‘We’ve become hostages’ Thousands of migrants from Uzbekistan are stranded in makeshift camps at the Russia-Kazakhstan border
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of migrants from Uzbekistan have found themselves stranded at the Russia-Kazakhstan border. Left without work in Russia, they wanted to make their way home over land through Kazakhstan, but the country’s escalating coronavirus epidemic has led Nur-Sultan to tighten entry restrictions and the border remains closed. Left with nowhere to go, these migrants have set up a makeshift camp in an open field, where they are trying to survive without food, water, or money in 37 degree heat (98.6 degree Fahrenheit). Maria Shesterikova, a journalist from Russia’s southwestern Samara Region, travelled to the local border with Kazakhstan to speak with the camp’s inhabitants. Here’s her special report for Meduza.
‘We just want to go home’
On the border between the Orenburg and Samara regions in southwestern Russia, a group of Uzbek citizens have pitched a makeshift camp. It’s located near the tiny Russian town of Mashtakov, not far from a border control point between Russia and Kazakhstan. The severe COVID-19 outbreak in the Orenburg Region has stopped these Uzbekistani migrants from traveling any further. As soon as Meduza’s correspondent arrives at the makeshift camp, a crowd of people gather around the car, hoping that it’s bringing them food and water. They stand along the highway to “catch” the vehicles that periodically drop off groceries for them. As soon as they realize that our correspondent has nothing to offer, they lose interest and go off to watch for other travelers.
All total there’s about a thousand or so people here, among them are children and pregnant women. Some of them were trying to cross the border in cars or on buses — they have it easier; at least there’s somewhere for them to sleep. In an attempt to save themselves from the heat, the others have set up makeshift shelters, covering branches and leaves with blankets and sheets, and laying carpets out on the grass.
“I’ve been here for a week already. And some [have been] here for 20 days, a month. You try spending at least 20 minutes here. How did I get here? Just like all the others. The coronavirus, quarantine. I worked in Moscow, I was fired because of the virus. I wanted to go home to Uzbekistan. And I came here. There, in Moscow, I have no salary, nothing,” says Ulugbek, throwing up his hands.
The residents of the camp don’t want to give their last names, and they’re reluctant to have their pictures taken. “We are afraid of the consequences, so this isn’t necessary,” they say.
Near the camp, on the Orenburg Region side, there’s a cordon made up of the border service, the police, and the Russian Guard.
“They won’t let us through,” Ulugbek continues. “We’ve become hostages. We have nowhere to go back to, but we can’t go home. They’ve surrounded us with machine guns and truncheons. Why are they [there]? We just want to go home. There’s no work, no money, no housing. Our families are at home. How are they living there? What are they eating? We don’t know anything at all. Phones don’t work, there’s no connection [in] the field.”
‘Everything is dirty’
At this point a truck carrying water approaches the camp. As soon as they see the car, the migrants grab their five-liter bottles and race to get water. It’s brought in twice a day. This is free, “government” water — the administration of the Bolshechernigovsky District (where the camp is located) is organizing the deliveries. Sometimes private sellers bring water and charge three rubles per liter (about $0.04).
When asked “how do you clean yourselves here?” the camp’s inhabitants shrug.
“There’s no water, everything is dirty, [our] clothes are dirty,” explains Zulya Yakubova (whose last name has been changed at her request). At this moment, one of the other women in the camp is trying to wash clothes in a 5-liter plastic bottle that’s been cut in half.
Zulya also came from Moscow: she worked in a restaurant, but then it closed. Left without money and work she decided to go home. She’s been at the border for 10 days.
“Rumors were going around that you could get home through Kazakhstan. We came [here]. The evenings are difficult, you sit and cry from helplessness. There are many men and few women. I don’t know what to eat. The men get drunk in the evenings — you never know what will happen. It’s scary. All of the men are already hungry. What will happen with the women? I’m all alone here, without [any] family. We are just sitting here and waiting [for] Kazakhstan to open its borders, there’s no clarity at all,” Zulya says, in tears.
The food situation is also difficult. The district administration hands out dry goods occasionally, for dinner. It’s mostly passing trucks that help with food. The drivers (who are most often from Uzbekistan too) stop and unload bread, water, vegetables, and sometimes even watermelons and cantaloupes. Those who still have money go to buy groceries in the district center, Bolshaya Chernigovka. Locals also provide money and food.
Before the pandemic, Jamila worked in passenger transport; she was travelling to Uzbekistan on a bus from Moscow. She has been at the border for 15 days already. Jamila is living in the luggage compartment of the bus — and this is considered a privileged place. The floor is covered in blankets, there’s pillows, and even a crossbreeze.
