Russia’s immigration challenge

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski
15 June 2007

For the last three years Mansur Mirzayev, a 22-year-old Uzbek, has been living in Moscow. He came to the Russian capital from the poverty-stricken province of Andijan - which was, after his departure, the scene of a notorious massacre by the state forces of Islam Karimov in May 2005. No jobs were available there in the region of Uzbekistan close to the border with Kyrgyzstan, so together with a number of local people Mansur decided to take the risk of moving to Russia.

On arrival, he had a bit of luck: one of his friends recommended him for a job as loader at the market in the district of Zhulebino, to the east of Moscow. It was simple, menial work, requiring Mansur to carry heavy loads of goods on his rusty trolley for the entire day. In the beginning he worked "black", as securing proper documents was next to impossible; but militia who kept an eye on the market were easy to bribe. Each side knew the rules of the game. The militia understood that charging Uzbeks and Tajiks too high a sum would mean they would seek jobs elsewhere; and their victims did not object paying as it guaranteed a minimum of safety when their papers and registration were not in order.

Things changed when the Russian government introduced new registration and immigration laws which came into force in January and April 2007. Now Mansur and his friends were in a tight situation; their employer would risk a fine of up to $30,000 if he gave them jobs without proper Moscow registration and work permits. They had no choice but to pay out again - this time a lump sum in bribes to the officials processing their applications. From that point, however, they felt freed from their obligation to pay their regular fee to the militia.

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist and writer who has reported on Russia for leading German, Swiss and Polish newspapers since 1989. He is the author of Planet Russia, published in Poland in 2005.

Also by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski on openDemocracy:

"Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s shadow"
(3 April 2006)

"Russia: racism on the rise" (26 April 2006)

"Russia's corruption dance" (15 June 2006)

"Kinoeye: Russia’s reviving film industry"
(11 July 2006)

"Russia and the middle east: post-Soviet flux"
(14 August 2006)

"Roman Abramovich’s Chukotka project"
(14 September 2006)

"In Russia, death solves all problems"
(3 November 2006)

"Alexander Litvinenko: the poison of power"
(20 November 2006)

"The Russian politics of vodka"
(7 December 2006)

"How Russia is ruled"
(14 March 2007)

"New Russia, old Russia" (5 April 2007)

"Boris Yeltsin, history man" (24 April 2007)

"Russia's unequal struggle" (18 May 2007)

Nothing angers market-cops more than losing their regular source of income. A few weeks ago, they arrested Mansur and some of his colleagues on trumped-up charges and took them to the local militia station.

There, the arrested Uzbeks were forced onto their knees. According to witnesses, one of the four militiamen taking part in the interrogation seemed to be drunk, and his uniform differed from those of regular servicemen. In an instant of anger he pulled out his gun and shot Mansur, who missed death because the bullet only wounded the side of his neck. The Uzbek man survived and was taken to the nearest hospital.

Meanwhile, those of Mansur's colleagues from the market who had escaped the dragnet raised the alarm among Moscow's human-rights activists. When a few of those activists arrived at the Zhulebino militia station, they discovered that after the shooting Mansur's arrested mates (even those whose spoken Russian was extremely poor) were being pressed by their captors into testifying that the sounded man had been behaving violently and carried all responsibility for the incident. In the end it became evident that the contretemps was all about money and the militia's demand for bribes even from those migrant workers whose papers were in order.

The new neighbours

The Zhulebino incident illustrates all too well the dangers faced by migrant workers who come to Russia. Most are fleeing extreme poverty in their own countries (usually the post-Soviet republics), are poorly educated, unable to communicate in fluent Russian, and thus forced to adapt to a corrupt Russian legal system when refusal to play by the "informal" rules could cost them dearly. A few who are especially enterprising or energetic - or simply desperate for work - might travel outside the old Soviet space, sometimes as far as South Korea. Most have no choice.

Russia's current booming economy, fuelled by high prices for oil, gas and metals, needs these workers badly. Without an army of low-qualified, unskilled workers, some sectors of the Russian economy - construction, municipal and domestic services, the retail trade - would suffer severely, if not be altogether paralysed. Without the dark-haired Tajik immigrant workers, there would be nobody to sweep the Moscow streets and fix their holes, or build the high-rise modern office buildings and suburban dachas going up all over Moscow.

