Millions of migrants reside in Russia, many of them from Central Asia, with a particularly large proportion originating from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. They play a vital role in the Russian economy and undertake a range of jobs in industry, construction and other sectors, often working long hours and for little pay. Yet in recent years they have faced an increasingly unwelcoming environment as authorities have imposed an arduous process of registration and documentation on foreign nationals in the country – a development that has in turn increased their vulnerability to exploitation by employers, visa agencies and even corrupt officials

Krasnodar, located in the south of Russia, is a magnet for foreign migrants – mainly from Central Asia, Ukraine and Moldov – with almost 590,000 arriving in the region in 2017. Many came to know the area during preparations in Sochi, a city located in Krasnodar Krai, for the 2014 Olympic Games: some even decided to stay there permanently. But while the economic opportunities in Krasnodar continue to attract foreign nationals, their lives are often associated with a host of problems, from fraud and exploitation to institutional xenophobia.

During the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Krasnodar, several interviews were conducted with citizens of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, who shed light on the challenges they have to endure to remain in Russia for even a short time without the risk of being deported from the country. For security reasons, their real names are not included here.

Migration registration and work

In order to legally reside in Russia, foreign citizens must register with authorities within 7 to 90 days from arrival, depending on their country of origin. However, in connection with increased security around the World Cup, the registration period for all foreigners in the areas where the Championship is being held has been reduced to just three days between May and June 2018 – with anyone missing this timeframe risking a fine and expulsion from the country.

If a foreigner decides to stay in Russia and get a job, he needs to sign an agreement with the employer and either receive a patent (for citizens of countries with a visa-free entry) or a work permit (for citizens of countries with a visa regime). Nationals of the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) are not required to get a patent or a work permit – a contract is enough. However, citizens of Tajikistan or Uzbekistan need to apply for a patent within 30 days of entering Russia – without one, they face a fine and deportation, with a ban on returning to the country for the next five years.

The patent also requires a significant monthly payment, varying across different regions: in Krasnodar Krai the payment is currently 3,615 rubles, the amount a migrant with a well-paid job (for example, in the construction industry) might typically earn in 4 to 8 days. For migrant women, usually employed in the service sector, this amount in most cases forces them to overwork – to fulfill duties that go beyond the scope of labour contracts, in particular, to take on additional responsibilities, work overtime for 10 or more hours a day, seven days a week.

Despite the energy-intensive nature of construction work, men in Central Asia engaged in this sector frequently work overtime and for lower wages than their Russian counterparts. Having left Tajikistan due to unemployment, Sobirjon and Huseijon – not their real names – found work in a smelting plant in the suburbs of Krasnodar, where their working day is 12 hours (compared to 9 hours for Russian workers). According to Sobirjon, ‘We do the same work as they do, we work even more, but we get half as much. We do not know what the reason is.’ Yet he does not readily see this as discrimination, despite the obvious shortfalls: he has found a job that gives him the opportunity to earn an amount he cannot hope to obtain in his homeland.

Even so, he must still contend with the threat of a police inspection – as his employer has not even assisted with this process, he and Huseijon have had to approach intermediaries who agreed to ‘help’ them for a sum. One of these intermediaries was now saying that, because of problems resulting from a previous offence, they would need to pay more. ‘The intermediary said that I had some kind of violation, that I allegedly had not paid in time for the previously issued patent, although I made all the payments on time and I left Russia before the expiration of the patent. Now the intermediary says that I have to pay another two thousand rubles in fines,’ he explains. ‘He will help me register through an acquaintance working in the migration office, who will put a stamp in the notification of arrival and enter my name in the database. If I do not register now, the boss can fire me, because he cannot allow me to leave the workplace every day.’

