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Citizen Or Foreign Migrant? In Moscow, The Line Is Often Blurred

Migrant workers line up in a fenced holding area outside a Federal Migration Service office in Moscow as they wait for their turn to get a work permit.
Migrant workers line up in a fenced holding area outside a Federal Migration Service office in Moscow as they wait for their turn to get a work permit.
MOSCOW -- The two men have a lot in common.

Both are in their 20s and moved to Moscow in search of a better life. Both face discrimination with employment, encounter harassment from police, and have struggled to find places to live. Neither has many Russian friends.

But there is one important difference between Mirzo Kurbonov and Zubeir (who declined to give his last name). The former is a foreign migrant from Tajikistan, while the latter is a Russian citizen from the North Caucasus.

Despite his Russian passport, as an ethnic Ingush living in Moscow Zubeir’s experience is, in many ways, similar to that of an immigrant. He says he feels like an outsider in his own country.

"Without a doubt there is this feeling. Of course there is," he says. "It affects people differently. Some feel it less, for instance, because they try not to go to places where document checks and [police] raids happen. But yes, there really is a feeling that we are not a part of the perfect society."

The two men spoke to RFE/RL in a gloomy Uzbek cafe frequented by migrant workers in a north Moscow district -- close to the Savyolovsky train station, where police have recently rounded up foreign workers.

And while it was clear that as a foreigner Kurbonov's situation was more difficult, the experiences of the two men are nevertheless remarkably similar.

Finding An Apartment

The difficulties begin with the most basic thing: finding a place to live in a city where many landlords are only willing to rent to people with a "Slavic appearance" or to Westerners. The same applies to hostels.

When he first searched for an apartment, Zubeir says he would try to strike up a rapport with landlords, charming them over the phone in his fluent and mostly unaccented Russian. But when he came to view the flat, he says he was told it was already rented.

Both Zubeir and Kurbonov say they ultimately found accommodation through networks of friends, relatives, and contacts in the Muslim community.

"This is the biggest problem you encounter and it makes you think you're a second-class citizen," Zubeir says. "A person who isn’t of Slavic appearance can’t rent an apartment. It's unjust."

If finding an apartment is a struggle, then securing gainful employment can be fraught with discrimination too, Zubeir says.

With several years of part-time accountancy study under his belt as well as banking experience in customer relations, Zubeir felt like he was sailing through an interview for a job as a deputy branch manager at a bank.

But when he was asked where he was from and answered that he was born in Malgobek, a town in Ingushetia, the interview was abruptly cut short. "We'll call you," Zubeir says he was told.

Zubeir says experiences like this have caused him to avoid Russian companies. Instead, he has applied for a job at a foreign firm recommended to him by a close relative. "I don’t want to join a Russian company," he now says.

Buried In Paperwork

Then there are the everyday difficulties with paperwork. All of Moscow's nonpermanent residents -- including Russian citizens staying in the capital temporarily -- must register annually with the authorities, giving a specific address. Not doing so leaves one vulnerable to bribe-seeking police officers – a particular problem if your non-Slavic appearance makes you susceptible to routine checks.

Having found accommodation through friends, Zubeir could not register where he lived and instead registered using the address of an acquaintance who legally resides in Moscow. Using such fake addresses, commonly known as "rezinovye," or elastic, apartments, is common in the foreign migrant community.

For actual migrants like Kurbonov, clearing this bureaucratic hurdle is just the tip of the iceberg.

Many companies are reluctant to hire foreign migrants above board due to the volume of paperwork and expense.

As a result, the majority are left on their own to register with the migration police, obtain a work permit, medical insurance, and other required documents -- and then seek work. Kurbonov knows only too well the litany of formal -- and informal -- payments you need to make in order to pass through this bureaucracy.

He says many turn to expensive companies who take care of it all -- for a price:

"You have to get a work permit -- that’s money. Registration -- that's more money," Kurbonov says. "That's 43,000 rubles ($1,344) through a company or 23,000 [on your own]. How can it be so expensive to get registered in an apartment? It's a nightmare basically."

The alternative, of course, is working undocumented in the shadow economy -- making one even more vulnerable to abuse.

Despite these obstacles, Kurbonov -- who is currently seeking work -- has moved steadily from job to job. He has washed cars as well as worked as a courier, a cook, and a pizza- and sushi-maker. As a migrant worker he says he is the first to be made redundant when costs need cutting.

And looming over all this is the constant fear of the police, the humiliating document checks, and demands for bribes.

Migrant workers line up in a fenced holding area outside the Federal Migration Service office as they wait for their turn to get a work permit.
Migrant workers line up in a fenced holding area outside the Federal Migration Service office as they wait for their turn to get a work permit.

Zubeir says he has been stopped and searched by police on his way to the mosque, but thanks to his Russian passport and Moscow registration papers, is promptly released.

But Kurbonov, whose face and complexion immediately identify him as a non-Russian, says he is sometimes stopped by police as many as two or three times a day.

"When you go to the mosque at Prospekt Mira, there are crowds of police officers waiting by the metro," Kurbonov says. "They stop everyone who looks Caucasian or Asian -- basically everyone who isn't Slavic. They check their documents, take them down to the monkey house, and waste their time."

It is things like this that make Kurbonov want to leave Russia, but the question is where would he go? Home in Tajikistan where unemployment is rife and poverty widespread is hardly appealing.

"To tell the truth, I want to find some kind of way out of this situation," Kurbonov says. "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."