No Work, No Way Home: Russia’s Migrant Workers Trapped By COVID-19

The imposition of quarantine and self-isolation has hit migrant workers hardest of all. They have nothing to live on in Russia but have no way of returning home.

Moscow's mostly abandoned subway on April 26
Moscow's mostly abandoned subway on April 26
Alexander Trushin

For three weeks in late March and early April, chaos reigned in Russia's airports. Thousands of migrants from the Central Asian republics and the South Caucasus were vainly trying to fly home, not only from Moscow, but from many other cities.

A month ago Russia closed flights to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which responded almost immediately with symmetrical measures. One or two charter flights a day operated by Central Asian airlines were arranged, but this was only done with difficulty. Prices for tickets doubled, as passengers fortunate enough to get on board — and out of the country — were obliged to cover the operating costs for the empty flight into Russia.

The majority were not so lucky. Several thousand people spent almost three weeks sleeping on the floor at airports. Volunteers brought them rubber mats, and café owners fed them what they could until the transport police expelled them from the airports, informing them that there would not be any more flights. The last to give in was the Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which until April 10 was trying to rescue Kyrgyz nationals stuck at Novosibirsk's Tolmachevo airport. "There is absolutely no way of getting them home," said Kyrgyz Deputy Foreign Minister Nurlan Niyazaliev.

A completely unexpected situation has arisen, one which it appears no other country in the grip of the current pandemic is facing. Russia and its neighbors have closed their borders. Many families in which the husband and wife held different passports have been split up in airports and at border posts — some were let across the border, others weren't. Millions of migrant workers have ended up with no job, no money, no food and no roof over their heads.

Unanswered questions

Probably the biggest problem right now is that nobody knows precisely how many migrants are now out of work, how many are currently healthy or sick, and who needs help today or will need it tomorrow.

There is no strict record of where migrants live and work. After receiving a permit, they can go wherever they want. In Moscow, passes are now being introduced for movement around the city. But what should migrants do? Can they go to shops and pharmacies if many of them have no registration? Can they go to the doctor? Can they work as taxi drivers? Or in stores?

Many migrants rent housing together, and after three weeks sitting at airports, some of them must have become ill. But is there any evidence of the spread of coronavirus among them? And when the Ministry of Health calculates the number of places in hospitals, does it take migrants into account?

What should migrants do? Can they go to shops and pharmacies if many of them have no registration? Can they go to the doctor?

We don't know the answer to these questions. The only thing we can say more or less accurately is how many migrants there are. Taking the different categories into account, it works out in total at 8,166,000 people, or 10.1% of the country's total workforce.

Experts say migrants can be divided into three groups, shadowing the structure of the economy with its "white," "black" and "gray" sectors. The majority of migrant workers fall into the "gray" category.


Ukranian border guards and police officers stand next to a train of evacuated citizens in Kiev. — Photo: Pavlo Gonchar

They completed initial registration, some of them bought a permit at a migration center, some didn't, but all of them found work. Some have even brought their wife and children to Russia. They mainly live in rented accommodation, or else in rigged-up dormitories, such as brick garages, or in old abandoned and dilapidated buildings — some in basements, some in attics.

So why has everything escalated so suddenly? In fact there is nothing sudden about it: The bomb started ticking a long time ago. Alexander Safonov, vice-rector at the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation, says that the majority of migrant workers have no clear status on the Russian labor market.

"Migrants work for us either on the basis of civil law contracts, or without any contracts at all. Employers very rarely conclude full-fledged labor contracts with them that require the fulfillment of certain social obligations — paid leave, safety precautions, social guarantees and so on," he explains.

"This is the most vulnerable category of workers, and we have more than 5 million of them. And if a force majeure like the current epidemic happens, they're completely defenseless," Safonov adds. "They don't have any savings (they earn everything they spend on housing and food, and send it to home to their families). They're predominantly engaged in precisely those sectors that have now shut down. They cannot go home, and there is no work."

Delicate relations

Russia has lived alongside the peoples of Central Asia for 150 years, and they were neighbors for centuries before these countries were part of the Russian Empire.

"Many of them still remember a time when we were not on different sides of a border and divided into "us' and "them,"" Safonov says. "For the last 20–25 years we've brought them into the orbit of our economy. Many have assimilated. They've seen the prospects of life in Russia."

He points out that the former Soviet Asian republics also play an important role in Russian policy in the region: "We're competing with China there. And if we don't now treat migrants humanely, if we simply deport them from Russia, China will move in. And there will be no way back for us under any circumstances."

"And there is another danger. If Russia takes extremely harsh measures and deports unemployed migrants, they will quickly fall under the influence of Islamist preachers, who will be able to direct the energy of these embittered people against Russia."

Short on time

Vadim Kozhenov, the head of Russia's Migrant Federation, warns that by their estimates 10% of migrants in the country already lack means of subsistence.

"This is almost half a million people," he says. "They have no money to buy food or pay for housing. Some of them still have financial reserves that are keeping them afloat. Some kind of redistribution of funds is happening among the diasporas — people are supporting each other. But the funds are melting away every day, and the situation of these people will become worse and worse."

Yelena Trubnikova, president of the FinExpertiza international audit and consulting network, which has studied the distribution of migrants across Russian regions, warns that if millions of them have nowhere to work and nothing to eat during the pandemic, "we can forecast a growth in criminal and epidemic risks among migrant workers."

Yet so far the Russian government has no answer as to what millions of migrants left without work and without means of subsistence are going to do.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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