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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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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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