Migrants on high-alert following Moscow riots

 

Russian police may have arrested the prime suspect in the murder of an ethnic Russian which sparked anti-migrant riots in Moscow, but migrants across the country continue to live in fear of arbitrary detention – or worse.

Azeri national Orkhan Zeinalov, 30, was arrested by police special forces for allegedly stabbing 25-year-old Yegor Shcherbakov to death on Sunday in the Moscow suburb of Biryulyovo.

News of Shcherbakov’s death resulted in the worst ethnic disturbances seen in Russia for years after ultra-nationalists stormed a local vegetable warehouse said to employ Muslim guest workers from the Caucasus region and central Asia, including Zeinalov.

Hundreds of rioters smashed windows, destroyed parked vehicles and attacked bystanders. A total of 23 people, including six riot police officers, were injured.

But the day after the violence, as many as 1,600 migrant workers were detained by police.

 

Growing anti-migrant sentiment

Last Sunday’s disturbances may have made headlines around the world, but it fits into a growing pattern of anti-migrant sentiment in Russia.

In August, Moscow police rounded up at least 3,000 migrant workers in the run-up to the city’s mayoral election.

Six hundred of them, mostly from Vietnam, were held in a tent camp while awaiting deportation for immigration violations. The move was condemned by human rights groups, particularly because of the poor living conditions at the makeshift detention camp.

In September, Russian authorities in the 2014 Winter Olympics host city of Sochi began daily raids to catch undocumented migrants working on construction projects in the city.

Some 16,000 foreigners are said to be involved in the building of Sochi’s Olympic facilities from scratch and thousands more will be needed to complete the ambitious US$50 billion project in time for next year, but it has come under fire from international human rights organisations.

In February, Human Rights Watch issued a 67-page report which documented numerous cases of migrant workers being cheated out of wages, having their passports confiscated and living in substandard accommodation.

Similar violations have been reported as widespread at Moscow’s construction sites.

And at the beginning of October, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) supported its Russian affiliates, FNPR and KTR, in opposing changes to Russian labour law, which would deprive tens of thousands of workers – both Russian and foreign – of basic legal protections covering working hours, overtime and other basic working standards in relation to the 2018 World Cup.

 

The immigration card

Russia has the second largest migrant population in the world after the United States, according to UN statistics.

Figures released by the United Nations’ Economic and Social Affairs Department in September reveal that the number of foreign migrants living in Russia reached 11 million in 2013 – more than seven per cent of the country’s overall population.

Migrant workers, particularly from Central Asia, fill a great number of low-paid job placements, especially in the construction industry and public services where their rights are routinely violated by employers.

Despite the significant role played by migrant labour in the country’s booming oil economy, many Russians are beginning to resent their presence.

According to a state survey conducted by VTsIOM pollster in July, 65 per cent of Russians believe that immigrants are responsible for an increase in crime, while more than one in three Russians think “other ethnicities” are a threat to national security.

There is also widespread unease about the presence of domestic migrants from the Muslim-populated regions of the North Caucasus, including the insurgency-troubled Dagestan and Chechnya.

Despite their Russian passports, they too are regarded as immigrants and "non-Russians".

Just a few days ago the Council of Europe issued a report on racism and intolerance in the Russian Federation. Although a number of positive developments were noted, the Council made a number of strong recommendations, particularly with regards to the violation of labour and human rights for migrants.

As is the case in so many European countries, politicians are playing the ‘immigration card’ for electoral gain.

Following Sunday’s disturbances, Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin pointed the finger at “extremist elements”, while in August he defended the summer immigration raids as "a normal thing".

“It is really [in response to] a demand from citizens; most of whom consider immigration a major problem,” Sobyanin told Russian media at the time.

"It is in any country, if there is an emergency situation, then the government and society begin to act more harshly,” he added.

 

We don’t want you – but we need you

According to the Federal Migration Service, only two million of Russia’s 11 million migrants have a legal status.

Labour migrants from former Soviet states, including countries in the Central Asia, are allowed to stay in Russia for three months, but often extend their visits for longer periods and work in the ‘black economy’.

Critics of the ongoing crackdowns point out that the high number of undocumented migrants is the result of a poor legal framework and corruption, as police are known for taking bribes to ignore workers without permits.

In addition, many employers also benefit from paying cheap wages to undocumented workers, as well as avoiding taxes and social benefits.

"If they [detained migrants] have breached the law, it happened due to flawed legislation," Yevgeny Bobrov of the Kremlin’s human rights council told a press conference soon after visiting the tent camp in August.

"Why wouldn’t police find those who organised them?" he asked.

However, like most big economies Russia’s is in desperate need of migrant workers as it simply doesn’t have the domestic human capital to power the economy without them.

According to Konstantin Romodanovsky, chief of the country’s Federal Migration Service, Russia needs an inflow of over 300,000 migrant workers annually to meet the country’s demands for economic development.

"Migrants make up to seven to eight per cent of Russia’s gross domestic product. I don’t know any economist who would say that we can do without migrants," said Vladimir Volokh, a former senior official with the Federal Migration Service who is now a scholar with Russia’s State University of Management.

The answer, he says, is for the government to help migrants out of the shadow economy, so that the country can profit from the taxes paid by documented workers.

But for now, domestic politics will continue to override economic common-sense.