Pressure on Central Asian Migrants in Russia Grows
Reports suggest that authorities are forcing workers to choose between deportation or fighting in Ukraine.
Dilshod Rakhimov, a 37-year-old builder from Tajikistan, spent eight years as a labour migrant in Russia without any problems – until July this year, when Federal Security Service (FSS) officers turned up at the construction site where he was working with other Central Asia migrants. He was immediately taken to the police station together with all the other Tajik citizens.
"Only three people had problems with their documents, while almost 40 others were living and working legally, including me,” said Rakhimov, from Tajikistan’s eastern region of Rasht. “They could have checked our documents right there, but they delayed for two days, making us spend time in the police station.”
The three workers lacking proper immigration papers were offered a choice: deportation and a five-year ban on returning to Russia, or consenting to be sent to fight in Ukraine with the Russian forces.
Rights groups confirm that such round-ups are an increasing trend.
Muhammadjon Sobirov is a Tajik human rights’ defender who has been working in Russia for seven years with Dawn of the World, an NGO assisting migrants with free legal aid and help finding work.
“In February 2022, before the hostilities [in Ukraine] started, Russian authorities used to conduct such inspections. At that time, up to 20 people would come to our office every day to get help in legalising their stay in Russia,” he explained. “But this year in the courts, migrants are being offered to take part in Russia's war against Ukraine and obtain Russian citizenship for themselves and their families, or else they will be expelled from the country.”
PROTESTS BUT LITTLE ACTION
In recent months, Tajik migrants have increasingly suffered at the hands of the Russian state.
On May 19, Tajik students from the Technical University of Komsomolsk-on-Amur were beaten by officers of Special Purpose Police Units as they were preparing to go to class.
“We were grossly insulted, documents were demanded, phones were taken away,” said an aggrieved student, adding, “Anyone talking back was beaten more than the others. All of them were armed and we did not understand what was going on. Some guys were even struck with stun guns."
At the same time, videos of mass detentions of Tajik citizens were circulated in the media.
In May, Tajik foreign ministry representatives met the Russian ambassador to Tajikistan, Semyon Grigoryev, to express concern and emphasise “that such incidents do not comply with the spirit of Tajik-Russian strategic partnership and alliance and may damage the efforts of the parties to further develop cooperation in the field of education” .
The country’s interior ministry, prosecutor general's office and embassy in Russia have demanded that Russian authorities fairly investigate the harassment on migrants. While there were no official comments issued, this issue was discussed during Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Dushanbe on June 5.
"We always discuss this topic in the direction indicated by the presidents. We almost always accept amnesty requests for migrants. The last amnesty for migrants was two years ago, I think 120,000 people were pardoned, regardless of whether they had administrative offences,” Lavrov told journalists.
However, Tajikistan's commissioner for human rights Ahad Sodiqov told IWPR that their Russian counterparts had not provided an official response to their request for a fair investigation of the detention of labour migrants.
Some voices on social media speculate that Russia wants to use migrant labour as leverage against Tajikistan to force it to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Russia-led body established in 2014. Prior to his visit, Lavrov expressed hope that Tajikistan would join the EAEU.
“We hope very much that our Tajik hosts who are providing this hospitable territory will soon see its advantages of joining the Eurasian Economic Union,” the Russian minister said.
However, Shohin Samadi, the head of the Tajik foreign ministry's department of information and press, stated on June 8 that this was not something that the authorities were currently considering.
A Tajik economist, who requested anonymity, told IWPR the issue of Tajikistan joining the EAEU was not that important to the Kremlin because "the Tajik economy is not that big".
“Of course, Tajikistan's accession to the EAEU will give Moscow some leverage to control imports from China, which are also transported to Uzbekistan. However, Russia, especially now, is unlikely to harm relations with China because of this,” the economist said, arguing that the persecution of Tajik citizens was linked to increasing chauvinism and xenophobia in Russia.
“Tajik migrants turned out to be the most vulnerable and that is why the brunt of the attacks fell on them,” he concluded.
The problem is common among migrants from across Central Asia, according to Sobirov.
He said that groups of Uzbek and Kyrgyz migrants were also brought to the the detention centre for foreign nationals in the city of Engels, in Saratov region.
“I came to Saratov city at the request of the Kyrgyz embassy in Russia to talk to the detained Kyrgyz migrants. Ten Kyrgyz migrants are being held in a special detention room for not having a visa,” he told IWPR, adding that while checks and detentions were nothing new, they had assumed new significance because of the war.
Abdukhalim Gafforzoda, a member of parliament and chairman of the Socialist Party of Tajikistan, suggested that aim might indeed be to funnel migrants to the war in Ukraine. Russian politicians have repeatedly said migrants should be sent to war in Ukraine, referring to "Tajik battalions".
However, Tajikistan considers the participation of its citizens in wars outside the country a crime, Gafforzoda said.
“Those who have Russian citizenship are free to go [to war], but those who have dual citizenship or are stateless cannot be involved in Russia's war against Ukraine. Regarding Tajik citizens, Russia has no moral right to send them to war. They face imprisonment for these actions in Tajikistan,” the deputy told IWPR.
Meanwhile, Rakhimov and thousands like him are weary, even though they hold proper documents, and are left with no choice but to remain in Russia: there is no work back home, he said.
This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.