Migrant Workers Struggle Through Russian Quarantine

Trapped: Millions of Migrant Workers Struggle Through Russian Quarantine
1 May 2020

Migrant workers in Russia can’t leave, and they can’t work. They’re penalized for staying and harassed by the police. They have a higher chance of being killed by COVID-19. From Novaya Gazeta.

Uzbek citizen Oybek Nuraliev was working in a warehouse in Moscow when the coronavirus pandemic triggered widespread business shutdowns. The 42-year-old was among more than a dozen people at the warehouse asked to sign a statement about taking unpaid leave for a month – from 10 April to 10 May. It was impossible to refuse.

Nuraliev has lived and worked in Russia for more than 15 years. Now, he is one of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers whose livelihoods have been put on the line.

As Russia struggles to contain the coronavirus outbreak, foreign workers are disproportionately affected. Many of those employed on the books are being sent on unpaid leave. Those who worked illegally may have lost their jobs altogether. Despite the loss of income, bills continue to pile up. 

Migrant workers make up a sizable portion of Russia’s workforce. In 2019, 19 million foreigners were officially working in Russia (for perspective, there are 74.5 million Russian employed throughout the country).  And according to some estimates, some 60 percent of migrants are in the country illegally. Regardless of the workers’ status, Russian authorities are notorious for their mistreatment of labor migrants.

Most migrant workers come to Russia from Central Asian countries, which were under Russia’s control until the 1990s as part of the Soviet Union. These include Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, where poverty is widespread.Photo: Vlad Dokshin / Novaya Gazeta

Earlier this year, Novaya Gazeta reported that Russia used North Korean forced laborers to build a giant apartment complex. Human rights lawyer Boris Ponosov described their working conditions as “slave-like.”

“I Don’t Know What I’m Going To Do”

Nuraliev lives with his wife and son, who has also lost his job. His wife was more fortunate – she’s been able to hang on to her job cleaning building hallways. The family now lives on her salary and the remainder of Nuraliev’s last paycheck.

Labor migrants from countries such as Uzbekistan that have a visa-free arrangement with Russia have to pay for a labor patent to work in the country legally. The license costs 5,350 rubles (about $80) per month. Nuraliev’s patent fee is due on 2 May, but he says he doesn’t have the money. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Other monthly costs include housing and food, which he estimates come to around 20,000 rubles (about $260). “Where do you get that when you’re sitting at home?” Nuraliev asks.

Renat Karimov, chairman of the Central Committee of the Migrant Workers Union, says normally countries try to help such workers with financial aid from the budget. “Here, it’s the other way around. A huge number of people don’t receive anything from the budget, but instead replenish it.” The committee asked the government to waive the patent fee for April. “In Moscow, people can stretch [$80] to last a month,” he says.

Extortion, Racial Profiling

Russia closed its borders in March due to the COVID-19 outbreak, which meant leaving was not an option for foreigners either. The border closures saw nearly 400 people stranded in the departure areas of Moscow’s airports. Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that it would allow migrants to extend their stay, but the procedure was not adequately outlined.

This gives authorities the leeway to reject the applications by claiming that the person didn’t apply correctly, says Valentina Chupik, a migrant rights defender and executive director of the Moscow-based Tong Jahoni rights group. In addition, the service center that processed registration documents in Moscow closed on 30 March, leaving many in limbo.Photo: Svetlana Vidanova / Novaya Gazeta

Nuraliev’s son is among them. His registration ended on 1 April and although he has made many calls to the center, he has received the same response every time. “They say they will open at the end of the month,” he told Novaya Gazeta. “But the document would be expired then. It’s not our fault they closed for quarantine.”

It is unclear whether Moscow will impose any sanctions for migrants who involuntarily violated migration laws during the lockdown, but Chupik is sure they will. “This is a great opportunity to extort money from thousands of migrants at risk of expulsion from the country,” she says.

Furthermore, Russian police officers have already stepped up their usual practice of racial profiling, cracking down on migrant workers of “non-Slavic appearance.” Chupik says police have become even more vigorous during the lockdown. “[We receive reports of] at least 15-17 arrests every day – even though people practically do not go out.”

Nuraliev ran into police officers when he drove to the market for meat. “The police caught me – they drew up a protocol,” he says. “I explained to them in a civil manner that I had to buy meat. … They did not understand this.” The officers said a court decision would be sent to him via text message.

Novaya Gazeta has requested comment from the Moscow government and the Interior Ministry but had not received a response at the time of publication.

Shelter Is Nowhere To Be Found

The main burden for foreign migrants who have lost their jobs in Russia is housing. Russian authorities have allowed companies to defer rent payments, but ordinary people haven’t been granted such liberties. And most landlords aren’t willing to help either.

Altynay Aizat, a single mother of a 3-year-old, has found herself in a desperate situation. The 28-year-old from the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek had struggled to find a flat to lease in Moscow. Owners often would refuse to rent to tenants of “non-Slavic appearance” without a Russian passport. Aizat was finally able to find accommodation, promising her current landlord that she would be able to pay rent on time. Then, in early April, she was fired. She is afraid to tell her landlord because she knows there won’t be any generosity and fears that she will just be thrown out onto the street.

Before the lockdown, Aizat worked off the books. Six months ago, she found a job as an assistant sales manager. When the crisis hit, her company started to lay people off. Those without a contract, like Aizat, were first to go. She was not paid any compensation, but Aizat says she was lucky – the company at least paid for the days she worked. Now, at home with her child, Aizat is desperate for any kind of work.

Stealth COVID-19 Transmissions

Migration expert Gavkhar Juraeva believes those lucky enough to hang on to their jobs will continue to work at any cost – even if it means risking their lives amid the pandemic: “Today we called about one migrant, who had already died,” she says. “He worked at a dacha [country cottage], started feeling ill, and was taken away in an ambulance. The owners were infected [with the coronavirus] too. They recovered, and he died. 

“If the illegal migrants get sick now, they will hide so that they don’t get kicked out, so as not to lose the right to work in Russia for violating the migration regime,” she says. “They will only go to the hospital as a last resort.”

Despite finding themselves in difficult situations, many migrant workers are showing solidarity with one another. They help families back home and other struggling migrant laborers.

“The government of Kyrgyzstan is offering no help,” says Aizat. “But some families need it – single mothers or those who are simply in a difficult situation, who do not have money for food, accommodation. We activists collect money from anyone who can help. We pitch in and deliver goods. Some have apartments; they invite others to stay for even a month.”

Svetlana Gannushkina, one of Russia’s most prominent human rights defenders and head of the refugee aid organization Civic Assistance, says some families have found themselves in a “catastrophic situation. They write to us: The children have not eaten for three days.”

The ability of local human rights organizations to assist migrants in need is also severely restricted due to discriminatory “foreign agent” laws, adapted in 2014, and tightened even more this year. They target civil society groups that receive international funding or conduct what authorities deem to be “political activity.”

“We collect money, try to feed those we can,” Gannushkina says. “We deliver goods. Mostly, of course, to refugees, but to labor migrants too. We applied for a grant – for humanitarian assistance to migrants. But I don’t expect we will get this grant. Because we are ‘foreign agents’ after all.”

Gannushkina says it’s in Russia’s interest to help migrants.

“We want them to stay at home, which means they need to somehow eat and live somewhere and not gather in large crowds,” she says. “Otherwise, it will end very badly for us all, in terms of the pandemic.”

Translated and abridged by Natalie Vikhrov of Hromadske.ua, with materials from Novaya Gazeta correspondents Lilit Sargsyan and Artem Raspopov. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange. Transitions has edited to conform to our style.


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