, who did not want his last name published, says he is aware of the risks involved and has discussed the topic with Kyrgyz migrants working in Ukraine’s war zones.
“They told me sometimes they came under shelling and that people get killed,” Urmat told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service. “[People] do this kind of work because they’re in a desperate situation. Some have debts.”
Hundreds of Central Asian migrants have been hired by Russian firms to work in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory despite warnings from their governments not to go to Ukraine. Kyiv has also stated that such workers will be seen as accomplices of the Russian invaders.
The majority of the migrants are working in construction in war-ravaged cities like Mariupol. Other jobs involve digging trenches and gathering dead bodies.
Several women migrants from Central Asia said they have also been offered jobs in military-oriented hospitals, canteens, and factories in occupied eastern Ukraine.
Money is the main motivation for the migrants.
For example, construction jobs in Russian-held parts of Ukraine are being offered with salaries ranging between nearly $2,000 to $3,300 a month, which is much higher than laborers can earn in Russia.
While migrant workers’ wages vary greatly in different Russian regions, several told RFE/RL on March 7 that they make from $600 to about $1,200 a month.
Stuck In Ukraine
Work in Ukraine is advertised on websites, Telegram groups, and other social media. Migrants also hear about jobs from their employers or by word of mouth from fellow Central Asian workers, according to Sorbon K., a laborer from Tajikistan.
Sorbon said he makes about $1,200 a month as a road construction worker, a job he described as “one of the best paid” for unskilled seasonal laborers in Surgut, the western Siberian city where he lives.
“The majority of [Central Asian] migrants I know here are not at all interested in going to Ukraine for work, but from time to time I hear that someone has gone there,” he said. “I know a Tajik man who went to work in Mariupol and then encouraged his relatives to join him.”
Jobs in Ukraine are advertised as safe and well-paid. But dozens of migrants working in Ukraine complain they are not getting the salaries they were promised.
Some of the disillusioned workers who have tried to leave Ukraine were not allowed by Russian border guards to reenter Russia.
On February 25, a Kyrgyz citizen who worked for a Russian company in Ukraine told RFE/RL that border guards prevented him from going back to Russia.
The man -- who didn’t want his name published due to security concerns -- said he arrived in Mariupol with some 400 workers, including 20 Kyrgyz nationals, in May 2022, soon after the coastal city fell to Russian forces.
“I came to Mariupol after signing a contract with a Russian construction company and have worked here for more than eight months,” he told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service by phone from eastern Ukraine. “I decided to leave Ukraine on February 24, but Russian border guards didn’t let me reenter Russia. They said my name was on a ‘blacklist.’ I have no idea how.”
RFE/RL cannot verify the man’s claims. Kyrgyz diplomats in Moscow said they were trying to clarify the situation.
Russia is a host country for millions of migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- former Soviet countries plagued for decades by steep unemployment.
'It's Not A Moral Decision'
Russian companies have reportedly even been targeting women convicts from Central Asia in Russian prisons to work in Ukraine in exchange for money and for their criminal records to be expunged.
Tilekmat-ata, a resident of the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, says his 31-year-old daughter is serving a six-year prison term in Russia on drug-trafficking charges.
The man fears that his daughter -- a nurse by profession -- is being lured to work in Ukraine. She recently asked her father to send her medical college diploma.
“I am not going to send her any document,” Tilekmat-ata told RFE/RL. “She has been promised about $1,200 a month in wages. The Russians are allegedly recruiting medics from prisons.”
Tilekmat-ata is adamant that his daughter “must stay where she is” and serve her remaining time in prison instead of going to Ukraine.
Khosiyat Safarmatova, a former math teacher from the northern Tajik province of Sughd, has lived most of the past decade in Russia’s Tyumen Province, a popular destination for tens of thousands of Central Asian migrant workers.
Safarmatova says she knows about a half a dozen Tajiks and Uzbeks in her neighborhood who have worked in Russian-occupied Ukrainian cities or “have considered going there.”
“What strikes me is that most of them don’t think in terms of whether it’s right or wrong to go to Ukraine for work. For them, it’s just another job,” she says.
Like many Russians, most migrants in Russia believe Moscow’s narrative of the war and blame Ukraine and the Western countries for instigating it.
“Some people considered going to Ukraine, but in the end they chose not to because of the [various] risks -- not because they thought it’s immoral or the wrong thing to do,” she adds.