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Russia: Migrant Workers, Caucasus Nationals Finding Themselves Targeted

Dire economic conditions force hundreds of thousands of men from the republics of Central Asia -- many of them from Tajikistan -- to seek work in Russia. Many of the Tajiks are employed in Russia illegally and are subsequently arrested or deported. But a growing number of Tajiks are returning home dead, having either been murdered or killed in workplace accidents. Other nationalities are also reporting attacks.

Prague, 21 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Officials in Dushanbe say increasing numbers of Tajik migrant workers are being mistreated or killed in Russia.

Kurbonali Mukhabatov is the prosecutor-general of Tajikistan's Transport Prosecutor's Office. In a recent interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service, he said: "In the first six months of this year, 211 bodies of citizens of Tajikistan were brought back to the country. Forty-two of them were killed, 61 died suddenly in accidents, and 81 died because of illness." He did not explain the cause of death of the remaining 27 Tajiks.

Mukhabatov said the bodies of 328 Tajiks were returned last year from Russia, and that 68 of them had been murdered. He said his office registers only those bodies repatriated by plane or train. Mukhabatov said more bodies may have been brought back to Tajikistan by car. The figures cannot be independently confirmed.

Xenophobia in Russia and the unsafe conditions in which migrant laborers work appear to be behind many of the deaths.

Muzafar Zaripov is the head of Inson (Human), a Tajik human rights organization based in Moscow. He said nearly 60 percent of the 800,000 Tajiks believed to be working in Russia are illegal laborers. Tajiks usually earn around $200 a month working illegally in Russia, while their monthly salary at home is the equivalent of $10 to $15.

The promise of such money lures many Tajiks abroad, despite poor or unsafe working conditions. Illegal laborers do not receive any social guarantees or state medical treatment if they are injured. Zaripov said this situation leads to more lethal accidents at job sites because employers don't have to worry about worker safety.

The illegal status of Tajik workers also makes them more vulnerable to criminal attacks. Zaripov said many Tajiks are robbed or disappear as they prepare to head home after being paid. Zaripov said criminal gangs are often involved in these attacks.

He said workers who survive such attacks usually do not report them to the police because they do not want to have additional problems with the Russian authorities. "A person is afraid that his status of illegal worker might be disclosed and that he would be deported or fined," he said.

Zaripov accuses Russian authorities of doing little to protect the human rights of illegal workers. Moreover, he said illegal workers are often terrorized by the police themselves. "Two months ago, a [Tajik] person was killed when a group of police officers came into the apartment in Mytyschy [a district of Moscow] at 2 a.m. Police officers implementing so-called 'preventive' measures kicked him to death." Zaripov said an increasing number of Tajiks also are being attacked by Russian extremists, especially on trains in Moscow.

Tajikistan's minister of labor and social security, Mamadchoh Ilolov, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that he believes an agreement with Russia on migration and movement of labor -- due to be signed in September -- will help ease the problems of illegal workers. RFE/RL's efforts to speak with someone in Russia's Interior Ministry about the problem were unsuccessful.

Yelena Burtina represents the Committee of Civic Assistance, a Russian nongovernmental organization that provides help to refugees in Russia. She said that since last autumn's hostage crisis at a Moscow theater -- carried out by Chechen extremists -- people broadly described as being of "Caucasus nationality" are being singled out for attack. That's a loose grouping into which are thrown not only people from the Caucasus but anyone with darker skin or Asian features.

"The Tajiks are one of the groups that is being terrorized a lot by the police. Anyone who belongs to a group of so-called 'people of Caucasus nationality' are the object of the attacks of skinheads, as well as the police," Burtina said.

Burtina said many desperate Tajiks visit her organization to ask for financial help to send the bodies of their loved ones home.

Burtina said she doesn't know why Tajiks attract the attention of extremists. "Maybe because they look different and innocent," she said, "and this different appearance provokes the attacks."

Aleksandr Podrobinek is a former Soviet dissident and the head of the Prima news agency, which reports on human rights abuses, mostly in the former Soviet Union. He told RFE/RL that he believes Russians are becoming increasingly xenophobic.

Podrobinek said extremist groups are active in Russia but that the authorities do little to rein them in. He says in many cases the authorities close their eyes to violence against foreigners and by doing so encourage more such attacks.

"The main problem is that those who attack innocent people are not punished. There are many attacks in Moscow, where compared with other cities there are a lot of police and patrols. However, the extremists continue their attacks against people of non-Slavic appearance and practically always get away with it. It is very rare that a case goes to court and ends with symbolic punishment," Podrobinek said.

Tajiks are not the only foreigners who say they are being attacked in Russia. Burtina from the Committee of Civic Assistance said she spoke a few weeks ago with immigrants from Georgia, Armenia, and Afghanistan who were visiting her organization. She said she asked them if they had been attacked while in Russia. "It was a chilling experience," Burtina said, "to find out that everybody from a group of six or eight people was attacked and beaten in Russia." She said they told her that they had not reported the attacks to the authorities.

(RFE/RL's Tajik Service and RFE/RL correspondent Farangis Najibullah contributed to this story.)