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Russia: Migrants Seek Their Fortunes In Moscow, But Often Find Only Heartache

One year ago, Manzura Kholkuzeva worked as a nurse in her native Tajikistan. But poverty and bleak career prospects pushed her to the Russian capital in search of a better life. Today, she cleans offices in central Moscow for a few hundred dollars a month. Manzura considers herself one of the lucky ones. Tens of thousands of migrants from the former Soviet Union live in appalling conditions in Moscow, exploited by corrupt police and unscrupulous employers.

Moscow, 9 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Every morning, 34-year-old Manzura Kholkuzeva puts on her blue overalls and scrubs the marble floors of one of central Moscow's plush office blocks.

She is paid about $500 a month -- barely enough to make ends meet in an expensive city like Moscow.

But Manzura still manages to scrape together several hundred dollars every month to send to her relatives back home.

Together with her sister and two brothers, she rents a small flat for $300 a month. She spends as little as $50 a month and sends the rest of her salary to Tajikistan.

Despite her Spartan lifestyle, Manzura smiles a lot and is upbeat about her life in Russia. Unlike most migrants in Moscow, she works legally and has official residency documents.

She says things were a lot worse in Tajikistan, where the $10 she earned each month as a nurse did not even cover the fare for the bus to work every day.

"At home, my salary was too small to pay for transport [to work]," Manzura says. "Here, I spend 1,500 rubles ($52) a month on transport and food. I send the rest home. I am saving to buy my own apartment, then I'll probably leave. In Russia, you live well, you can have a career. I am happy in Russia. Now I can laugh."

In Tajikistan, Manzura says, she often caught terrible colds in winter from dipping her hands into trays of icy disinfection fluid at the hospital where she worked. Like many buildings in Tajikistan, she says the hospital hasn't had central heating or hot water for 10 years.

Tajikistan ranks as one of the world's most corrupt countries, and the bulk of its population scarcely ekes a living.

If Manzura's job in Russia has offered her decent living conditions, money, and hope for a brighter future, thousands of other migrants in Moscow aren't so lucky.

Gauhar Dzhuraeva heads Migration and Rights, a Moscow-based human rights group providing legal support to migrants. She is from Tajikistan herself and estimates that some 40,000 Tajiks live in Moscow, most of them earning poor salaries as construction workers or market vendors.

Migrants are rarely able to afford Moscow's sky-high rents. Most of them sleep in premises temporarily provided by their employers, such as makeshift barracks on the edge of building sites.

Dzhuraeva says she knows of migrants who spend their nights in dank basements packed together like cattle.

"The living conditions of migrants vary a lot, from basements where 300 or 400 people live without any conveniences at the Cherkisovskii market, to flats where at least two families try to pay rent," Dzhuraeva says. "Renting a flat is extremely expensive. It is very difficult."

Most migrants in Moscow come from former Soviet countries, where living standards plummeted after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The vast majority work illegally and lack the documents for legal residency. This makes them particularly vulnerable to corrupt police officers, whom they have to bribe so as not to be officially reported to the police.

Their illegal status also prevents them from bargaining about pay or seeking justice if they are abused.

Dzhuraeva says the complex bureaucratic procedures Russian firms need to go through to hire foreign workers only serve to push migrants to the wrong side of the law, and often into slavery.

"Ninety percent of both legal and illegal firms don't have the authorization to hire foreign workers because the mechanism is too complicated," Dzhuraeva says. "Huge numbers of employers hire people on an illegal basis from the start. And illegal persons becomes slaves of the situation. A kind of slave work force is being formed -- hundreds of thousands of people don't have the right to defend themselves."

At Moscow's massive Cherkisovskii market, thousands of vendors from Central Asia and the Caucasus bustle about, calling out to shoppers. Nearly all of them are illegal workers.

Asking vendors about their life and work conditions, therefore, tends to elicit evasive comments or nervous looks at the market's burly security guards patrolling in the distance.

Most foreign vendors say they will not speak for fear of losing their jobs.

Smoking a cigarette outside the market gates, 14-year-old Marat is a little more talkative. He has recently come from Azerbaijan with his father, whom he helps sell clothes at the market. He says he lives in a tiny flat near the market, together with his father and uncle.

The integration process for Marat has clearly not been as successful as for Manzura. In broken Russian, he explains that Russians don't always treat him well and that he misses his family very much.

"Sometimes, they (Russians) treat me well. Sometimes not," Marat says. "They smoke and drink. I miss my mom. I have a sister and a brother back home. I miss them."

He says the police sometimes make trouble for him and his father, although he won't say how.

Marat's father, a doctor, decided to emigrate to Moscow from Baku when his salary, equivalent to $35 per month, no longer enabled him to feed his family.