Partnerships Prove Vital in Getting Stranded Migrants Home in Central Asia

The group of stranded migrants at the Zhybek-Zholy border crossing between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Photo: IOM

The group of stranded migrants at the Zhybek-Zholy border crossing between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Photo: IOM 

Looking into Uzbekistan from Kazakhstan where migrants were stranded due to new COVID-19 restrictions. Photo: IOM

Tashkent – Uzbekistan, a landlocked Central Asian country, has been a global crossroads since ancient times. It continues to be, often along routes forged by silk and spice merchants plying their trade via camel caravan. 

Today, it has emerged as one of the world’s most active transit points for migrants stranded by the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, IOM and its many partners helped over 3,000 people – mainly Tajik nationals – to move through Uzbekistan from neighbouring Kazakhstan as well as from the Russian Federation and points even farther afield. 

In recent days, IOM staff at the Zhybek-Zholy border crossing between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan addressed a sudden demand from the Uzbek government for negative COVID-19 tests for a group of 102 stranded migrants. 

“Many of these people had been travelling for days with little food, no clean clothes, and certainly no resources to pay for COVID-19 tests,” explained IOM’s head of office in Tashkent, Sanjar Toshbaev. “They had lost their jobs and were on their way home to an uncertain future.” Temperatures along the border remain quite hot during the day but very cold at night-time, noted Toshbaev.

“The last thing these migrants needed was to have their arduous journeys made even longer by a requirement that had not been communicated to us,” added Toshbaev. “In fact, neither the staff on the Kazakh side of the border nor consular representatives from Tajikistan had been informed of the rapidly-introduced new situation.”

IOM’s team in Tashkent started making urgent phone calls, beginning with trying to raise funds for the COVID-19 tests, and to find some way of getting them carried out on the border. At the same time, IOM staff in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan contacted responsible officials in both countries and eventually helped find a solution. “We managed to work out a ‘non-contact corridor’ for the group and, a day or so later than expected, the migrants crossed into Tajikistan after the four-hour transit through Uzbekistan,” said Toshbaev. 

“We all breathed a huge sigh of relief – in Kazakhstan, in Uzbekistan and in Tajikistan – as the situation had been getting quite tense. It just shows the value of partnerships and good relations with our host governments. It is something we are always grateful for. Investing in partnerships pays a huge dividend in mini-crises like these.”

He continued: “It’s sometimes tempting to think of these busloads of migrants as just numbers passing by behind darkened windows. But we have to remember that they have lost their jobs, homes and sense of purpose. They face greater risks of being abused, exploited and trafficked due to their increased vulnerability. In the long-term, migrants are also among the most vulnerable to job cuts, limited access to social and medical services and stigmatization both in the countries of destination and origin. We are committed to continue facilitating the voluntary return of those in need and helping them escape from the socio-economic and legal limbo they ended up in due to the pandemic.”

Assistance to the migrants on the border and throughout their journey to Tajikistan was made possible by the joint efforts of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Embassies and Migration Service departments in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan and was supported by the IOM COVID-19 Task Force and a regional IOM initiative funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

For more information, please contact Sanjar Toshbaev at IOM Uzbekistan, Email:, Tel: +998 90998 3326