Thousands of migrant workers from Central Asia are stuck in Russia because of travel bans, leading some to rely on money from home in a painful reversal of one of the biggest remittance flows in the world.
“We’re up to our ears in debt,” said Tolib, a 26 year-old unemployed security guard, who was on his fourth unsuccessful attempt at waiting for information outside the Tajik embassy in Moscow’s upmarket Patriarch’s Ponds district. “We have to pay for rent, food and travel, and we have nothing to live on.”
The laborers have been stranded without work in Russia since the Kremlin closed borders in March due to the pandemic. Many are running out of money after a global economic slump sapped demand for jobs in the construction and services sectors usually filled by some 4.4 million migrants.
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which depend on money sent home from Russia for more than a third of annual gross domestic product, have been two of the biggest victims of a remittance crisis that swept the globe in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. A World Bank survey conducted in May found that more than 40% of households in Tajikistan have cut down on food consumption as a result, while Kyrgyzstan is receiving emergency funding from the International Monetary Fund.
Before the pandemic, Tolib would send more than half of his $500 monthly paycheck back to his mother and two brothers in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, keeping the rest to cover rent, bureaucratic fees, and food. After he lost his job in March, his family had to wire him $200, but it barely lasted a month.
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Russia has been slower to restart international flights than other big destinations for foreign laborers like the U.S. and Germany. The Tajik embassy started repatriation flights in June, but temporarily suspended the waiting list in July after thousands of people applied to go home, according to its website.
Residents of other former-Soviet republics have also faced difficulties. Some 400 Azeris clashed with police in southern Russia as they attempted to cross the closed frontier, and a group of Uzbek workers set up makeshift camps near the border with Kazakhstan as they waited to go home, local media reported.
The World Bank estimated that the amount sent home globally from migrant workers would slump 20% this year, the sharpest decline in recent history. Europe and Central Asia will be hardest hit, the research found.
“Previously migrants were sending money here, but now their parents and relatives have to send money to Russia instead,” said Ikbol Isakov, who runs the Public Foundation Progress NGO in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Usually, migrant workers send about $13 billion home each year from Russia, which has a shrinking population and allows most citizens of the former Soviet Union to work visa-free. Three quarters of foreign workers lost their jobs or went on unpaid leave during coronavirus lockdowns in April and May, according to a survey conducted by Evgeni Varshaver at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.
International transfers from Russia slumped 35% in May and June compared to the same period a year ago, according to Unistream, a payment provider popular with Central Asian migrants.
The Money’s Not Coming Home: $690 Billion Remittance Risk
Money flows from Russia accounted for around a third of gross domestic product in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in 2018. The Kyrgyz economy could contract by 4% this year, according to IMF forecasts from April, while Tajikistan’s GDP was forecast to grow 1%, a sharp decline from the 7.5% seen in 2019.
“These people are being held like hostages here,” said Gulnara Bobodjanova, a lawyer who works at the Civic Assistance charity in Moscow. “The only way out of this situation is to open the border, even if it’s just in one direction, so that people who want to leave can go.”
— With assistance by Naubet Bisenov