SWM 2014: The experience of Central Asian migrants in Moscow, Russia

Case study by Anastasia Denisova

This research is the result of an extended participatory research study between March and April 2014, undertaken by the Civic Assistance Committee and funded by MRG with support from CAFOD.

Trapped in the margins – the challenges of being a migrant in Russia

Russia’s migrant population, comprising around 11 million people, is the second largest in the world. The majority are nationals from Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The difficult economic circumstances in their home states means that many willingly head to the Moscow region and other parts of the country in the knowledge that they may experience prejudice, ill treatment and even physical assaults. This case study, drawing on first-hand interviews with 15 migrants originating from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan living in Moscow region, highlights the effects of discrimination, hate speech and hate crime on their everyday lives.

One of the main determinants of their vulnerability is the fact that many migrants lack legal status in the country. Of the estimated 1 million migrants in Moscow itself, only 200,000 are working legally. Every migrant is obliged to have an ‘inviting party’ to support their residence in Russia, but in reality most migrants do not have a contact in the country and, as a result, are forced to purchase the services of an intermediary to support their ‘registration’.

The popular image of a labour migrant in Russia is characterized by a stereotype of illegality and, by extension, criminality too. But it is very easy for a migrant to become illegal in Russia, even if they make every effort to abide by the law. The system of registration and other processes, such as the securing of work permits, often have the effect of placing migrants under the control of their employers or pushing them, as a result of artificial quotas, into undocumented labour. Others, having worked legally in the country, may find themselves deported for minor administrative offence and barred from re-entry for a number of years – thus obliging them to cross back into the country illegally.

Migrants often find themselves regularly exposed to discrimination or humiliation due to their status as second-class citizens. Migrants face many obstacles when looking to rent an apartment, apply for employment and even when sending their children to schools. One Uzbek man, a vet, described how his daughter had not been accepted by a school until he lodged a complaint:

‘Later the head advised to simplify her Uzbek name for a Russian ear and we had to agree. And when looking for a flat for rent you mention that you came from Uzbekistan, they hang up. They even write in the ads “for Slavs only”. It is unpleasant of course.’ Uzbek vet, male

Frequent police passport checks in the street and at apartments have also become an integral part of daily life for Central Asian migrants in Moscow. One Uzbek journalist said that he lived in constant fear for his wife, because neighbours are complaining about migrants living in the building.

‘My wife and child sit at home all day long. She even asks me to lock the door from the outside.’ Uzbek journalist, male

Another migrant mentioned that he had to make efforts not to look like a migrant to prevent police checks:

‘I try to look like a student, and when it is cold, I always wear hats not to show my dark hair colour. It helps.Uzbek student, male

The invisibility of targeted violence against migrants

The reality of living illicitly in Russia frequently places migrants in exploitative, dangerous or even slave-like working conditions. However, their lack of legal status also contributes to another dimension of their lives – their acute vulnerability to hate crime. In the absence of official statistics, the true extent of the frequency and severity of targeted attacks against migrants is unknown. However, according to the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, the most credible source monitoring hate crimes in Russia, the relative decline in incidents between 2009 and 2012 was reversed in 2013. During the year, people of Central Asian origin were subjected to continued stigmatization and harassment from both organized and spontaneous attacks: 13 Central Asians were killed and 45 injured in 2013 – a significant rise, compared to seven killed and 36 injured the previous year.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that this is only a fraction of the incidents that have actually taken place. While the SOVA Center documents publicly recorded cases, many more go unreported out of fear or lack of faith in the authorities. For instance, the Civic Assistance Committee (CAC) found that out of 91 hate crime victims it worked on during 2012- 13, only 14 were reported by victims themselves and a further five by CAC lawyers on their behalf. Of the remainder, only 10 became known to the police as a result of an officer being present at the scene or another witness reporting it. This suggests that many attacks are never recorded, such as the incident described by one respondent, a cook originating from Kyrgyzstan, on the Moscow underground in December 2013:

‘I did not notice them at first. They came up and asked my mobile. But it was a pretext. They started to beat me, mainly on my head. Called names, said that I am not Russian and “ponayekhal”. All the people nearby remained seated. One of the passengers even put out his foot so that I tripped over. It was done on purpose. I was shocked. There were seven of them. The train stopped and I ran away. I did not report to the police. No chance.’ Kyrgyz cook, male

