BISHKEK (TCA) — The current economic crisis in Central Asia due to the COVID-19 pandemic is complicated by the return to homelands of millions of labor migrants who can no longer support their families with remittances.
Quarantine in Russia led to the closure of enterprises that employed most labor migrants from Central Asia.
Trade has already fallen by half with mainly food sales to remain, while demand for courier services has grown. A complete or significant reduction has occurred in hospitality, home and other services.
After the depreciation of the ruble against the US dollar, work in Russia has become less attractive for labor migrants. Earlier they earned about $500 per month, but now this amount has declined sharply. Earned money goes mainly to household expenses of the migrants themselves.
As a result, migrants’ money transfers to their homeland may reduce by half or more in April, experts say.
Coronavirus will cause significant damage to the economies of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In 2019, citizens of Central Asian countries transferred more than $8 billion to their homelands.
In Russia, more than a million labor migrants are from Tajikistan, one million from Uzbekistan, and more than 700 thousand from Kyrgyzstan.
In 2019, the border service of the Russian Federal Security Service began to keep tabs on the number of foreign citizens entering the country for work purposes. The vast majority were from the CIS countries. The leadership for 2019 belongs to Uzbekistan (918 thousand people), followed by Tajikistan (523.9 thousand), Kyrgyzstan (265 thousand) and Kazakhstan (105.3 thousand).
Russia afraid of migrants’ crime
Some Russian state and public figures called for attention to the problem of labor migrants who have been left without money and social support in the coronavirus pandemic.
Many labor migrants would be happy to return home, but the state borders are closed. Others hope to make money in Russia to support their families at home. Authorities must support foreign workers, because the health of Russians also depends on the health and living conditions of labor migrants.
Labor migrants massively moved to low-cost hostels which often become centers of disease spread.
Recently, a criminal case was instituted due to an incident in a suburb of St. Petersburg. Coronavirus infection was found in 123 residents of the hostel for labor migrants. There are many similar hostels all over the country.
Labor migrants are more adaptive and easier to switch from one occupation to another, for example, to food delivery services from restaurants and cafes, Russian migration expert Yevgeny Varsaver told Kommersant FM. Nevertheless, a considerable part of them have lost or will lose their jobs. In this situation, the most vulnerable are migrants who did not have cash savings and time to leave for their homeland on time. Assistance to them should be a priority for the state and civil society.
Commenting on the current situation, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov noted that the country's law enforcement agencies were faced with increased crime during the spread of the coronavirus. “But you do not need to thicken the paint, although, of course, this requires increased attention,” he told reporters.
No work and livelihood
In Moscow and the Moscow oblast, more than 10 thousand labor migrants from Kyrgyzstan were left without work and livelihood, the Migration Development Charitable Foundation said.
The Foundation was able to support only about 1.1 thousand compatriots, and the organization appealed to the Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov with a request to provide assistance to compatriots in Moscow and its environs.
At a video conference of leaders of the Eurasian Economic Union member countries on April 14, President Jeenbekov proposed to adopt a single mechanism of social and medical support for all EEU citizens in the pandemic.
Russian citizens receive unemployment benefits, but labor migrants do not. At the same time, labor migrants pay for a patent, registration, utilities and taxes. In this regard, human rights defenders are asking the Russian authorities, along with tax holidays and benefits for enterprises and businesses, to also provide appropriate benefits for labor migrants.
The lack of quality jobs and decent wages is causing excess labor and its outflow to other countries. Migration is perceived as the only way to defuse economic and social tension in the country, the Kyrgyz migration policy concept for 2020-2030 says. Money transfers cause dependence not only among the population, but also for the country's economy as a whole.
Due to the COVID-19 epidemic, part of labor migrants returned to Kyrgyzstan, having decided to wait out difficult times at home. Some experts believe that this will lead to an economic collapse in the country due to existing unemployment.
According to official figures, in 2019, labor migrants transferred more than $2.4 billion to Kyrgyzstan, which is about a third of the country's GDP.
In the first two months of 2020, remittances to Kyrgyzstan were $313.6 million, $31 million less than in the same period last year. More than 90% of remittances were from Russia. According to the forecast, labor migrants’ remittances will reduce by 15% this year, Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Erkin Asrandiev said.
Experts question the claim that all this money is remittance transfers. The fact is that banks can only track the amount of the transfer, but no bank has information about the citizenship of the person who transferred or received the money.
Money transfer systems allow people to save money on transactions, so small and medium-sized entrepreneurs prefer the services of payment systems rather than banks.
It is difficult to forecast the number of Kyrgyzstanis who would return home due to coronavirus infection. However, a mass exodus of Kyrgyz citizens from Russia should not be expected, expert Sheradil Baktygulov told the Echo of Kyrgyzstan news agency.
Labor migrants from Kyrgyzstan mainly work in trade, services and construction. It is known that grocery stores, markets and pharmacies satisfy the daily needs of the population, and therefore are not closed. Kyrgyzstanis are working at construction sites throughout Russia, and construction has not yet stopped there.
“To support our compatriots abroad who are currently unable to return to their homeland, the Kyrgyz Government has allocated 10 million soms to our Embassy in Russia,” First Deputy Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov said on April 21.
“Our diplomatic missions are working on other issues that compatriots are facing,” he added.
However, a Kyrgyz Parliament Deputy, Irina Karamushkina, believes that the Kyrgyz Government should be held accountable for inaction and the absence of charter flights to return Kyrgyz labor migrants from Russia. The authorities intend to shift the responsibility to the Russian side, she told Vesti.kg.
Work permits extended
On April 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree according to which the expired visas of foreign citizens, registrations, work permits and labor patents will be automatically extended from March 15 to June 15.
Employers have the right to employ persons with expired patents or those without them, and law enforcement agencies should not take any administrative sanctions against such foreign citizens.
Temporary residence permits for foreign citizens residing in Russia will be extended in case of expiration of the document validity.
Earlier, labor migrants appealed to the Russian authorities with a request to cancel the payment for patents during the quarantine.
According to the Russian Federation of Migrants, labor migrants contribute about 60 billion rubles annually to the Russian state budget. At the end of 2019, in Moscow alone, 463.7 thousand labor patents were issued to foreign citizens, which brought 18.3 billion rubles to the city budget. Half of the patents were issued to citizens of Uzbekistan and 38% — to Tajikistan citizens.
Citizens of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the EEU member countries, do not need to apply for labor patents.
The EEU member countries’ citizens have the status of “workers,” not labor migrants. This status means a more simplified procedure for stay and work compared with the status of a labor migrant.