The Tajiks alone are not numerous enough. Russian companies short of labour are seeking to bring workers even from China and Turkey. In the far-eastern city of Blagoveshchensk, as early as the late 1990s, I saw Chinese workers renovating the local railway station and growing vegetables in otherwise bankrupt Russian collective farms. More recently, 2,000 Turkish gastarbeiter have helped Roman Abramovich, governor of Chukotka and Russia's richest oligarch, to modernise the infrastructure of his remote Arctic region.

In central Asia's poorest nations such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, recruiting workers for the Russian labour market is a murky business. The dealers penetrate most of the remote villages, promising fabulous wages and organising transport. In some regions during the Russian construction season, most of the men would embark on what might be a week-long bus journey to a far Russian location, leaving children and women behind. The cost of the trip goes up with every militia document-check on the way - and in order to avoid trouble, paying bribes is from the start a must.

When they arrive at their destination, the workers' accommodation would be most often overcrowded, crumbling, dirty, and lacking basic comforts. The recruiters would hold onto their passports and impose on them an extra charge of up to 50% of their earnings for "services" rendered. Such services would include helping to release workers from the police station in the event of an experience like Mansur Mirzayev's.

Sometimes things happen the other way round, as for example when an immigrant worker from Kyrgyzstan shot a Russian flower-shop owner in a Moscow neighbourhood. Even some prominent representatives of the Kyrgyz community in Russia expressed concern over their compatriots' behaviour, arguing that their heavy drinking, unruliness, lack of language skills and ignorance of local Russian habits only increase the chance of conflict. Kyrgyzstan's former prime minister who now lives in Russia, Apas Jumagulov, was one of those who appealed to his fellow countrymen to make efforts to avoid tension with their new Russian neighbours.

Also in openDemocracy on Russian politics and civil society:

George Schopflin, "Putin's anti-globalisation strategy" (10 July 2006)

Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style" (16 November 2006)

Oksana Chelysheva, "Russia's iceberg: a Nizhny Novgorod report" (25 April 2007)

Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: an appeal to Europe" (30 April 2007)

George Schöpflin, "Russia's reinvented empire" (3 May 2007)

Floriana Fossato, "Russia's restricted voices" (10 May 200The cost of closure

There are no reliable statistics in Russia concerning immigrant workers. Local tabloids publish alarming estimates that they number as many as 20 million (if true this would mean that a massive invasion of Russia by foreign nationals is effectively underway). Government officials, meanwhile, say that illegal workers (who do not pay taxes) cost the federal budget around $7 billion per year; on the other side, at approximately $10 billion per year, immigrant workers' transfer of funds to Tajikistan, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, and Azerbaijan make up a considerable proportion of these countries' national income.

Rostislav Kapelushnikov of the Moscow high school of economics counsels caution about frequently cited estimates of the number of foreign workers in the Russian Federation. A population of 142 million means that the number of people active in the labour market is not higher than 69 million. Kapelushnikov concludes there is no evidence whatsoever that the figure of 20 million foreign workers often quoted by the Russian media is correct; his own judgment is that foreign workers make up no more than 5% of the Russian labour market, with no more than 4 million in total.

Large industrial companies which also need unskilled workers try to avoid hiring foreigners; they would risk heavy fines employing them without proper permits, and securing these would be from their point of view both too costly and a time-consuming hassle. It is different for smaller independent businesses, which are difficult for the government to control. That is why migrant labour is concentrated in a few specific and highly visible areas such as construction. Perhaps that contributes to the widespread impression among Russians that foreign workers are "everywhere", and taking jobs away from the natives.

In an interview with the www.cato.ru website, Rostislav Kapelushnikov maintains that Russia's demographic situation - the population is predicted to fall by 30% by 2050 - means that a high demand for unskilled migrant labour will continue. Although their number is smaller than generally believed, Kapelushnikov agrees that only well formulated and efficiently implemented government policy can address the very serious problems usually connected with mass labour migration. Xenophobic feelings are already high among the Russian population, and a lack of consistent policy may only reinforce them.

Russia may not be immune from the kind of problems that France has experienced with angry young immigrants and riots. But it would be even more dangerous and counterproductive, says Kapelushnikov, for the country to listen to those who call for a total ban on immigrant labour. Such a decision would only strengthen Russia's demographic crisis. One way or another, Russians are going to have to learn how to live alongside Mansur Mirzayev and millions like him.

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