The problem of impunity

One of the challenges confronting migrants is that the police are often more concerned with controlling them than protecting them. At the end of July, for instance, following an attack on a Moscow policeman at an open market, authorities in Moscow launched a concerted sweep of migrants in markets and construction sites across the city. One of the crackdowns was described by a journalist from Uzbekistan, who filmed a raid as it happened and was subsequently detained for his non-Slav appearance. He then protested that he had a Russian passport and urged the policemen to stop beating other migrants in their custody:

‘They replied, they are the same Russian citizens as you. Later, a higher rank officer came up, apologized for his colleagues and said that they were simply tired of cleaning the city from rubbish.’ Uzbek journalist, male

Hundreds of migrants were subsequently detained, in degrading conditions and in violation of their rights, in holding centres and improvised camps. Many of those awaiting deportation were asylum seekers or legally registered. Staff from the Civic Assistant Committee, who represented some of the detained migrants, were present at many hearings and saw repeated procedural flaws in court. The mayoral elections in Moscow, scheduled for the month after the crackdown, played an important role in encouraging the police response. In the weeks and months before, politicians from different parties resorted to anti-migrant discourse in order to appeal to the Moscow population. For example, both the victor Sergey Sobyanin, of the United Russia party, and the opposition candidate Alexey Navalnyi, blamed illegal migrants for crime in the city.

When anti-migrant riots again broke out in Biryulevo district in October, police launched another series of raids and rounded up more than 1,000 alleged migrant workers. One Uzbek respondent described the aftermath of the violence and the impact it had on his life:

‘My friends and I were kicked out of the flat after Biryulevo. The neighbours were worried that different unknown people were visiting our flat. The policeman came and made everyone leave the flat, including a 10-year-old girl.’ Uzbek student, male

This has helped provide right-wing and xenophobic groups with an apparent justification for their own activities, including raids on migrant camps and housing that often involved humiliation and intimidation of their inhabitants. Racist groups such as Shield of Moscow had undertaken these actions with few apparent repercussions until a criminal case was opened against one of the organizers in the fall of 2013.

Living in the shadow of violence – the impact of hate crime on everyday life

The daily threat of verbal or physical abuse defines the lives of migrants. Travel, in particular, can be a high-risk undertaking. One disturbing trend occurring during 2013 is the practice known as ‘white wagon’ – where groups of youths beat up all the non-white passengers in train carriages. In October, similar attacks occurred on passengers on trains departing from Moscow for Tajikistan. One Kyrgyz student described how it was not safe to travel by regional railways at night:

‘My group-mate, who also came from Bishkek, saw that a group of people started to count non-Slavs in the train car out loud. She left the car with her friends immediately.’ Kyrgyz student, female

Hate symbols and slogans are common in the Moscow region, especially along the routes of regional railways, against migrants from Central Asia. Many of these are not readily decipherable to migrants, but these symbols also play another role – they indicate to other right-wing sympathizers that they have supporters in these very districts, thus providing ground for further activities. One Uzbek respondent described how he saw a picture of a poster in the underground which said ‘Stop the death’ beside a picture of a group of Central Asians. Respondents also described the continued abuse they experienced from passers-by and fellow passengers:

‘We have got used to insults. We just need work. Some time ago I detested using [the] metro. You get in and people start stepping aside from you, as if you are ill.’ Kygyz farmer, male

‘Old ladies and young people tend to abuse migrants verbally more often than anyone else. For example, I was standing on the railway platform in Dmitrov city [Moscow region] and an old woman said, “Just churki [a derogatory term for Asians] here.”’ Uzbek political scientist, male

‘Many old ladies are calling names because of my appearance. One an old woman shouted at me at the metro “You are guests here for too long, Chinese. Go home. I am sick of you.”’ Kyrgyz journalist, male

As a result many migrants, when even a short train ride is a risk, choose to base themselves as near their work as possible:

‘Many migrants are looking for a flat near the[ir] working place simply in order not to walk along the streets.Construction worker, male

The effects of discrimination and violence for Central Asian migrants therefore go far beyond the immediate impacts, significant though these are. Discrimination and violence permeate every aspect of their lives, from their choice of accommodation to their livelihood options. Until the government and media take active steps to improve their status and representation, it is likely they will remain trapped in this situation. 

This article appears in MRG's annual flagship report State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous peoples 2014. View the full report. 

Photo: Migrants from Central Asia working in Moscow. Credit: Fred S. 

No Associated files

Date: 13/06/2014


Russian Federation


State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014
Racism/Discrimination/Hate speech

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