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MOSCOW, Nov 3 2014 (IPS) - Immigrants in Russia could face a wave of violence following thousands of arrests in a crackdown on illegal immigration which has been condemned not only for human rights breaches but for entrenching a virulent negative public perception of migrants.
More than 7,000 people were arrested across Moscow – and more than 800 already served with deportation orders – under Operation Migrant 2014 which ran between Oct. 23 and Nov. 2 in the Russian capital.
The scale of the operation and methods used by the authorities has left international and local rights organisations outraged.
They say police used violence during raids on thousands of locations, including work places, markets, lodgings, hotels and people’s homes. They said that some migrants were forcibly taken from their families with no information given to relatives of where they were being taken.
Some were deported without proper procedures being observed, according to local lawyers while others claim many of an estimated up to 100,000 migrants detained had money confiscated by police before being released without their detention being recorded.
Tolekan Ismailova, vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), said: “This is simply an institutionalised way of intimidating migrants and their families. The operation violates Russia’s international obligations to respect human dignity and ban the practice of arbitrary detentions.”
But beyond the rights abuses, the highly-publicised raids are, critics argue, also helping foment and entrench a xenophobic attitude to migrants in wider society that increases the risk of violence against them.
Ismailova told IPS: “Operations like this only reinforce negative images of migrants in Russia and increase violence towards them. Once Russians see images of the raids in the news they will rally to support the government’s actions.”
The warnings come amid hardening attitudes towards what some Russian MPs estimate to be as many as 10 million migrants across Russia.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s large cities have been a magnet for migrants, mainly from former neighbouring Soviet states. Wages on offer in cities like St Petersburg and Moscow are often enough for immigrants to support entire families back at home. In some Central Asian countries, remittances sent home from workers in Russia account for as much as one-third of national GDP.
But successful assimilation of those migrants has been limited for a number of reasons. Migrants, especially those from Central Asia, have tended to interact within their own communities while support from Russian authorities and representatives of their own states has often been weak.
Rights groups say local employers routinely exploit migrants, refusing to give them proper contracts, leaving them with no rights, often working in poor conditions and for low wages. Many are de facto working and residing illegally, and unable to access health care and pension systems.
Their situation also forces many to live in bad conditions and fuels criminality and violence in migrant communities, leading to further arrests and a perpetuation of negative attitudes towards migrants in wider society.
Ismailova told IPS: “Central Asian migrants are harassed because there is a culture of racism in Russia that perpetuates the stereotype that they are ‘black’ and they do the ‘black’ work in Russia. Many Russians have prejudices against Central Asians.”
Attitudes to migrants hardened in the wake of the financial crisis in 2008 and have worsened considerably since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012.
Critics say that the Kremlin is pursuing a xenophobic and anti-migrant policy in an attempt to distract Russians from wider problems in society.
They point to Operation Migrant 2014 as just the latest in a string of recent highly-visible crackdowns seemingly aimed at reinforcing the public perception of illegal immigrants posing a threat.
Operation Illegal 2014, similar to Operation Migrant 2014, was conducted in St Petersburg from Sep. 22 to Oct. 10, resulting in charges being brought against 437 migrants. And just last month, draft legislation was heard in parliament which would increase the penalties for foreigners exceeding maximum stay periods in the country.
Rights campaigners also point to other methods being used to fuel distrust of migrants, including authorities’ encouragement of citizens to report migrants they suspect of working illegally to a special hotline which passes the information to the police.
According to Ismailova, “this is exactly the same strategy that was used by the KGB. It creates a sense of distrust among people and is a major obstacle against securing human rights for migrants.”
The raids, arrests, anti-immigrant legislation and rhetoric from public officials – last month Moscow’s mayor said that were it not for illegal immigrants Moscow would be the safest city in the world – are little more than a “PR exercise” designed to deflect attention from other issues.
Tanya Lokshina, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Moscow, told IPS: “With the ruble suffering an alarming drop, the government is apparently trying to divert people’s attention from concerns over living standards by turning their discontent towards migrants and, at the same time, demonstrating its own ‘effectiveness’ by attacking that ‘enemy’.”
Lokshina also said that “part of the problem with irregular migration is that employers don’t provide migrant workers with proper contracts. No one wants to work without a contract or permit – they do it because they have no other option. The government should ensure that migrant workers have contracts and relevant guarantees.”
Authorities have defended the need to tackle illegal immigration. They say that, among others, illegal immigrants put a massive strain on state resources, particularly the health care system – migrants seeking medical help costs Moscow alone a reported 150 million dollars each year.
But rights campaigners say the government should be looking to strengthen migrants’ rights instead of enforcing repressive crackdowns.
They say authorities should give more notification to migrants to have residency and other documents in order before any raids are carried out and that a current three-month entry and exit visa regime for many migrants should be cancelled.
Even migration experts have openly questioned the policy of mass arrests.
Vyacheslav Postavnin, president of the Migration XXI Century foundation which cooperates with the Russian government working on migration policy, told Russian news agency TASS last week: “There are a lot of question marks around operations like this. I can see no quantitative value in them.
“Even if a thousand people were detained, there are thousands more that have not broken laws. The question is why were they arrested, taken away somewhere and to some extent humiliated? What happens when it is found out that they are working legally?”
Others warn that the situation for immigrants is becoming increasingly fraught and there are serious concerns about the risk of violence against the immigrant community in the near future.
The Russian public holiday of Unity Day on Nov. 4 is often marked by massive nationalist and anti-migrant demonstrations in major cities and was last yearpreceded by violent riots in Moscow after an ethnic Azeri was alleged to have killed a Russian. Meanwhile, in St Petersburg, a migrant of Uzbek origin was killed during the national holiday.
When asked whether further violence against immigrants could be expected following the publicity around the arrests, Lokshina told IPS: “It’s certainly likely.”
(Edited by Phil Harris)
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