His friend Huseijon is in a similar situation. ‘Several years ago I worked in Sochi, where I was engaged in finishing works on the construction of a shopping centre. In 2015, I again decided to return to Sochi, where I spent almost three months, and then went for five days to Abkhazia and then I went home via Sochi once again. Now they tell me that there is a violation in the migration service database, although I was in Russia for no more than 90 days out of 180 days. The intermediary promises to solve the problem for an additional fee. I doubt that he is telling the truth, since I arrived on June 9 and was allowed to cross the border into Russia. With a violation, I would not have been allowed to enter the country.’ As a result, he has yet to fully resolve his documentation. ‘I work without a patent – otherwise there would be nothing to pay with for all the costs of the registration procedure.’

Since they were already late to acquire registration and given the need to register quickly during the World Cup, they agreed to pay the intermediary 17,000 rubles each – a slight reduction from the 19,500 rubles originally suggested. However, in return they agreed to be left without the receipt that would confirm their payment and give them the opportunity to get their money back in case of fraud. In spite of the obvious dangers of their situation, they remain hopeful that the intermediary will be able to use his contacts in the police to secure their paperwork.

This is in spite of a number of recent incidents of registration fraud: in December 2017, for example, Krasnodar Krai law enforcement agencies exposed a scheme involving police officers, including the deputy head of the migration department of Prikubansky district in Krasnodar city, that registered some 6,500 foreigners under the guise of various fictitious companies. As a result, all these registrations were deemed illegal. Sobirjon, though aware of the risks, feels he has no other option. ‘I understand that such registration can be fake, but I have no other choice. I’ll have to hide from the police.’

His experience is one shared by many other migrants who, when seeking to register, must navigate a complex and opaque bureaucracy with the help of  ‘firms’ keen to make a profit. Unsurprisingly, applicants frequently find themselves exploited in the process, leaving them with substantial debts and further uncertainty. Others fare better, particularly when their employers are willing to support their registration, but even then some may be forced to use the services of intermediaries when securing their patents.

Racial profiling and the police

Racial profiling by police has long been a problem in the region, primarily directed at residents of Central Asia and Russian nationals from the North Caucasus. It was especially noticeable before the Olympic Games in Sochi, when police openly admitted that they had been instructed to detain and check people on the basis of their belonging to certain national minorities. Widespread criticism of these actions has to some extent led to some improvements in the situation: the police now appear to detain members of national minorities less frequently than before, but these nevertheless remain vulnerable to official harassment.

‘The police often stop me, probably because I’m not Russian,’ says Sobirjon. ‘They bring me to the police department, and after the check-up they release me.’ Given that his documentation issues are still unresolved, this leaves him and other migrants in a very precarious position – a situation that can be used by unscrupulous employers, as well as police, to exploit them. Odimjon, a Tajik national, describes how police can use documentation checks and detention as a means to extract payments. ‘I know about cases of bribes and extortion, which many paid, but I personally do not give any money to them. When policemen stop me on the street and demand documents, I show them without asking any questions, since I am afraid that if I in turn demand their documents and grounds for them checking my identity papers, they will behave more aggressively, they may detain me. I try to be as polite as possible.’

A difficult future for migrants in Russia

While Krasnodar and many other regions depend heavily on migrant labour, the unfavourable environment in place leaves them at constant risk of exploitation, abuse and deportation. As in many cases employers do not want to take any responsibility for paperwork, migrants are forced to seek out intermediaries who are often able to extort large sums of money from them – a situation enabled by the difficult and onerous registration currently in place. In turn, the police are more likely to detain and prosecute migrants, rather than their employers, regardless of the exploitative conditions they are forced to work in. Indeed, the threat of expulsion if a deadline is missed provides employers with a powerful tool of coercion.

Paradoxically, despite the extensive official regulations in place, the current system has allowed a host of intermediary organizations to flourish unchecked. The creation of the Multifunctional Migration Centre in Krasnodar, an official contact point between migrants and the state, should in principle allow them to access the necessary documentation directly without incurring any additional expenses – yet in practice, many foreigners still find themselves forced to engage intermediaries. Until this situation is resolved, tens of thousands of migrants will remain at constant risk of exploitation by intermediaries, their employers and the police.

Semyon Simonov 

Header photo: Migrant workers from Uzbekistan eat in their temporary living quarters on a construction site in Moscow, Russia. Panos / Justin Jin.