Tajikistan is Central Asia’s poorest country and one of the most remittance-dependent countries in the world. Over 33 percent of its national gross domestic product is generated from remittances. While remittances have had a positive impact on the lives of many migrant laborers, without sufficient legal and safe ways to migrate, it increases migrants’ risk of vulnerability to modern slavery, forced labor and human trafficking.

USAID partners with governments, NGOs, and the private sector in Central Asia to prevent trafficking in persons, protect survivors, and promote safe migration. USAID programs raise awareness of migrants’ labor rights and connect migrants to support services while highlighting their contributions to host communities. USAID programs also work on policy reform and strengthen the capacity of governments to assist at-risk groups and trafficking survivors.

Due to the dearth of economic opportunities back home, many Tajik migrants seek work in neighboring countries like Russia and other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, even if those jobs are seasonal and low-paid, lacking job security.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a humanitarian and financial crisis for migrants in Central Asia, as many remain stranded in transit and destination countries across Central Asia. The loss of jobs and remittances has left families in dire straits. With no work and paltry savings quickly running out, many migrants are not able to afford the cost of living in the countries they moved to, hundreds of Tajik migrants have found themselves in a similar situation in Kazakhstan.

When Kazakhstan announced its lockdown and border closure to contain the spread of COVID-19, air, rail, and bus services were also suspended. Tajik migrants were stranded at Kazakhstan’s border, with no way to return home to Tajikistan. They were huddled together, unable to maintain social distancing, and without access to running water, could not practice safe hygiene including frequent hand washing.

In June 2020, USAID in partnership with the International Organization for Migration, assisted more than 600 Tajik migrants stranded at the Kazakh-Uzbek border to safely return home. The returning labor migrants, including women, children, and students made the 180-km journey by bus from the Zhibek Zholi border point in Kazakhstan, through Uzbekistan to Tajikistan. This movement of migrants was closely coordinated with the governments of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Facilitating the return of stranded migrants, was one of the many activities USAID has undertaken to alleviate the crisis COVID-19 has created for vulnerable migrants. A hotline established through USAID-funding, which provides free legal counseling, has seen increased demand as labor migrants are impacted by travel restrictions imposed during the current COVID-19 crisis. Through the Safe Migration in Central Asia program, USAID will also share informational resources with migrants and provide referrals to essential services, alternative livelihoods support, and skills training to help migrants navigate the difficult situation they are facing.

Graphic illustration of migrants stranded at the Kazakhstan border
Ramilya Sazazova