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A Hard Year For Migrant Workers In Russia

  • RFE/RL

Russian Police detain alleged illegal migrants during a raid at a market in Moscow last month.

Russian Police detain alleged illegal migrants during a raid at a market in Moscow last month.

No year is easy for labor migrants in Russia. But 2013 will surely be remembered as particularly rough.

An increasingly shaky economy, fears of rising crime, and rising nationalist sentiment have conspired to put the issue at the top of Russia's political agenda.

There have been calls for mass deportations of labor migrants, most of whom hail from Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as campaigns to require visas for citizens of countries in these regions seeking to enter Russia.

And, at times, the antimigrant sentiment has resulted in a number of violent incidents.

"It seems fairly indisputable that economic bad times are coming, and bad times generally are ones in which people are looking for scapegoats," says Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and an expert on Russia's security services. "Also it creates the irony that, on the one hand, cheap migrant -- whether foreign or domestic -- gastarbeiter labor is all the more useful, but on the other hand probably all the more resented."

A poll released by the independent Levada Center in November found that 65 percent of Russians want fewer migrants in the country and 73 percent favor the deportation of those who are there illegally.

And politicians, in both the establishment and the opposition, are increasingly pandering to such sentiments. Anticorruption blogger and opposition figure Aleksei Navalny, for example, has attempted to promote a "liberal nationalism" that appeals to more xenophobic elements in society but seeks not to offend his more urbane supporters.

Getting 'Civilized'

Despite the issue's high profile, Russia's policy toward migrant laborers is plagued by contradictions and is highly resistant to change.

On one hand, the authorities understand that foreign workers fill gaps in Russia's aging workforce and that legalizing migrants would raise badly needed tax revenues. But pervasive antiimmigrant sentiments, poor enforcement of existing regulations, and a shadow economy that depends on cheap illegal migrant labor have worked to maintain the status quo.

PHOTO GALLERY: The Outsiders -- Russia's Labor Migrants

It was nearly two years ago, in a January 2012 speech, that President Vladimir Putin called for what he called a more "civilized" policy, which would include the registration of foreign workers in order to regulate the influx of migrant laborers and protect them from exploitation and corruption.

Despite Putin's appeal, however, little has been done to reform existing policy. Mohammad Majumder, the president of the Russian Federation of Migrants, says as many as 90 percent of the estimated 10 million migrant workers in Russia are in the country illegally.

'Deceit Everywhere'

This not only leaves the migrants highly vulnerable to abuse, blackmail, and violence; by forcing them into the shadow economy, it also feeds a public perception that migrants are immersed in criminality.

Even legal migrants say they are subject to exploitation.

Bek Takhirov is a 39-year-old ethnic Uzbek who moved to Russia in 2004 and began working illegally at a warehouse. He has since become legalized, and even applied for Russian citizenship.

"Every year it becomes harder," he says. "It used to be easy to find work quickly. You didn't need any documents or anything. But nowadays you fill out all the documents and then they still deceive you and throw you out all the same. There is so much deceit everywhere."

With the issue left to fester, violent ethnic flareups have become increasingly common, and have often been directed not only at foreign workers but also at Russian citizens from the North Caucasus -- who are often lumped in with migrants in the public mind.

Mob Justice

In the southern town of Pugachyov, mayhem ensued in July after a decommissioned paratrooper was stabbed to death in a bar fight, allegedly by an ethnic Chechen teenager. Locals stormed a Chechen neighborhood, attempted to burn down a cafe, blocked a major highway, and demanded that Chechens be expelled.

And in August, after an attack by two Daghestani market vendors on a Moscow policeman, authorities rounded up an estimated 1,400 migrant workers, incarcerating hundreds of them in sweltering tent camps.

The most recent of these incidents took place in Moscow's southern Biryulyovo district in October when a young Russian man was stabbed to death, allegedly by an Azerbaijani migrant worker.

This sparked the worst violence in the capital in years as nationalists overturned cars, smashed windows, and stormed a vegetable warehouse looking for migrants.

Russian police responded the next day by rounding up more than 1,200 foreign workers at the warehouse and at other nearby businesses that employ migrants.

But, despite the hardships in Russia, which show no signs of abating, many migrants say they don't intend to leave.

"To tell the truth, I want to find some kind of way out of this situation," says Mirzo Kurbonov, a 22-year-old migrant from Tajikistan. "In Tajikistan, it's exactly the same -- worse even than here. I see injustice and corruption everywhere. What have I got in Tajikistan? There's no work, there's no welfare."

Compiled by RFE/RL's Central Newsroom based on reporting by Tom Balmforth in Moscow, Daisy Sindelar, Robert Coalson, and Brian Whitmore in Prague, and by RFE/RL's Russian Service