The coronavirus causes difficulties for foreigners in Russia

ZOiS Spotlight 19/2020 by Olga Gulina (13 May 2020)

A tenant in an illegal hostel for guest workers near Saint Petersburg. © imago images/ Peter Kovalev / ITAR-TASS

Amid ongoing efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Russia closed its borders on 18 March. In doing so, it jeopardised the legal status of foreigners and stateless people in the country. What is more, different groups of migrants have had their rights infringed in different ways, creating a confusing picture.

Migrant workers from former Soviet states

According to the Russian border service, 3.8 million citizens of post-Soviet states entered Russia as migrant workers in 2019. Most of them came from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, or Uzbekistan and were low-skilled workers employed in construction (32 per cent), services (17 per cent), commerce (9 per cent), or transport (5 per cent).

These sectors of Russia’s economy are dominated by migrant labour and represented by small and medium-sized businesses. Neither employers nor employees in these sectors have a liquidity cushion: it is almost impossible for people to pay wages, taxes, or rent without an income.

Russia’s authorities took some measures to protect migrant workers a month after President Vladimir Putin announced a regime of non-working days and regional leaders told Russians to self-isolate and limit operation of food and retail outlets. The authorities extended the validity of residence permits, visas, and labour patents [1] by personally written request of applicants. The validity of the certificate of participants of the state resettlement programme [2], asylum applications, and work permits [3] are automatically prolonged until further notice. Also, they exempted migrant workers from paying fees for labour patents from 15 March to 15 June.

Yet despite these steps, migrant workers remain vulnerable. They are at risk of being fired and losing their income and could face a lack of professional medical help if they catch the coronavirus disease Covid-19 because medical care for migrants is not free.

Foreigners in detention

In late March, Russia’s Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights issued a note describing how foreigners, mainly stateless people and those who had committed minor offences, were being held in temporary detention across the country. Because of the border closure, these detention facilities have become overcrowded with foreigners and unsafe. A group of Russian human rights activists signed a petition calling on the authorities to release all foreigners in detention to protect the lives and health of detainees and staff.

Back in 2017, Russia’s constitutional court ruled that keeping a person in temporary detention, irrespective of their immigration status, was an arbitrary and unlawful deprivation of liberty. Yet, regional and federal authorities have so far taken no steps to reduce the current overcrowding, putting thousands of foreigners in danger of contracting Covid-19.

Furthermore, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs has submitted a draft law to update the government’s list of sixteen diseases that are sufficient grounds to deport a foreigner from the territory of Russia. The draft law adds Covid-19 to this list, which also includes plague, cholera, tuberculosis, and HIV. Because of border lockdowns between Russia and its post-Soviet neighbours, foreigners with a listed disease will be held in detention before they can be deported, so the number of temporary detainees across the country is likely to rise.

Dual nationals

In 2014, it became obligatory for all Russian nationals to declare to the authorities if they had dual citizenship or a residence permit in another country. As of 2019, about 543,000 Russians had done so. When Russia’s borders were closed on 18 March, dual nationals living in Russia were locked in. Russian media have reported on Russians with Cypriot, Finnish, Swedish, or other passports who have faced difficulties in leaving the country.

On 29 April, the government amended the regulation on the movement of Russian nationals to allow a single exit to those with dual citizenship or a residence permit in another country. It is unclear how long this measure will be in force. Currently, only foreigners and stateless people can leave Russia without any restrictions.

Overall, the coronavirus pandemic has created a patchy legal situation in which some foreigners in Russia are better protected than others. The country’s leadership has shown only a limited readiness to recognise and support the rights of migrants and foreigners as part of its response to the virus.


[1] Since January 2015, a labour patent has been issued to visa-free foreign nationals from CIS-countries like Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Ukraine and Tajikistan confirming the person’s permission to work in Russia on a temporary basis.

[2] Russia`s resettlement programme is aimed at the resettlement of the Russian-speaking population from the independent states of the former Soviet Union to Russia as their “historical homeland”.

[3] A work permit is a document that confirms the right to work of a foreign national and can be issued only within an annual quota which is set by the federal government and distributed by the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection among different professional groups within Russian regions.


Dr Olga R. Gulina is the founder and director of RUSMPI UG—Institute on Migration Policy.