Trapped: Millions of Migrant Workers are Struggling Through Russian Quarantine
30 April, 2020
Photo: Vlad Dokshin / Novaya Gazeta

They cannot leave and cannot work, either. They are penalized for staying and harassed by the police. They have a higher chance of being killed by COVID-19.

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 April 10 to May 10. It was impossible to refuse.

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

As Russia struggles to contain the coronavirus outbreak, foreign workers are affected disproportionally. Many of those employed on the books are being sent on unpaid leave. At the same time, those who worked illegally may have lost their jobs altogether. Despite the loss of income, bills and living costs continue to pile up. Our partner outlet Novaya Gazeta tells their stories.


Migrant workers make up a sizable portion of Russia’s workforce. In 2019, there were 19 million foreigners officially working in Russia (for perspective, there are 74.5 million Russian employed throughout the country). And that’s only those with legal documents. According to some estimates, some 60% of migrants are in the country illegally. Despite their contribution, Russian authorities are notorious for their mistreatment of labor migrants.

The majority of migrant workers come to Russia from Central Asian countries, which used to be under Russia’s control until the 1990s. These include Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, where poverty is widespread.

Earlier this year, Novaya Gazeta exposed how 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 is now living on her salary and remainder of Nuraliev's last paycheck.

Migrants are being escorted to a bus from a migrant detention center detention on the outskirts of Moscow. March, 2020. Photo: Vlad Dokshin / Novaya Gazeta

Labor migrants from countries such as Uzbekistan, which have a visa-free regime from Russia, also have to pay for a labor patent to work in the country legally. The license costs 5350 rubles (around $80) per month. Nuraliev's patent fee is due on May 2, but he says he doesn't have the money to cover the cost. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he admitted. On top of that, there's housing, food, and registration fees, which he estimates come to around 20,000 roubles (around $260). "Where do you get that when you're sitting at home?" Nuraliev asks. 

Photo: Vlad Dokshin / Novaya Gazeta

Renat Karimov, chairman of the Central Committee of the Migrant Workers Union,  says normally countries try to help by providing them with financial aid from the budget. "Here, it's the other way around," he said. "A huge number of people don't receive anything from the budget, but instead, replenish it." He and the migrants want the government to waive the patent fee for April. "In Moscow, people can stretch [$80] to last a month," he said.

Extortion, Racial Profiling

Russia closed its borders due to the COVID-19 outbreak in March, which means leaving now is not an option for foreigners either. Last month, 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 will be allowing migrants to extend their stay, but the procedure to do so hasn't been 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. Since then, the situation has escalated even further. On March 30, the service center that processed documents in Moscow closed, leaving many in limbo. 

Nuraliev's son is among them. His registration ended on April 1 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, and our registration ends on April 1."

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

Furthermore, Russian police officers have already stepped up their usual practice of racial profiling, cracking down on migrant workers of "non-Slavic appearance." Chupik said amid the lockdown, police have become even more vigorous. "(We receive reports of) at least 15-17 arrests every day - even though people practically do not go out," she said.

Nuraliev ran into police officers when he drove to the market for meat. "The police caught me- they drew up a protocol. I explained to them in a civil manner that I had to buy meat...They did not understand this," he said. Instead, the officers brought him to Kiyevskaya metro station, photographed him against the background of the sign, and released him. They said that 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.

Photo: Svetlana Vidanova / Novaya Gazeta

A Shelter is Nowhere to Find

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

Altynay Aizat is a single mother to a three-year-old and has found herself in a desperate situation. The 28-year-old is from the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek and struggled even finding a flat to lease in Moscow. Owners would often 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 in the trade field. When the crisis hit, her company started to lay people off — folks without a contract, like Aizat, were first to go. She was not paid any compensation, but Aizat believes that she was lucky - the company at least paid for the days she worked last month. Now, at home with her child, Aizat is desperate for any kind of work.

Stealth COVID-19 Transmissions

Migration expert Gavkhar Juraeva believes that those who were 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. He worked at a dacha (a country cottage), started feeling ill, and was taken away in an ambulance – the owners were infected [with the novel coronavirus] too. They recovered, and he died," she said.

"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. They will only go to the hospital as a last resort.”

“The Children Have Not Eaten for Three Days”

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

"The government of Kyrgyzstan is offering no help. But some families need it - single mothers or those who are simply in a difficult situation, who do not have money for food, accommodation," Aizat said. "We, activists, collect money from anyone who can help. We pitch in and deliver products. 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 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," she said.

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 this year even more. They target civil society groups that receive international funding or conduct what authorities arbitrarily decide to be a ‘political activity.’ "We collect money, try to feed those we can. We deliver products. 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 that 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 said. "Otherwise, it will end very badly for us all, in terms of the pandemic."

READ MORE: Russia’s Frontline Struggle with the Coronavirus Outbreak

/Translated and abridged by Natalie Vikhrov, with materials from Novaya Gazeta correspondents Lilit Sargsyan and Artem Raspopov. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.