For Migrants in Russia, Virus Means No Money to Live and No Money to Live and No Way to Leave
Migrants from Central Asian at a labor hostel in Moscow last month.
Photographs by Sergey Ponomarev
MOSCOW — Migrant workers from Central Asia, shrugging off the risk of coronavirus infection, have gathered in groups each day outside their countries’ embassies in Moscow, banging on doors and fences and shouting for officials to come out and tell them when they can finally get on a charter flight home.
With regular flights canceled, charters offer the only feasible way out for the more than five million migrant workers from former Soviet republics now stranded in Russia as a result of the pandemic, with many living in increasingly dire circumstances.
While Russia has been battered by the virus, with the third most cases in the world after the United States and Brazil, the crisis has hit migrant workers especially hard, as they were the first to lose their jobs and often the last to receive medical help.
Many have no money for food and, once infected with the coronavirus, have been left in crowded dorms to fight the disease by themselves. Many would like to return to their countries.
But they can’t.
Before the pandemic hit, more than 15 flights left Moscow each day for various cities in Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous nation. Today, there are only two charters a week, and the embassy’s waiting list has more than 80,000 names.
One of those waiting is Botir Mukhammadiev, who was living in Moscow with his mother, Gulya, a nanny, and working as a barista with Russia’s biggest coffee shop chain.
“They fired all the migrant workers first,” said Mr. Mukhammadiev, 26. “Even though I have all the documents that allow me to work, even a diploma from a Russian university, I cannot get any job now.”
He said that he and his mother had been waiting for two months to go back and that they were worried about being evicted from their apartment because they could no longer afford to pay the rent.
Russia, more prosperous than the hardscrabble former Soviet lands in Central Asia but facing a population decline, has a voracious appetite for migrant labor, a need that is sharply at odds with government policy and the nationalist and sometimes racist sentiments of the Russian public.
While the Kremlin is reluctant to admit that the country needs migrants, demographers say that Russia has to attract at least 500,000 migrants every year to compensate for the country’s low birthrate and high mortality levels.
Since 2005, the main thrust of Russia’s migration policy has been to lure back to the motherland all the ethnic Russians who found themselves living in what many considered foreign countries after the Soviet collapse. But that pool is being depleted, according to Ekaterina B. Demintseva, a researcher of migrant issues at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
“What we saw over the past 20 years, when many Russians returned, we will not see in the future,” Ms. Demintseva said.
A migrant’s life has never been easy in Russia. Lured by higher salaries, visa-free entrance and a common Soviet heritage, migrants from Central Asia often live in cramped apartments and dorms, frequently sharing a room with up to 10 other workers. Police officers habitually harass them. Many local Russians express a loathing of them. If they are fired, employers often do not pay their final salaries.
There are no precise official figures available, but migrants are believed to contribute up to 10 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product. With the average salary in Russia five times that of Tajikistan and at least twice what it is in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, migrants are typically willing to work for around $600 a month in Moscow — less than Russians.
Many of Moscow’s taxi drivers, couriers, waiters, street sweepers, janitors and construction workers are migrants from Central Asia or the South Caucasus. Some affluent Russians take entire families of migrants into their suburban homes as household help.
“Migrant workers make a significant contribution to Russia’s development,” said Imomuddin M. Sattorov, Tajikistan’s ambassador to Russia. “In contrast to migrants who work in European countries and have a status and receive some social guarantees, our workers just come, work and pay taxes.”
The coronavirus crisis has magnified the inferior status of migrant workers. The police, for example, have locked up entire dorms when one person has become infected.
In Moscow, the coronavirus lockdown deprived 76 percent of migrant workers of their jobs, a figure that includes both layoffs and workers forced to take unpaid leave; and 58 percent lost all their income, according to a poll conducted by Evgeni Varshaver, head of the Group for Migration and Ethnicity Research. Among Russians, 42 percent lost employment because of either layoffs or unpaid leave; and 23 percent lost all income, Mr. Varshaver said the poll found.
Many migrants survive in Russia today thanks only to help from charities and embassies.
Saidnumon Mansurov, head of the Moscow office of the Uzbek State Agency for External Labor Migration, said his phone beeped every other minute with messages from migrants asking for food and other assistance. With the help of rights groups and charities, his agency delivers up to 750 meals a day.
Over the past few years, the inflow of migrant workers has been falling. The weakening ruble and poor treatment have prompted many people in Central Asia to look to other destinations. Many Uzbeks already work in South Korea, for instance.
Even amid this drop, some have called for Russia to introduce visa requirements with Central Asian countries. Aleksei A. Navalny, President Vladimir V. Putin’s most vocal critic in the opposition, has been campaigning for it.
Migrant workers face discrimination despite the long common history shared by Russia and the Central Asian states.
Russian news outlets often portray Central Asian migrants as unwanted aliens. Over the past few months, some publications have speculated that jobless migrants will have no choice but to form gangs and start robbing ethnic Russians — even though the number of crimes committed by migrants dropped in the first three months of this year, according to Moscow’s mayor, Sergei S. Sobyanin.
“My view is that any ideology needs an enemy,” said Zarnigor Omonillayeva, an Uzbek human rights lawyer who helps migrants. “Migrants are just being used as such whenever they need.”
But the discrimination long endured by the migrants may have become even more pronounced during the coronavirus crisis, with basic health care sometimes denied them.
As Gulnara Dzhengabayeva discovered, ambulance drivers frequently refuse to take migrants to the hospital, though it is illegal. Ms. Dzhengabayeva, a 56-year-old Uzbek, had been working as a private nurse, caring for the sick in Russian families. In April, she took care of two older people who later died of Covid-19. She subsequently fell ill herself.
She called an ambulance, but the driver refused to take her to the hospital. She then went to a clinic, but doctors there refused to treat her. She finally resorted to calling a doctor in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, for advice on treatment.
“The government supports imperialistic and chauvinistic sentiments among the Russian people,” said Ms. Omonillayeva, the rights lawyer. “Migrantophobia is real in Russia.”
At the end of April, following calls from rights activists, Mr. Sobyanin, Moscow’s mayor, urged health care services to make sure migrants receive the help they needed.
“These are people who live in Moscow, worked in Moscow but ended up in such a situation because of the circumstances,” Mr. Sobyanin said in an interview with the TV news channel Rossiya-24. “You cannot envy them.”