A new housing development on the outskirts of Moscow is being built by migrants from the former Soviet Union member states for Russian military families.

Photograph by Misha Friedman for Bloomberg

Russia Wants Immigrants the World Doesn’t

While Europe and the U.S. tighten border controls, former Soviet states are encouraged by Moscow to send their workers.

On a brutally cold February day, hundreds of laborers from Uzbekistan mill around in the snow and mud of a construction site 10 miles outside Moscow. Surrounding them are a series of unfinished 18-story apartment blocks meant to serve as homes for Russian military officers.

Work has stopped because the men haven’t been paid in weeks. With nowhere to go, they stand around smoking and chatting at the vast project locals call Samolyot, Russian for “the plane,” after a nearby monument to World War II pilots. At night, they hole up in a nearby shantytown of corrugated steel cabins. There’s no shower, sink, or toilet—instead there’s a row of blue portable outhouses, each half-filled with stalagmites of frozen excrement. In the morning, the men shiver over a fire cooking carrot gruel and melting ice from a nearby stream to drink. Most are poorly dressed for the 10 degree weather—one laborer emerges with nothing on his feet but wool socks and flip-flops.

Work sites filled with immigrant laborers aren’t particularly novel in developed countries, and Russia is no exception. According to the UN, the nation has 11 million foreigners, many without visas and from largely Muslim, Central Asian countries. But as Europe’s refugee crisis continues to fuel a global resurgence of isolationism and xenophobia, in Russia—the world’s third-biggest destination for international immigrants—things are being handled a little differently.

A recent editorial in Nezavisimaya Gazeta was titled “Trump and Le Pen would be opposition in Russia.” Under President Vladimir Putin, the newspaper argues, being anti-immigration is the same as being anti-establishment. “Domestic TV blasts Europe for multiculturalism, for receiving refugees from Mideast and Africa, for tolerance to migrants,” its editors wrote. But in Russia, anti-immigrant stances are sometimes “characterized by the authorities as an unacceptable form of nationalism.”

The reality in Russia is that the immigrant economy is very much part of its recovery from a prolonged recession. And the government knows it.

Bakhrom Khamroyev (right), a prominent human rights activist, listens to an Uzbek migrant describe being handcuffed and abused by the police. Construction sites are often raided by migration and counterterrorism police units.
Photograph by Misha Friedman for Bloomberg

“Russia is experiencing a huge deficit of workforce,” explains Andrey Movchan, director of the economic policy program at the Moscow Carnegie Center. “We badly need cheap labor that cannot be found inside the country.” Immigrants clean city streets and maintain huge residential buildings that dot the skyline. They play a key role in manufacturing, retail, and service sectors. In the restaurant industry, kitchen staff from countries like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Georgia stay for years, sending most of their money home.

“If you take out the migrants, who comprise 15 percent of the Russian workforce, it will be impossible to replace them,” Movchan says, warning that the higher wages needed to attract Russian workers to such jobs would raise prices and hurt the recovery.

The sharp decline in oil prices—and western sanctions triggered by Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine—was followed by a dropoff in immigration. The number of Uzbeks who crossed over fell by 21 percent, while Tajiks declined by 11 percent and Kyrgyz fell by 5 percent. But since then, immigration has rebounded. Russia had 161,000 foreigners come into the country in 2015 and stay. In 2016, that number increased to 196,000, according to the Russian Foreign Trade Academy and Gaidar Institute. Work-permit sales in Moscow rose by 10 percent last year, too. With most immigrants coming from former Soviet states like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the migration has proven beneficial to all involved: Those two countries top the list of global economies relying on remittances, according to the World Bank.

Moscow’s economy heavily depends on migrant labor, especially municipal services such as street cleaning.
Photograph by Misha Friedman for Bloomberg

Restrictive immigration policies in Europe and America turn not only on fear of economic displacement, but fear of terrorism. In Russia, there are similar concerns, but they don’t resonate as loudly. Putin said last month that as many as 5,000 people from former Soviet members joined the Islamic State in Syria, and in 2016 security agents arrested at least two groups of immigrants suspected of plotting attacks on Russian soil. Yet, the government in February announced 200,000 previously deported Tajiks would be allowed back into Russia.

Putin has been circumspect when it comes to addressing Islamic extremism. Russia is home to an estimated 9.4 million Muslims who make up 6.5 percent of the population. Islam has also been proclaimed one of the four religions indigenous to Russia.

Nevertheless, Movchan says populist anti-immigrant sentiment is common and police raids of work sites are a regular occurrence. But economic imperatives always hold more sway. “The authorities will conduct deportations for a show and adopt populist laws,” he says. “But the situation will stay unchanged.”

