SAMARA – It was April 19 when Oleg Sviridov, rector at the Orenburg State Institute of Management (OSIM), received an unexpected invitation to speak with a top local official.
Eugene Arapov, head of the municipal government of Orenburg, a Russian city near the Kazakhstan border, told Sviridov that by June 1 he wanted all of the international students out of the university's dormitory, located in a city park.
"I was told that nobody needs to see reports on television about black people walking around the park," Sviridov said. "They told me that the African students might rape children." According to the rector, during the meeting the officials went even further, roundly saying that foreigners were not welcome in Orenburg. "And this region is always trying to promote itself as a tolerant and multicultural one," Sviridov said.
OSIM's dormitory, which is home to students from 23 different countries, including Zimbabwe, Congo and Chad, is located on a city-owned wooded park that extends over several hundred hectares. In addition to the dorms, a couple of children's camps are located in the park, although they are separated by fencing.
According to the rector, the students are living legally in the dorms. "They are taken to the university by bus everyday and taken back, they don't have anywhere else to live," Sviridov said. "And saying that the Africans, in particular, might rape children, is absolutely insulting."
Racist attacks against foreigners in Russia are not new, and Amnesty International has said that racism in Russia is "out of control." Attacks on foreigners and foreign students, particularly those who appear obviously non-Russian, such as Africans and East Asians, are not uncommon, although the primary targets of racist rhetoric and violence are people from the Caucasus mountains, such as Chechens, Armenians and Azeris.
Still, for officials to make blatantly anti-immigrant remarks is surprising. After the rector's refusal to move the international students, the city office sent him two official notices "recommending the removal of the foreigners from the proximity of the camps."
In addition, there have been two raids in the dormitory building housing immigrant students. In the second raid, on May 24, immigration agents arrived accompanied by unidentified individuals with guns. "Our bus was stopped by some people with automatic rifles who ordered everyone to turn off their telephone," said Al-Fakikh Cami Akhmed, a student from Yemen. "I turned mine off, but they hit me with the butt of the gun anyway. Later I was told that it was immigration officers. But my documents are in order, I don't understand why they hit me."
The rector noted that the foreign students in Russia arrive thanks to inter-governmental agreements, including many children of diplomats. "Of course, they wrote a complaint about the illegal actions of the immigration service. We have asked the prosecutor's office to investigate," Sviridov said.
Last Friday, students from OSIM protested in the street, carrying signs that said "We are against lawlessness in the immigration service," and "We came to study." The cost for a foreign student to study at a university in Russia starts at $1,800 per semester.
Federal Migration Service in Orenburg admits to carrying out an unplanned raid in the University's dormitory. "But our agents did not break in anyway, and they were unarmed," an official of the Migration Service said, stressing that they did find one student who was living in the dormitory building illegally during the raid.
The city of Orenburg refused to comment on the situation for this article, saying only that in the camps next to the dormitory, "there are 14-year-old girls, and the symbolic security guard doesn't stop anyone." The Orenburg regional prosecutor's office has not yet received an official complaint from OSIM.
The city's actions have been welcomed by radical nationalists. "This is the first time that the government is taking care of the population," said the former leader of the outlawed nationalist group Movement Against Illegal Immigration Aleksandr Belov. "There was obviously something going on, there is no smoke without fire. At the end of the day, everyone knows that a dormitory with African students is a hotspot for narco-traffickers. Without preventative actions it is difficult to fight, because while you're tracking down the criminal, he or she will have fled home."
The Ministry of Education and Sciences stands with OSIM. Their press-office explained that OSIM has 125 registered foreign students. "They have a registration and have been given a place in the dorms in complete accordance with the law," the press office said.
Rights works say that the situation in Orenburg is egregious. "This is unprecedented in Russia, that officials can say these kind of things about people with dark skin, without any kind of reason, saying they are all potential rapists," said Aleksandr Verkhovskii, head of a research center focused on xenophobia in Russia. "Unfortunately, it will be hard to hold them responsible for these kinds of remarks."
"We are always talking about multiculturalism, holding tolerance programs, but in reality very little changes," said Stefaniya Kulaeva. "This could happen in any city in Russia."
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