Moscow authorities have announced the creation of a volunteer squad to help track down illegal migrants, a move human rights advocates say opens the door to abuse and violence.
Hours later, as dusk settled on February 12, a dozen volunteers donning dark-red vests with the inscription "immigration patrol" were dispatched into the streets.
Aleksandr Kislitsky, a former policeman, told Russian television Channel 1 he was eager to assist migration officials.
"They detain citizens or check documents. Volunteers help them accordingly. They also help explain things, or [help] if the person tries to run away," Kislitsky said.
More than 300 people have already applied to take part in the patrols. Moscow authorities say they are aiming for a total of 600 volunteers.
Officials insist that squad members are carefully screened and undergo compulsory training. Aggressive individuals and ultranationalists, they say, are rejected.
But rights advocates are nonetheless sounding the alarm.
"I'm very upset by the rise of xenophobia that I observe in the city and in the country," says Svetlana Gannushkina, a prominent human rights campaigner specializing in migrants' rights.
"These raids will be conducted not by law enforcement organs but by ordinary citizens, and I can just imagine what kind of enthusiasts will participate. They will bring nothing but more xenophobia, abuse, and divisions in society."
Xenophobic sentiments are widespread in Russia, where dozens of members of ethnic minorities are killed every year in racially motivated attacks.
Rights campaigners like Gannushkina fear the creation of such squads will only fan ethnic tensions.
Authorized To Harass
Aleksei Mayorov, the head of Moscow's security department, said the group included more than 300 members. He said the volunteers would don special uniforms and patrol every neighborhood on a daily basis.
They will search for illegal migrants at markets, construction and industrial sites, railways stations, shopping centers, and even in private apartments.
But most alarming for rights campaigners is the volunteers' license to apprehend suspects and hand them over to police.
"Who has the right to detain people? You need very serious reasons to detain people, even police officers don't always have the authority to do it. And now it is bestowed to random and probably aggressive people," Gannushkina says.
"No one has the right to deprive people of their freedom, to grab them in the street and drag them somewhere. What are we turning into? This is simply monstrous."
Volunteer patrols, which hark back to Soviet times, have seen a revival in recent months in the Russian capital. Moscow's Cossacks recently stepped up their joint patrols with local police.
Russian Orthodox activists, too, formed volunteer groups to protect churches and cemeteries after the feminist punk collective Pussy Riot staged a performance at Moscow's largest Orthodox cathedral.