A good friend of mine, a music critic and a native of Baku, told me recently about a shocking conversation with one of her former pupils, now a confident music historian in his early 30s.
“We met at a concert and started chatting, and then he suddenly began telling me, more and more angrily, about what he called ‘hordes of dirty good-for-nothings’ who ‘have occupied the Russian cities,’ ” she said. Kick them out, he told her in a rage, and stop them at the borders.
“What upset me the most was that my former student had seemed such an unlikely sort of person to adopt this kind of racist philosophy and zero-tolerance attitude,” my friend said. “He was always so calm and intelligent and educated, and capable of resisting any kind of brainwashing, but at our last meeting he sounded like some kind of zombie.”
The meeting convinced her that spreading xenophobia in Russia has become a “pandemic.”
Over the past weeks I have been thinking about that conversation a lot, because things have indeed changed.
It has long been an open secret that a typical labor migrant in Russia shares a room – or an attic, or a basement – with 10 or so other people; that he does dangerous work without insurance or adequate training; that he sneaks into the country with fake permission, like a thief; and that his life leaves virtually no room for respect for the law.
According to government statistics, Russia has 11 million migrants, of whom at least 4 million are here illegally. Alternative data collected by human rights groups suggest that no more than 20 percent of migrant workers in Russia are here legally.
Hundreds of thousands of people from Central Asia, Ukraine, and other nearby, poverty-stricken regions flock to Moscow every year in the hope of a better life but often find themselves living and working in miserable conditions, and even turning to crime.
The Russian authorities have started acting, and the solution, as often happens, comes in the form of repression.
While in the previous years the numbers of deported foreigners amounted to fewer than 1,000 annually, now the Federal Migration Service has vowed to send away all undocumented migrants.
Reports flow in from across the country about undocumented migrants being seized and thrown in detention centers, where they are often kept without food or even water for several days until they are deported. Any legal assistance is out of the question.
Politicians argue that migrants held in the Golyanovo tent camp on the outskirts of Moscow lived in far worse conditions before they were detained, but the camp’s living and sanitary standards are shameful: it has only four shower cabins for about 1,000 people, and there is no hot water or electricity.
Reacting to the rare reports about the harsh conditions in migrant-detention centers, top-level Russian authorities unambiguously decry the migrants themselves. In July, nationwide media reprinted en masse the words of Konstantin Romodanovsky, the head of the Federal Migration Service, who claimed that migrants “undermine the Russian economy” because “they send all their earnings home.”
According to Romodanovsky, Russia’s 2012 budget had a shortfall of 60 billion rubles ($1.8 billion) because of undocumented migrants, though he offered no explanation for how he arrived at that figure.
Also in July, Ivan Andriyevsky, vice president of the Russian Engineers’ Union, voiced deep concern that “the uncontrolled masses of migrants who have flooded Russia are causing the country of lot of social problems.”
But even the numbers of migrants who are here legally have become worryingly high, officials say.
“This is not a purely economic issue, this is something that may result in a social catastrophe,” Andriyevsky said. “Russia needs qualified professionals, not the unskilled workers who have flooded the country.”
Prejudice against migrants rests on social as well as economic foundations. “Vast numbers of the Russian people tend to believe that immigrants are very corrupt and commit a lot of crimes,” said Yelena Dunaeva, a St. Petersburg officer for the Federal Migration Service. “Partly this is because the sort of crimes that migrants commit often make a big splash – stabbings, rapes, drug dealing, violent physical assaults – thus creating an illusion that the migrant community in general is highly criminal.”
Surely the answer to any criminality among migrants is an anti-crime policy coordinated between ethnic communities and law enforcement.
But developing a coherent integration policy and getting companies to legally employ all of their workers is more complicated and time-consuming than deportation and repression – even though Russia clearly cannot afford to close its borders to labor migrants as its population declines.
To be sure, the country must combat illegal migration as well as making sure that all people who are legally employed here have their rights protected by the law.
That could start with increasing fines for Russian companies caught employing undocumented immigrants or violating migrants’ rights. Companies could also be stripped of their licenses if they repeatedly hire workers illegally.
But cultural integration must also become a part of state policy. Tajik and Uzbek immigrants find it difficult to adapt to their new lives in Russia. While it is their duty to respect their new country of residence, it is the responsibility of the local authorities to adopt a simple yet consistent set of rules and to explain to migrants – without resorting to threats or violence – that locking themselves in seclusion will only result in rejection. Unfortunately, Russian officials prefer to employ brute force.