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Stranded in the pandemic As coronavirus spreads, travel restrictions have trapped thousands of migrant workers in airports across Russia for a week or more

Source: Meduza
Kirill Kukhmar / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Citizens of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and other nearby countries have been stranded on the Russian border

Russia’s border closures and travel bans instituted in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic have been particularly destructive for migrant workers from Central Asia. As early as March 17, the newspaper Kommersant spoke with ambassadors to Russia from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, each of whom said the new limits on air and rail travel have affected “hundreds of thousands of migrants.” The scale of the problem is so large because the spring season is a transitional one for many workers — new seasonal laborers enter Russia while those who have worked there during the winter return home.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, moving in either direction is no longer possible. Russia has closed its borders to nearly all non-Russian citizens, and Uzbekistan has also cut off all airplane and train travel to and from other countries. Uzbekistan Airways has promised to evacuate citizens from Moscow to Uzbekistan on charter flights, but even that option is nonexistent outside Russia’s capital.

The result is that thousands of Uzbek citizens are stranded on Russian borders, Usman Baratov told Meduza. Baratov leads the interregional Uzbek community association “Batandosh” and works as a human rights advocate. In many Russian regions, he said, people have been forced to live in airports because the country’s ban on non-citizens entering the country keeps them from crossing the border back to their temporary homes.

“In some airports, people have already gone through passport control, but their flights have been cancelled, and they’re not being let back into Russia. In the end, they’ve had to sleep on the floors and even buy water at astronomical prices. People are fainting from hunger,” Baratov explained, emphasizing that some of those stranded have run out of money, and their apartments have already been released to other tenants.

This is the situation now facing about 300 citizens of Uzbekistan who are stranded in Novosibirsk’s Tolmachevo airport. All of them were working temporary jobs in various regions of Russia and had decided to return home only to find that all the flights that could take them there were cancelled. According to the Novosibirsk news site NGS, riot police squadrons were even deployed to remove some passengers from their planes to Uzbekistan as borders closed and flights were cancelled. Those passengers have now been living in the Novosibirsk airport for a week or more. In all that time, many have been sleeping right on the floor of the facility. Uzbekistan’s embassy in Russia has only called on its citizens to return to “their permanent or temporary places of residence” and wait for a solution.

Citizens of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have found themselves in similar situations. Community leader Tursunbai Kubatbekov told Meduza that at least several hundred Kyrgyz citizens have been stranded in Russia. As of March 20, 157 of them had been trapped on the border of the Orenburg region for three days. They had planned to return to Kyrgyzstan by car through Kazakhstan, but Kazakhstan closed its borders before they could depart.

Travelers returning home with a layover in Russia have also been stranded inside the country. For example, on March 18, about 100 Belarusian citizens were trapped in Moscow’s Vnukovo airport when Russian authorities restricted air travel to the city’s Domodedovo and Sheremetyevo airports only. “The border control officers took our passports and left us in the border zone with no access to food or warm meals,” said Belarusian citizen Galina Moiseyeva. Belarusian Embassy employees later brought food and warm blankets into the airport.

Kazakh citizens returning home through Russia have faced similar obstacles. In the city of Omsk alone, more than 20 people are stuck in the airport after finding themselves unable to reach Kazakhstan by car or train.

Charter flights are being planned to solve the problem, but there won’t be enough for everybody

It is unclear exactly how many individuals are now stranded in Russia. Maria Zakharova, the official representative for the country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, promised to clarify that figure for Meduza but did not follow up by the time this article was published.

Uzbekistan, Belarus, and Kazakhstan have already said they will transport their citizens out of Russia on charter flights. Each country had to negotiate with Russian officials to achieve permission for the flights; for example, the question of evacuating Belarusian citizens from Russia arose during a recent conversation between the two countries’ foreign ministers.

A member of Russia’s Kyrgyz diaspora told Meduza that Kyrgyz citizens stuck on the border between Russia and Kazakhstan should soon be able to return home by train or plane. The tickets for those trips will have to be purchased, but about half their cost will be returned to the passengers.

Still, the Uzbek diaspora community leader Usman Baratov emphasized that there will not be enough charter flights to evacuate every migrant worker who is now stuck in Russia. “One charter flight is 150 people, and there are tens of thousands of Uzbekistan citizens stranded in Russia. The matter has to be resolved decisively: They have to be let back into Russia and given material support,” he argued. Imomuddin Sattorov, Tajikistan’s ambassador to Russia, also acknowledged that it will be simply impossible for his government to transport all of its citizens who are stuck in Russia by air.

On March 19, Russia’s Internal Affairs Ministry extended all temporary entry and residency permits granted to non-Russian citizens. All Russian visa holders will be permitted to stay in the country for an extended period regardless of why they traveled there. The Ministry also said those whose visas have expired and those who are in Russia without a visa will be granted permission to remain in the country legally if they contact a police station near them.

Finally, the Ministry said it would reopen its application system for Russian work permits and that migrant workers applying for licenses would not be required to leave Russia or face administrative fines for missed deadlines.

Russian officials and ordinary citizens have expressed concern about the thousands of people stranded on the country’s borders and offered some degree of aid. One Moscow government official, Yury Moskovsky, noted that many migrant workers may be forced to break Russian immigration laws if they are not permitted to leave: Moskovsky explained to the Yekaterinburg-based outlet URA.RU that many seasonal laborers can only be on Russian territory for 90 days out of every 180, and violating that rule twice can result in a three-year ban on entering Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow restaurateur Alexey Khodorkovsky called on other members of the hospitality industry to join him in providing food to hundreds of travelers and seasonal workers stranded in the city.

Story by Pavel Merzlikin

English version by Hilah Kohen

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