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.”