Central Asian migrants squeezed by Russia’s virus lockdown

At an odd jobs market in the capital of Tajikistan, the crowds of desperate men hoping to land work are growing. 

If Tajikistan’s key economic partner, Russia, had not sealed its border in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus, many of the men would be seeking work there. 

Instead they are trapped in the poorest country to emerge from the Soviet collapse, where money sent home by migrants — mostly from Russia — normally makes up 30 percent of gross domestic product.

For 30-year-old Djomi Sharipov, who was seeking “any type of work”, Russia’s anti-virus measures that have brought the economy to a grinding halt could not have come at a worse time.  

Sharipov had just got clear of a four-year entry ban from Russia for a migration violation and had secured work at a pasta factory outside Moscow. 

“Events conspired against me, against all of us,” Sharipov told AFP at one of several job markets in Dushanbe. 

“If before there were 15 or 20 people standing in this line, now it is 80 or 100.”

Russia’s measures against the coronavirus, which has ripped through the country in recent weeks, have left hundreds of thousands of migrants unemployed, yet trapped inside the country. 

The most desperate took to sleeping in airports early in the crisis as flights were cancelled, hoping for a reversal of fortunes. 

Migration centres in Moscow and Saint Petersburg have descended into chaos as crowds of migrants engulfed them wanting to renew work and residence permits.

In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree in April exempting millions of guest workers from labour permit payments until mid-June.

That eased the bureaucratic strain on stranded migrants, but has done little to cushion the devastating economic impact of the lockdown, now more than a month old.

Elvira Kurbanova, a 57-year-old from Kyrgyzstan, said she had no desire to return home to Central Asia’s most remittance-dependent economy, where she earned less than $200 a month as a bookkeeper.

She just wants the Asian restaurant in Moscow where she and her son were hired last autumn to reopen so she can return to a life that was “falling into place”, she told AFP by telephone.

Kurbanova and her son each earned $400 a month at the restaurant and sent around a third of that to help her parents supplement their “tiny pensions”.  

“But now our landlord wants 20,000 rubles ($265) for the rent. We still haven’t received our salaries for February,” she said.