Bangkok-Belarus-Bishkek: The Long Way Home

Young guides stranded like millions worldwide identified in new IOM paper.

By Olga Borzenkova

IOM Belarus staffer Aleysa gives Raisa (left) and Maria (right) final instructions before their departure to Bishkek. The pair and 12 other young tour guides from Kyrgyzstan were stranded in Belarus for two months trying to make their way home from Thailand where they had been working.

Plenty of people take a dream holiday in Thailand, the “Land of Smiles”, to escape the cold and gloom of a Central Asian winter. Some stay longer, working as tour guides for the huge Russian-speaking market.

Pre COVID-19, that is.

As tourists left Thailand en masse and border controls came into effect in March to prevent the spread of the virus, a group of 14 young Kyrgyz guides found themselves without work and, like millions of other labour migrants worldwide, decided to leave.

“When the evacuation began, we had to send all our guests back home, and together with our last guests we arrived in Moscow ourselves,” recalls Raisa.

A new IOM paper estimates at least 2.75 million migrants, including 977,000 in the Asia Pacific alone, were stranded, unable to return home due to mobility restrictions including border closures and new requirements for COVID-19 health screenings.

Stepping off a nine-hour flight to Moscow, the group discovered there were no flights to Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan. Their only options were to wait it out in the airport transit zone or to take a flight to Sweden or Belarus. They chose the latter: visa free entry for Kyrgyz nationals, with no lockdown or border restrictions. Plus, they knew the language.

The group quickly booked themselves to Minsk expecting to be home in a few days. But, as the “new normal” started to hit, flights from the capital of Belarus to Bishkek were suspended too.

Kirill prepares to board a flight from Minsk to Bishkek, the final leg of a two-month-long journey home. He and 13 other young tour guides working in Thailand were stranded in Belarus on their return from Thailand where he’d been working as a tour guide.

“My father called me five times a day, not to mention calls from my mother and grandmother ... and my sister who said: ‘If you had started to walk home from Bangkok, you would be home already—I calculated it’,” another member of the group, Milyas recalls with a laugh.

Two months later, homesick and with their money trickling away, the group got in touch with IOM through their embassy. Within a few days they were able to avail themselves of IOM’s Assisted Voluntary Return Programme, and their flights home were supported by the European Union.

They are still living in uncertain times, like all of us, but as they prepared to board the final leg of their long journey home, Nadezhda summed up the mood: “I hope, when we return home, it will get better in Kyrgyzstan, and we will start anew.”