Stranded In Russia With No Money, Desperate Central Asian Migrants Face Tough Choices

Hundreds of Uzbek citizens wait at the Russian-Kazakh border while they hope for the governments of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to open a transit road for them to return home.

Hundreds of Central Asian migrants have been stranded at Russian-Kazakh border crossings for several days, trying to return home after their hopes of working in Russia were dashed by the coronavirus pandemic.

They are among thousands of people -- desperate for work -- who are unable to return home to Central Asia where thousands of more would-be migrant workers are hoping to leave their hopeless situations and go to Russia.

Most of the migrants arrived at the Kazakh border in early May, assuming that Kazakhstan would reopen its frontiers on May 11 with the end of the state of emergency that Nur-Sultan imposed two months ago.

Kazakhstan is the main transit route for Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Tajik migrants traveling to and from Russia overland.

But an opening was not in the offing.

Hundreds of Uzbek citizens have been held up at the Russian-Kazakh border.

"The Kazakh border remains shut," one migrant told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, speaking by the phone from the Mashtakovo border crossing in Russia's Samara Region.

"Some 400-500 people from Uzbekistan have gathered here," said the Uzbek migrant, who gave only his first name, Farrukh.

Videos sent to RFE/RL show large crowds of people, including many women and children, at Mashtakovo, pleading for help from the Uzbek government to get them home.

"We are spending our last money to buy food and water here, we don't have anything," one woman said. "Russia allows migrants to leave but Kazakhstan is closed."

Many are camping outside in very desperate conditions.

Similar situations are being reported from other Russian-Kazakh border crossings, with hundreds stuck on the Russian side of the frontier in Samara and Orenburg provinces. Some Kyrgyz migrants say they arrived by foot.

In some areas, local Russian governments provided tents for Central Asian migrants, while others sleep inside their vehicles.

'We're Working On It'

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry said on May 14 that it was working to resolve the situation, with Uzbek diplomats contacting Russian and Kazakh authorities to explore options.

On May 13, Russia's TASS news agency quoted Uzbek diplomats as saying, "we were aware of our citizens' plans to return home through Kazakhstan and we had warned them not to do this, but they didn't listen."

The Foreign Ministry separately announced that the Uzbek government was organizing seven flights between Tashkent and the Russian cities of St. Petersburg, Rostov-on-Don, Kazan, Novosibirsk, and Moscow between May 14 and May 24 to bring Uzbeks home.

At the Kyrgyz Embassy in Moscow, Ambassador Alikbek Jekshenkulov says Kyrgyzstan is hoping to send some 400 Kyrgyz home soon with a Russian plane.

The Kyrgyz government says it has helped thousands of its citizens return home in recent weeks.

The Russian plane was scheduled to fly to Bishkek on May 17 to evacuate Russian citizens from Kyrgyzstan.

Among the large number of people hoping to go back home, the embassy will prioritize the most vulnerable, including those with serious illnesses, pregnant women, and women with young children, the ambassador said.

Since March, the Kyrgyz government has helped more than 9,000 Kyrgyz citizens return from abroad, the country's Foreign Ministry says. Around 1,000 more citizens are expected to come back in May.

Some of the returnees are infected with the coronavirus, authorities say. Among the 541 Kyrgyz nationals who came home from Russia on May 7, at least 56 people have tested positive for the virus.

Central Asian embassies get hundreds of pleas for help from their citizens, left with no money, income, or place to live in Russia.

Russia is a host country for millions of labor migrants from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, where unemployment has been a major problem since the early 1990s.

Now, with second-highest number of coronavirus infections in the world, Russia has closed construction sites, factories, and other workplaces that provided a lifeline for Central Asian workers.

One video shared on social media tells the story of 11 Tajik migrants, most of them women, who live in a wagon in a forest near the town of Kotelniki, near Moscow.

The migrants had to move there after they ran out of money to rent a place to live. Until workplaces reopen, they depend on charity from friends and strangers to survive.

Muyassar Rahimova (left) with her niece, Erkina

A former sewing-factory worker from the Uzbek city of Andijon, Muyassar Rahimova says she came to Russia in February after losing her job in Uzbekistan.

Rahimova, 31, found a job in Moscow and rented an apartment with her elder sister and niece.

"But soon the quarantine started and I became unemployed again," Rahimova said. Her situation took a turn for the worse as the three women were diagnosed with COVID-19 in early May.

Back in Andijon, Rahimova's three children depend on the money she was sending them from Moscow. The children live with relatives in Rahimova's apartment bought with a mortgage she can no longer pay.

Not Everyone Going Home

Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan have in recent weeks helped thousands of their citizens to come home from Russia both by special flights or by land via Kazakhstan.

But not everyone is rushing back home.

"I came to Russia in February and have since been living with several friends in one room we rented outside the city of Perm," says Bakhtovar, a Tajik migrant from Dushanbe.

An encampment of stranded migrants on the Russian-Kazakh border.

Bakhtovar adds that the men get "random jobs" that pay for their rent and "very basic food" to help them survive. Despite the hardship, Bakhtovar doesn't want to go back to Tajikistan.

"I am lucky I came to Russia before the borders closed," he says. "In Russia, at least there is hope that I'll make money to send home as workplaces are reopening."

"There were no jobs in Tajikistan even before the coronavirus struck. My family would starve if I go back home."

In The Other Direction

As hundreds of Central Asian are trying to leave Russia, thousands more are hoping to move in the opposite direction, toward Russia.

In the southern Tajik province of Khatlon, Shorahmat Alimov says he is constantly checking news on when the borders will reopen so he can go back to the Russian city of Surgut, a popular destination for many Central Asian migrants.

"The coronavirus is everywhere now," Alimov says. "In Tajikistan, I face both the virus and hunger. I want to take my chances and go to Russia to look for work."

No official announcement has been made on when Russia and Central Asian countries will open their borders.

Russia is currently facing a spike in its number of coronavirus infections, averaging more than 10,000 per day over the past few weeks.

Four Russian cabinet ministers have also been diagnosed with COVID-19, factors that one would assume make a reopening of the country -- and its borders -- still a long way off.

Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tajik services