Akabir, 30, originally from Tajikistan is working as a sous-chef and dreams of moving to the USA.
Photograph by Misha Friedman for Bloomberg

Unchanged—but also unpleasant. Immigrant laborers at sites like Samolyot describe daily struggles to survive amid low pay, mistreatment, and discrimination. “Moscow was my dream, a beautiful city where there is lots of money,” says Fakhreddin Yakubov, 31. “But now I just want to leave.”

Sixty-year-old Murad Yermolatov is similarly despondent. A father of five, he came to Russia with the promise of work in the town of Khimki. All went well for two months, but then he was fired. Having changed several jobs, he ended up at Samolyot, where his troubles really started.

He was paid for a few weeks before the money dried up. He continued working—10 hours a day, six days a week, for six months—but was eventually paid less than a third of what he was promised. He hoped to send money to his family in the Samarkand region of Uzbekistan, but now he can’t scrape together enough to even get home. 

One after another, workers at Samolyot repeat the same story. “They wanted to dupe us from the outset,” says 26-year-old Ruslan Kalbergenov, who hails from the Uzbek region of Karakalpakstan. Like many others, Kalbergenov says he came to the site on the promise of legal residency, but those papers have yet to materialize.

The workers are indignant, but when they come face to face with Alibek Gazimagomedov, who introduces himself as a shareholder in the construction company that now owns the site, they grow silent. Gazimagomedov says that since they have no written contracts, he isn’t responsible for debt accumulated by the previous owner.

“Do I owe you anything?” he asks them in a loud voice. The workers murmur no.

Gazimagomedov says the company has fully paid workers who have signed contracts, adding that current management has no responsibility for those who had informal agreements with the prior owner. Bakhrom Khamroyev, a human rights activist from Uzbekistan who works with immigrant laborers like those at Samolyot, says Central Asians who lack Russian language skills or formal education are frequently victimized.

A group of restaurant staff from Kyrgyzstan on their lunch break in central Moscow.
Photograph by Misha Friedman for Bloomberg

As much as Russia needs immigrant labor, there’s still red tape. In 2010, work permits were introduced in response to a surge in migration. These days, a monthly permit requires a language test and costs $70—more than 4,000 rubles—which is a significant amount for immigrant workers who make, on average, $400 a month. Around 1.73 million permits were issued in 2015, according to the government.

Not everyone needs a permit, though. Workers from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Armenia have been exempt since those countries joined a customs union that Russia formed in 2010.

As deputy head of the State Duma committee on ethnic issues, Communist MP Valery Rashkin deals with immigration legislation. He says Russia is “flooded with poorly qualified immigrant laborers” who are stealing jobs from Russian nationals. (Unemployment in Russia stands at just 5.6 percent.) A proponent of a strict visa regime for Central Asian countries, his stance is significantly more strident than that of the Kremlin.

Eliso is a migrant from Georgia. She has been working in Moscow as a prep chef for over three years.
Photograph by Misha Friedman for Bloomberg

Ildar Gilmutdinov, who represents Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, dismisses concerns that loose immigration controls could lead to an increased terror threat. “The current visa regime and rules of entry guarantee a fairly high degree of security,” says Gilmutdinov, head of the State Duma committee on ethnic issues. A visa-free regime with post-Soviet countries is “Russia’s strategic choice.”

But about half of Russians polled before the Ukraine war said they wanted to restrict immigrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, according to Levada Center. Today, even more—66 percent—support tighter controls over immigration. Putin’s opponents have seized on this disconnect, particularly Alexey Navalny, a politician who has made the introduction of visas a major part of his platform. 

Migrants from Central Asia make up an overwhelming percentage of maintenance workers.
Photograph by Misha Friedman for Bloomberg

In the topsy-turvy world of Russian politics, liberals with nationalist leanings like Navalny, as well as hardcore nationalists, are the ones agitating against Putin.

Nationalists first joined protests against the government in 2012, and many of them later sided with Ukraine in the run-up to the invasion. A crackdown followed with arrests and prosecutions. Alexander Verkhovsky of Sova Centre, which monitors racist attacks in Russia, says many ultra-nationalists fled to Ukraine, where some fought against Russian soldiers and pro-Russian Ukranians in the east.

“The authorities fear that being more prone to violence, the nationalists can become an important physical force in a potential radical protest,” Verkhovsky explains.

None of this means that the immigrants caught in the middle are any better protected by the state, or that their working conditions are any more humane. At Samolyot, construction has resumed, though with fewer workers—Bakhrom Khamroyev, the human rights activist, says some of the men protesting unpaid wages were told to leave.