- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2007

MOSCOW — Thousands of migrant workers from the Caucasus, Central Asia and China are leaving Russia as the government institutes tough new measures aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration.

Campaigners against illegal immigration are welcoming the measures, saying low-paid migrants were distorting the job market and taking work from Russian citizens. But critics say the moves are ill-advised because they will drive up retail prices and create a labor shortage that could hurt Russia’s booming economy.

About 12 million people, mostly citizens of impoverished ex-Soviet republics who do not require a visa to enter the country, are currently working illegally in Russia, according to analysts.

The new rules set the quota for legal foreign workers at 6 million, while at same time imposing fines of up to $30,000 on companies that employ foreigners illegally. Also, as of this month, only 40 percent of workers in Russia’s retail markets are allowed to be foreigners, and none should be by April 1.

Foreign workers have traditionally dominated in Russia’s retail markets, with people from Azerbaijan, for example, selling fruits and vegetables, and Chinese selling cheap manufactured goods. Illegal migrants, mostly from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, are also heavily employed as laborers in the construction industry.

“We aren’t wanted anymore, so I guess we’ll be going home,” said Artak, an Armenian who sells cigarettes and alcohol at a kiosk in central Moscow. “I’ll be surprised if they can find a Russian who is willing do this work all day for what they pay me.”

With illegal migrants difficult to track, it’s not clear exactly how many are leaving Russia. But Russian police have been out in force to enforce the new laws, and signs are that few are taking the risk of staying.

Many stalls at food markets across Moscow are empty as vendors leave the country. Some markets have closed altogether, while others have posted signs looking for vendors with Russian citizenship. Russian television has shown images of empty markets in the Far East, where Chinese stallholders have fled across the border.

A Russian union organizer who works with illegal migrants in the construction industry said companies are throwing thousands of workers off job sites in fear of being prosecuted.

“You used to be able to get off the plane and immediately find work. Now everyone wants to get back on planes to go home,” said the organizer, who did not want his name used because he worries that he’ll be targeted by authorities.

The new measures appear to be a response to a surge in ethnic nationalism and opposition to immigration that has occasionally erupted in violence. In August, a bomb tore through Moscow’s Cherkizovsky market, killing 13 persons, mostly illegal workers from Central Asia.

Racist attacks have grown dramatically, with at least 53 persons killed last year in racially motivated assaults, according to the human rights group Sova.

Last fall, President Vladimir Putin denounced “ethnic gangs” that control Russia’s markets and called for regulation to protect “the native Russian population.”

Alexander Belov, the head of the influential Movement Against Illegal Immigration, welcomed the new rules as “a step in the right direction.” But he said Russia needs to go further and impose full visa requirements on “people from poor countries who take jobs from Russians and give nothing back to our society.”

Russia’s population is shrinking by 750,000 people a year and has fallen below 142 million due to low birth rates and high mortality rates, especially among working-age men. There are fears the new measures could lead to an economic slowdown if foreign workers cannot be replaced.

“Most of the migrants working in Russia are doing jobs Russian citizens don’t want,” said Svetlana Gannushkina, the head of the Migration and Law Network, which assists immigrants.

She said the measures are little more than a populist move ahead of elections to the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, later this year. This could backfire, she added, because the crackdown may also drive up costs in retail markets, hurting Russia’s poor.

The average Russian earns only about $5,000 a year, and low-income Russians do most of their shopping in retail markets. “This is going to damage not only migrant workers but also all the people who won’t be able to afford to pay more for fruits, vegetables and meat,” she said.

The government appears to be hedging its bets promising that prices will not rise and that the April 1 deadline for foreigners to be banned from markets could be extended.

“The laws are aimed at regulating the normal functioning of markets and not at reducing the quantity of goods traded,” Economic Development Minister German Gref said in televised comments. “If we see any threat, the time limit can be extended by a government decision.”

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