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Russia: Rights Advocate Decries 'Dependence On Slave Labor'

(RFE/RL) Gavkhar Dzhuraeva is president of Migration and Rights, a Moscow-based nongovernmental group that provides legal support to migrants. From Tajikistan herself, she monitors human rights abuses against migrants across Russia and is regarded as a leading expert on migration issues. She spoke recently with RFE/RL about a system that fosters abuse, Russia's "dependence on slave labor," and failures of the "democratic" media.

RFE/RL: Please tell us what problems immigrant workers encounter in Russia.

Gavkhar Dzhuraeva: [Many] immigrant workers in Russia are former Tajik refugees. Tajikistan is the only republic in Central Asia that went through a violent civil war; this dealt an enormous blow to the country's economy. This is why the emigration of the labor force is forced. Some of the people that come here are refugees looking for work. We have already categorized them as the group that is in most acute need. After a truce was signed between the Tajik government and the opposition, the refugees became known as "immigrant laborers."

The key problem associated with this category of people is their attempt to survive outside the boundaries set by Russian laws concerning foreigners residing on Russian territory. The law doesn't differentiate between the various categories of immigrants, so oftentimes those who are in real need suffer with those who really do deserve the sanctions -- including deportation -- that are used against them. This, in brief, is the position of immigrant workers in Russia. That is to say, the present legislation concerning foreigners residing in Russia does not permit these hundreds of thousands of individuals to overcome the difficulties posed by various bureaucratic processes: registration forms, work permits, and the search for a job where the employer has a legitimate permit himself. We know from various sources that the overwhelming majority of employers do not carry permits for the employment of foreign laborers. Nevertheless, they have been employing foreigners for over 10 years. This means 10 years in which they have been working illegally and have been subjected to various offenses and, as such, created potential for increased crime.

RFE/RL: How is this reflected in the emigrants' lifestyles? How would you describe their standard of living?

Dzhuraeva: I would describe it like this: A man crosses the border and is a legal alien for three days; however, in airports, Tajik citizens are treated with a certain prejudice, which expresses itself in more rigorous attention. In front of my own eyes, 15 or so Tajiks, who looked timid and ignorant, were taken away in an airport. When I asked why, I was told that they were going to be subjected to a more detailed questionnaire concerning drug possession. There is no definitive figure, but Tajiks are allegedly the leading smugglers of narcotics into Russia. Starting with the airport, the immigrant worker's every step is associated with the violation of his human rights. He is unable to access the registration system because no homeowner wants to house him for three days and thus enable him to register under his name.

His nationality plays a large part in this: Tajiks are registered very reluctantly, and even if they are, it is only for a short period of time. Any inspector [assumes] that there is a 95 percent chance that the Tajik isn't actually visiting someone but rather is looking for work -- for even the lowest possible wage and probably the most difficult work possible. Tajiks are at the bottom of the work hierarchy in Russia. The Tajik is unable to obtain an adequate form of registration. Then he either becomes a slave somewhere in Astrakhan or, during the summer, as was recently documented, they take him to work in the fields. His "owner" holds his passport, so nobody knows where he is. When he gets to Moscow, through friends, family, etc., he finds some construction site or a market, where he works carrying heavy loads.

Everywhere he goes, [the Tajik immigrant's] status is illegal. And this illegal status is exactly what makes him vulnerable to further abuse from the government, from his employers, from his own people. He becomes a slave, someone without rights. He becomes enslaved to the circumstances. So he either manages to pay his way out or he dies of illness or insanity. Many people die every day of exhaustion, especially at construction sites, or in confrontations between various minorities. Because in the past 12 years, we have done nothing to help the legalization of these peoples' status or the improvement of their condition, we have created a vicious cycle. Step by step, this increases the criminal potential both in the governmental institutions, which should be responsible for the welfare of these people, and among the minority itself, where various criminal associations are formed. These include shady registration companies, traffickers, and so on. It's a whole system.

But this Gordian knot can be destroyed by a simple experiment, which has already started in Moscow but which has not yet been resumed. It appears as though they are discussing the results now. That experiment is the legalization of workers in their respective work locations. This was the dream of all the human rights activists in this sphere. Now the question is whether it will continue and whether the immigrants will finally be able to improve their standard of living -- which is terrible, given the treatment and low pay they receive from their employers. They can be paid as low as 100 rubles per day, or sometimes not paid at all. They cannot get health insurance, because it costs too much money. They become victims of landlords.

These people are trying to survive in inhuman conditions -- there's no other way to describe it. The work these people do is very hard, but they have no other choice. They come here, they build, they dig, they carry things, and so on. My prerogative is the protection of laborers. If I can protect them, then I will serve my function, at least partially.

RFE/RL: A recent survey showed that over half of Russians view immigrant workers negatively. Do you think this statistic accurately reflects the situation?

Dzhuraeva: Of course not. It doesn't show Russia's dependence on slave labor. There are millions of these workers. Neither does it show the political implications of this process. The immigration issue is part of policymaking between various countries. There are many underlying issues here. But I can personally testify to the fact that 80 percent -- if not 100 percent -- of the negative view of these people is inspired by our "democratic" press and its xenophobic journalism. When they say that "some wretch from Tajikistan did this and that," and the ethnicity is so strongly emphasized, it cannot provoke sympathy in people.

In Uzbekistan, they say that the war with the Turkmens started because of strawberries. Well, in this case, the "strawberries" are being planted by the press, which is often very inadequate in the way it expresses itself. Instead of trying to overcome the international conflict that this issue poses, the press simply tries to make money by being provocative. Oftentimes, things that come out of the press become weapons in the hands of various extremists, who think that immigrants are a threat to Russia.

For years our organization has been appealing to various national organizations. We told them that we should calculate, from a strictly scientific point of view, the value of these half-slaves for Russia. What if we started paying these people the money that their labor was worth? Our own profit increase would be in the billions of dollars. Instead, these workers send pennies back home and [survive] on bread and water.

We really need a more benevolent press. They are the ones who form the nation's conscience. When you talk to the owner of a construction site, he's always happy with the way the Tajiks work. When you talk to someone whose dacha the Tajiks built, he's always happy. But when you watch television or open a newspaper, or listen to politicians, you literally start to feel sick.

RFE/RL: In your opinion, do immigrants know all these things when they choose to come here? To what extent do their lives in Russia match their expectations?

Dzhuraeva: They know everything, but they are forced to come here to feed their large families. There is widespread unemployment in Tajikistan. Of course, you can make money by smuggling drugs, but the fact that so many people come to Russia -- sacrificing their health and strength, [and] performing extremely difficult work -- shows that there is an inherent desire to live an honest life. They're not as bad as how the Movement Against Illegal Immigration is trying to portray them. People in this movement know how dependent they are on Tajik labor, and they know that Russian drug barons are just as well off as the Tajik ones.

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