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Tajik Workers Face Dire Future As Russia Closes Borders Over Coronavirus

Tajiks hoping to leave for seasonal work in Russia gather outside Tajik railways in Dushanbe on March 17.
Tajiks hoping to leave for seasonal work in Russia gather outside Tajik railways in Dushanbe on March 17.

Even though Tajikistan hasn't announced a single case of coronavirus infection, the country is already feeling the consequences of the deadly pandemic that has spread to all of its neighbors.

Facing rampant unemployment, the Central Asian state of some 9 million is heavily dependent on remittances from its migrant workers in Russia, a key destination for hundreds of thousands of Tajiks seeking work.

But Moscow's announcement that it would close its borders to foreigners as of March 18 until at least May 1 came as many Tajik migrants were packing their bags to travel for seasonal jobs at Russian construction sites, farms, and factories.

Many are concerned that extended border closures -- should they be announced -- will bring even greater financial hardship for thousands of Tajik households.

"My work in Russia is the only income for my family. I don't have any fallback if I lose that income," says Sharof, a 27-year-old migrant worker from the northern Sughd Province.

Sharof, who only gave his first name, spends seven or eight months in Russia every year, usually working two jobs: tending a large vegetable plot at a Russian family's summer house near the city of Surgut, and working part-time at nearby construction sites.

Sharof makes a total of $700 per month on average and sends most of the money to his family in Tajikistan.

'What Can I Do?'

From late March to the end of April is the high season for many Tajik migrants to depart for Russia.

Some fly but many usually opt for cheaper options -- trains or buses -- a long journey that takes several days through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

But Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan shut down their borders on March 16 due to the the coronavirus outbreak, creating further uncertainties for Tajik migrant workers looking to get to Russia.

Large crowds of people gathered near the main ticket office at Dushanbe's railway station on March 17, with people trying to get a refund for tickets they had bought in advance since now they are unable to enter Russia.

Dushanbe resident Amirsho Aliev told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service that he paid about $120 for a one-way train ticket to Russia but only got a refund of about $100.

Many others had similar complaints about their refunds, but railway officials didn't explain why a full refund was not possible. "On top of everything else, I lost $20 for nothing," he said.

Asked what he would do, Aliev said: "What can I do?! I'll just go home and wait like all other poverty-stricken people will be doing now."

A smaller group could be seen at the central airline ticket office in Dushanbe on March 17 trying to get last-minute flights to any Russian city hours before Russia would close its border.

Dilshod Nurboev had a ticket to fly to Russia for March 18, but he was told he wouldn't be allowed to go. "I understand that countries have to take measures to contain the coronavirus. I suppose I can wait for a month or two," Nurboev said.

Many Tajiks like Nurboev hope the crisis will be tackled soon and that Russia and other countries won’t have to extend the border closures.

Sharof said there was no "Plan B" for him if Russia keeps its border closed to foreign workers.

"My cousins used to work in Kazakhstan but that, too, isn't an option anymore. Yesterday [March 17] my neighbors came back from Uzbekistan as they were on their way to Russia by bus and found out that they can't go [into Kazakhstan]," Sharof said.

Sharof said he doesn't "blame the government or anyone else for the coronavirus crisis," but said he needs help from Tajik authorities to help him and others feed their families.

"I and many others like me expect our government to find some sort of solution, find us jobs or social benefits, or get a deal with Russia to allow us in if the borders remain closed beyond May," he said.

Abdumannon Sheraliev, a Dushanbe-based social-affairs expert, said Tajik authorities must be prepared for all possible scenarios.

"Of course it's possible that, for example, a vaccine [for the coronavirus] will be developed soon and the world will be saved from this disease, but [Tajikistan] should study all possible outcomes and prepare itself for the worst possible scenario," he said.

Tajik authorities, meanwhile, say Tajik airlines will continue to fly to Russia to bring back any citizens willing to return home.

On March 16, some 200 Tajiks were stranded for 17 hours at a transit area on a Kazakh-Uzbek border crossing after both countries closed their borders because of the coronavirus.

The group -- which included many children -- was eventually allowed to cross into Uzbekistan and continue their journey to Tajikistan.

Officials in Dushanbe say about 500,000 Tajik migrants traveled to Russia in 2019 and sent a total of $2.6 billion in remittances through official channels.

Sources in Russia put the number of migrant workers from Tajikistan at more than 1 million.

Zarangez Navruzshoh of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.