“My brother sends money, we go to a store in a town 15 kilometers from here to get it. There’s no way out anymore, what now? This is the first time we’ve been in this situation, even though we’ve been in Moscow for 20 years…There are guys here without a cent. We are helping them however we can: I bought a pot, I bring bread, water. We cook. We’re all people after all,” Jamila says with a smile.
The stranded migrants do most of their cooking in a pot over a fire, which is burning right in the middle of all the shelters. The camp has already established a location for dumping trash. There are no toilets. They dug a pit on the other side of the camp and fenced it off with a white sheet — you can see it from a distance.
‘We’re living like hobos’
The migrants are living on top of each other, literally: there’s no social distancing, let alone talk of everyone wearing masks. Only a handful of people have masks on.
Rashid is 59 years old. He worked as a custodian in Moscow, but at the end of April he fell ill.
“I had no appetite, my head hurt. I told my manager that I didn’t have any energy, I couldn’t work. They called an ambulance. The doctors said ‘Why did you call us? It’s just an ordinary headache.’ I went to the dorm but they moved me to a seperate trailer. I lay there for two weeks. They brought me groceries and medicine, but the doctor didn’t come once. So I don’t know what I had,” Rashid explains.
Rashid has been at the camp since June 20. His story is much like all the others: he heard from his compatriots that Kazakhstan’s border was opening, so he came to the border crossing point and stayed.
“We’re living like hobos, or even worse. We want to go home. There’s no work there, [so] we came to Russia. Now we can’t go back. My wife is lying in Uzbekistan in a coma, she had two heart attacks. I need to be close to her, this is why I was going home. And it’s about time for me to retire. My granddaughter was born, I’ve never seen her,” Rashid admits.
There are no medical workers near the camp.
‘Their husbands won’t let them’
The camp in the Samara Region’s Bolshechernigovsky District is the third cluster of migrants along Russia’s border with Kazakhstan. The first group of people stuck at the border were evacuated via a special transport from Uzbekistan, but this isn’t possible now. There are 1,200 people stranded in the Bolshechernigovsky District, and another 747 migrants stuck in the Orenburg Region’s Buzuluksky District, which is also not far from the Russia-Kazakhstan border.
On July 8, the Samara Region’s governor, Dmitry Azarov, met with Botirzhon Asadov, Uzbekistan’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Russia. Local media published the regional government’s report about the meeting:
“The Samara Region’s government is paying particular attention to the situation and providing people with maximum support. There are temporary accommodations set up three kilometers from the district center. A tent camp has been established in accordance with all sanitary rules, water supply has been organized, and medical workers are working at the site,” the report says.
As it turns out, there is in fact a tent camp run by Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry in the area. The only problem is that there’s practically no one there.
“Currently, there are 29 women migrants living in the tent camp. Medical workers came on July 9, examined everyone and gave consultations. The rest don’t want to relocate. There are women who are ready to go to the Emergency Ministry’s camp but their husbands won’t let them. For us a husband’s word is law. People don’t want to hear anything about this, they just want to go home. They think that if they go to the tent camp, they won’t open the border,” explains Dilfuza Sabirova, the regional head of the All-Russian Congress of Uzbeks and Citizens of Uzbekistan.
According to Sabirova, the governor’s administration offered the migrants temporary employment. Officials were ready to help process work permits, but the Uzbek citizens refused.
“When this situation will end is unknown. Nothing here depends on either Russia or the Samara Region. There is a very difficult situation with the coronavirus in Kazakhstan right now. For now quarantine is in place until July 20, and we’ll see how things will be there after that. Now we are persuading everyone to return to their regions — to Moscow, the Moscow region, or to St. Petersburg,” Nadezhda Osipova, the head of the regional administration’s nationality and religious policy department, tells Meduza.
On its official website, Uzbekistan’s Embassy in Russia posted a statement warning that the messages circulating on social networks and popular messaging apps about the Russia-Kazakhstan border being open, and the possibility of returning to Uzbekistan through Kazakhstan, are false. “The quarantine measures introduced in Russia, as well as in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan remain in force, including the restrictions on entry,” the statement read.
While Meduza’s correspondent was reporting from the camp, representatives from Uzbekistan’s Embassy in Russia arrived at the site. They persuaded pregnant women and women with children to stay in a hotel in the nearby town of Bolshaya Chernigovka — at the expense of the district administration.
Translation by Eilish Hart