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Russia: new rules hit foreign workers

A police officer escorts a non-Russian trader from a Moscow market. Photo credit: reuters
A police officer escorts a non-Russian trader from a Moscow market
Russia has a serious illegal immigration problem. Officials estimate there are 10-12 million foreign workers in Russia, of whom seven million or more are thought to have no formal residence or employment permit.

Few doubt the need to establish more efficient border and migration controls, however, the tone of some official pronouncements leads many commentators to ask, instead, whether the authorities are merely pandering to widespread popular racism.

"Ethnic enclaves"

Late last year, the Russian government announced stringent restrictions on migrant labour. Meanwhile, an official from Russia's Federal Migration Service said his country mustn't allow the emergence of "ethnic enclaves". Non-Russians, he said, should "account for no more than 20% of people living in Russia". He later backtracked, insisting his remarks had been "misinterpreted".

Officials insist there are Russians who will eventually replace migrant workers
Migrant workers often do difficult, dangerous and dirty jobs. They may live in wretched conditions, suffer abuse at the hands of officials, police or violent skinheads, have little access to healthcare and almost no right of redress. Yet they provide a financial lifeline for millions of families living in the poor
countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

In recent years, various options for dealing with the millions of illegal immigrants have been considered. These included a one-off amnesty, something ultimately rejected as being too politically and socially "provocative". After race riots in the northern town of Kondopoga last summer, the authorities chose to adopt much tougher tactics. President Putin, who has repeatedly warned of the scourge of racism and racist
violence, called for action to "protect the interests of the native population".

A quota on permits

For the first time, a quota on the number of people who may apply for work permits in Russia has been established. Six million people will be admitted from countries that have agreed visa-free regimes with Russia, along with a much smaller number from countries whose citizens still require visas.

This is not all. Foreigners are also being gradually banned from working as traders in outdoor markets. Along with building sites and farms, this has been one of the most important sources of employment for them. Furthermore, they will be banned completely from selling alcoholic drinks and pharmaceutical goods.

Many would-be migrant workers say Russia's labyrinthine bureaucracy makes it almost impossible to obtain formal permission to live and work in the country.

Millions of ordinary Russians have depended on outdoor markets for cheap food and consumer goods. Prices in the shops are often at Western levels - yet the average salary in Russia is less than US$5,000 per annum.

Russian television showed rows and rows of empty market stalls across the country in the days after the new regulations came into force. Nonetheless, officials insist there are Russians who will eventually replace migrant

Steven Eke is an analyst of the former Soviet Union, working for the Europe region of BBC World Service

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