Strangers In Moscow: A City's Contradictory Contempt Of Immigrants

Although the number of foreign workers has declined sharply in Russia, Muscovites in particular fear the influx of immigrants - not that they necessarily want to do their jobs.

Moscow's Red Square
Moscow's Red Square
Nadezhda Petrova

MOSCOW - Of all the common phobias in Russia, the most popular is of immigrants. About 35% of Russians have a touch of xenophobia, regarding foreign workers as a real threat to the country.

Ramzan Kadirov in Chechnya worries about the Vietnamese, and says that with a 27.8% unemployment rate, his region can’t afford to have an uncontrollable influx of labor. He also accuses guest workers of being involved in all sorts of crime.

In Moscow, former mayor Sergei Sobyanin urges other cities to “follow the path we have taken” by punishing businesses that employ illegal immigrants and deporting anyone who is found to be in the country illegally.

Those words probably warm the hearts of most Muscovites, who feel that they suffer from the migrant problem more than anyone else in Russia. They are almost twice as likely to say that immigrants are more problematic than advantageous, and 88% of Muscovites say that there should be controls to allow fewer immigrants into the city. In response to a poll about the city’s most intractable problems, 55% of Muscovites responded that there are too many migrants from the North Caucasus and former Southern Soviet Republics.

This is surprising, because unlike the former Soviet Republics, the North Caucasus is still part of Russia. According to Lev Gudkov, director of the polling agency Levada Center, about 70% of the xenophobia in Moscow is actually anti-Caucasus. Muscovites do not consider migrants from Chechnya to be Russian citizens, adds Dimitri Poletaev, director of the Center for Migration Studies — but they are.

In the shadows

Although many believe there really are too many migrants, official statistics show the number of foreigners in Russia has actually dropped precipitously in recent years. Ten years ago, the Ministry of Internal Affairs said there were about 20 million foreigners in Russia, with about 2 to 3 million people staying illegally every year. Now, migration services officials say the number of foreigners in Russia is 10.8 million. Of that, 3.7 million come as guests to study or receive health care, 3.2 million work legally in the country, and a little less than 4 million are in the “shadows.” Of those, about 3 million work illegally.

Poletaev says those numbers sound about right. When the topic comes up, he says, people tend to estimate that there are some 3 to 5 million people who are working in the country illegally. He stressed, though, that no one knows for certain what the numbers really are.

So, adding the legal and illegal foreign workers in Russia represents just over 6 million people. Those who try to spread fear about foreign workers usually cite vastly inflated figures. Some have even claimed that between 25 million and 30 million foreign workers are employed in Russia. If that were true, that would mean one out of every three workers in Russia would be a foreigner.

Half of the country and 60% of the capital city are convinced that immigrants are stealing jobs from locals. But simultaneously, most people also think that it is acceptable to hire foreign workers for undesirable jobs, like working in public transport or as janitors. Foreign workers earn, on average, about as much as Russian workers do. But they are likely to work many more hours to earn the same monthly salary.

A broken system

There is no way for Russia to survive without foreign workers. That's because the working-age population in Russia decreases by a couple of hundred thousand every year, which can be felt even during economic stagnation. “If the economy starts to take off,” explains Poletaev, “businesses will quickly find out that there are just not that many people who are physically able to work.”

But companies who want to hire a foreign worker legally must submit an application to receive a part of the “quota” for doing so. There is furious complaint, though, that the slots are often awarded to the same companies, who then resell them for about $1,000. That is too much for most employers, who can also make a $100 bribe for the same result. In the end, foreign workers and their employers have no choice but to get caught up in a pyramid of corruption.

In addition, the number of quota slots available is just 1.7 million — for the 6 million foreign workers we know are working in Russia. Even government officials acknowledge that this is a problem in need of reform, but the process for changing the quota is cumbersome.

Some 28 percent of migrants want to stay in Russia permanently, and Russians’ lack of enthusiasm for that prospect largely comes down to cultural differences. “Ten or 15 years ago, migrants were coming from cities,” Poletaev says. "Now they are coming from agricultural areas. Muscovites are not happy about that. City migrants understand what city life is like — people from rural areas don’t know the language as well and have a completely different culture.”

It might seem paradoxical, but the people who are most likely to think of migrants as a problem are those who arrived in Moscow 10 or 15 years ago. Second-generation Muscovites are more tolerant “because they are much more secure in their right to be in the city,” Gudkov says. “More recent arrivals don’t have enough resources, and they are afraid that they will be competing with other migrants for social resources, so they insist on things like an ethnic hierarchy.”

That is why poor Muscovites are much more likely to have a problem with immigrants than middle-class or wealthy residents. According to Gudov, people think that the government should provide not just security, but also a certain standard of living, like during Soviet times. But the government is not doing that, so people take their frustration out on foreigners. “It’s an example of misplaced aggression,” Gudov said. “You know, a dog won’t bark at its master. It will bark at the corner. A dog that has been trained, at least.”

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!