Tajik workers desperate to return to Russia have been forming long queues at the country's state air ticket agency -- but eye-watering prices are leaving many out in the cold.
There was joy across Tajikistan, a Central Asian state of 9.5 million people, when on April 1 regular flights were resumed with Russia, a country that thousands of Tajiks were forced to leave after job opportunities dried up with the first coronavirus lockdown in March last year.
But the elation was followed by disappointment as affordable tickets were swiftly bought up until mid-summer, leaving Tajiks to choose between extortionate charter flights to Russian cities or months idling at home where jobs are virtually non-existent.
"I came here to buy a ticket to go to Irkutsk, but tickets are expensive," complained Makhmodovud Ismoilov, a 36-year-old who said he had been quoted a price equal to $745 for a one-way charter flight from the capital Dushanbe to the Siberian city.
That is nearly four times what a ticket to the same city cost before the coronavirus pandemic began.
"If I can buy a ticket and go, I will have to work two or three months to pay off this money," Ismoilov said.
With its own population declining, Russia relies on migrants from the ex-Soviet states of Central Asia to fill jobs as construction workers, street cleaners, farm labourers and delivery people.
President Vladimir Putin's press chief Dimitry Peskov said this week that the Russian construction industry "really, really" needs migrant workers at present.
"We need to build more," Peskov said. "And we need those same hands at work in agriculture."
Vadim Kozhenov, head of the Federation of Migrants of Russia, a lobby group that works closely with the Russian government, said Tuesday that up to a million migrants are expected to return "in the near future", but admitted the lack of regular flights with Central Asian cities was a problem.
In Tajikistan, there are only two flights weekly from Dushanbe to Moscow, one run by a Tajik carrier, the other by a Russian company.
- 'There is no work here' -
Prices for those tickets have been set at around $350, although in recent days there have been complaints that even these tickets are being repriced upwards.
Many Tajik citizens had put down roots in provincial Russian cities that were ripped up by the sudden chaos the pandemic unleashed.
Karim Zarifi, a 65-year-old welder, told AFP he wanted to return to Vladivostok in Russia's Far East where he worked for 15 years.
But the $840 airfare is out of his price range, he said.
"Where would I find money like that?" Zarifi asked.
Tajikistan is the poorest of the five countries in ex-Soviet Central Asia, a region which sends several million migrants to Russia most years.
Along with neighbouring Kyrgyzstan it is one of the countries in the world most dependent on remittances sent home by migrants working abroad, equivalent to 30 percent of GDP in both countries in 2019.
Kyrgyzstan, as a member of a Russia-led trade bloc called the Eurasian Economic Union, did not face the same interruptions in air services as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, where regular flights also resumed this month.
Kyrgyz migrants also do not have to buy patents to secure work, another cost Tajiks must consider as they invest in newly exorbitant airfares.
But for 39-year-old Abdurauf Kurbonov, queuing at the air ticket agency in Dushanbe, there is simply no option of staying in Tajikistan -- where he has earned around $100 per month as a cameraman for local television in the past.
"In Russia, I can earn 70,000 to 80,000 rubles ($900-$1,000)" per month in haulage, said Kurbonov, who sends part of his salary home to his wife and two children.
"I might sell a cow or a car for this, but what else can I do? There is no work here."