As the new coronavirus spreads and gives borders — of any kind — new meaning, nation-states are closing their physical borders at a staggering pace. Even borders that were usually open, such as between Russia and Central Asia, have hardened. As COVID-19 appeared in the region, a travel lockdown was imposed, banning “migrants” from accessing local public health infrastructure and putting them into an even more vulnerable situation. The label “migrant” unfortunately comes with a stereotype, a general categorization of a person as an uninvited burden.
In times like the COVID-19 crisis, the nation-state appears at the forefront, with “citizenship” as its dividing line. While some countries like Portugal have regularized the status of migrants to give them access to healthcare as well as other government support, Russia has gone a different route. It didn’t take long before Russia’s response to the coronavirus was tainted by the elements of discrimination always overshadowing migration debates. Closing its borders is just one of the measures Russia has taken to defend itself from the pandemic. But for Central Asian migrants, that’s created a new crisis.
Hundreds of migrant workers from Central Asian countries have been stranded at different airports after Russia and other countries stopped regular flights to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. In Orenburg, 157 Kyrgyz citizens were trapped on the border for three days. Other migrants spent all their savings on plane tickets and were forced to camp out at the terminal for weeks until the issue was solved by their respective governments. In the meantime, many were sleeping on the floors of the facility or in the duty-free section.
On March 30, 300 Uzbek and Kyrgyz citizens who could not fly out of Tolmachevo Novosibirsk airport went on a hunger strike. According to the Novosibirsk news site NGS, riot police units were deployed to remove some passengers from their planes to Uzbekistan as borders closed and flights were cancelled.
Central Asia’s migrant workers are at high risk of catching the new virus in crowded airports under unhygienic conditions, unable to self-quarantine, with limited or no access to health services. Without significant savings and with a loss of jobs, they’ll be crushed by the coming economic depression, too. The crisis has altered a number of parameters in the discussion on migration and about “second class citizens” in Russia.
For the last two decades, Russia has taken in migrants on an unprecedented scale to fill a growing hole in its workforce. The migration corridor formed between Central Asian countries and Russia is one of the largest in the world. It consists primarily of labor migrants, between 2.7 and 4.2 million people. Among the most significant groups are Central Asians fleeing poverty to earn money in order to support their families and relatives at home. At least 3 million migrants are working in Moscow alone – many of them illegally.
Migrants from Central Asia have maintained an impressive remittance rate. According to the World Bank, in 2015 Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan ranked top two among all countries for remittances as a share of GDP, at 31 percent and 52 percent respectively. They’ve fallen in the ranking since but as of 2019 both remained in the top five remittance-receiving countries by percentage — around 29.7 percent and 29.6 percent, respectively for Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The coronavirus crisis has caused millions of migrant laborers from Central Asia to lose their jobs in Russia. Remittances that kept their relatives afloat have plummeted, and many migrants are stuck between borders under severe pressure trying to get home. Some cannot pay the monthly charge for a license to work, or for the required documents and examinations; some even addressed Russian President Vladimir Putin by video asking to cancel the patent, essentially a work license.
The state lacks a clear-cut and comprehensive vision as to what to do about its migrant workers. Russian authorities regularly carry out raids against them, as these largely poor and illiterate Central Asians accept menial, low-paid jobs that Muscovites don’t want to do – slaving on construction sites, sweeping streets, and hauling heavy packs at city markets and stores.
Once citizens of the same country bonded by a common language and ideology, Central Asian migrants now live on the fringes of Russian society, hounded by the police, exploited by employers, and increasingly disliked by much of the population. The sites where migrant workers live are tightly-packed apartments with 20 people living together, which also make measures like social distancing all but impossible and puts this population at a much higher risk for virus transmission.
Thus the mobility of migrants themselves further complicates nation-state-based approaches to tackling the global public health crisis. Kofi Annan’s phrase “problems without passports” acquires new meaning. It was already a vulnerable spot to be a migrant in Russia. Then came the coronavirus and a hard life became harder. Central Asian migrants have become popular scapegoats for different societal and everyday troubles such as unemployment, overpopulation, and traffic jams. It is in this context, with the damage to public health and the global economy, that the COVID-19 crisis could unveil further discrimination against certain ethnic communities. India’s growing Islamophobia has already pointed the finger at its Muslim citizens.
Distinctive factors shape anti-migrant sentiments in Russia. These include state policies and official institutions, which promote Russia as a multiethnic and multiconfessional state, and their interplay with diverse Russian nationalisms, which have produced high levels of tension. Furthermore, while there is a long history of Orientalist representation of Central Asians in Russian culture that negatively shapes popular discourse, it is clear how an essentialized “other” has developed. One leading expert, Adeeb Khalid, pointed out that Russia’s affinity with the East was primarily a product of its own complicated and problematic identity, especially the inferiority complex vis-à-vis Europe. He quotes famous Russian writer Dostoyevsky: “In Europe, we were hangers-on and slaves, but in Asia we are masters. In Europe we were Tatars, but in Asia we too are Europeans.”
It is the ethnic and religious communities with this exact feeling of “otherness” who are most vulnerable to the COVID-19 measures in Russia and around the globe.
Aruuke Uran Kyzy currently works at TRT World Research Centre as a researcher and a journalist.