Migrant workers have always been a convenient instrument of manipulation. When society is in an uproar, particularly after a crime has been committed by a foreigner, officials take their cue from nationalists and assign collective responsibility to all migrants without exception in order to maintain their authority in the eyes of the electorate. This was the case in 2013, when a scuffle between police officers and vendors from Dagestan at Matveevksy Market in Moscow on the eve of the mayoral election provoked mass police raids against migrants throughout Russia. The same thing happened that same year in Biryulyovo, when a wave of pogroms and violence against migrants swept through a market after a migrant from Azerbaijan killed a local resident. After the pogroms, the police did not bother to punish the instigators and instead conducted anti-migrant raids, which resulted in the detention of over 1,000 people.
The most recent example to stir up public opinion took place in Yakutia when pogroms were launched against produce kiosks, snack bars, and stalls at markets where migrants worked after Kyrgyz migrants committed acts of violence against a local woman. There were also reports that a crowd of Yakutsk residents beat the driver of a minibus, and video clips of people degrading migrants appeared on social media. In an especially shocking clip, a local resident leads a migrant along the street at gunpoint as the migrant shakes with fear and begs for mercy. Yakutia’s journalists immediately seized on this topic and began producing publications about the violation of sanitary norms at restaurants employing migrants, police raids typically referred to as the “operational preventive measure ‘Illegal Migrant,’” and so forth.
Even though the alleged criminals were arrested and a criminal case was opened against one under articles for rape and kidnapping and against the other two under the article “conspiracy by a group of persons to commit illegal deprivation of freedom,” Yakutia’s leader Aisen Nikolaev promised to “establish order” and, without much thought, ordered the police to carry out a comprehensive campaign against “illegals.” He also banned migrants from working under licenses in 33 different spheres of economic activity, including wholesale and retail trade, education, public transportation, manufacturing, and many other areas. In reality, though, this ban does not apply to Kyrgyz citizens, as many think, but only to citizens of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and other “visa-free” countries that are not members of the Eurasian Economic Union.
There are no real grounds for this ban, whose official goal is “to protect the regional labor market.” However, in 2017, only 6,788 migrants in Yakutia accounting for a total of 1.2 percent of the republic’s workforce were issued licenses. But the rhetoric of Aisen Nikolaev and Yakutsk mayor Sardana Avkseneva cannot be called anything other than populist and xenophobic. Instead of preventing pogroms and calling on aggressively-inclined local residents to ignore the ethnicity of the suspects, the republic’s leaders gathered thousands together at protests and called on them to show “who’s the real boss in their hometown.” In fear of their safety, hundreds of citizens from Central Asian countries disappeared from the streets, electing to stay home or leave Yakutia entirely. Threats from local residents have not let up and anti-migrant raids continue as police officers are check merchants, cafés, and restaurants and detain migrants on the streets. And people who have been detained for violations of migration law are being expelled to their homelands without delay.
Using a cruel crime as grounds, the local authorities decided to squeeze several thousand foreigners with no relationship whatsoever to either the crime or the criminals’ country of origin out of the economy. At the same time, the rights of both foreign workers, who lost their jobs, time, and money, and employers, who had three months to find replacements for the migrants, were violated. Will employers be able to find “locals” seeking low-paying positions with poor working conditions at markets and construction sites in a region with a population of less than one million? It is entirely possible that some companies currently employing migrants will close. In addition, Yakutia will lose the money it makes on work licenses (360–370 million rubles in 2018 alone). Restrictions on jobs for license holders in Yakutia have already been introduced. Fourteen types of work were banned in 2017 and another 20 were banned in 2018, when positions in the mining, construction, and passenger transportation industries fell under the bans, which were attributed to unemployment among the local population.
The decisions taken by authorities in Yakutia hew to the demands of society and demonstrate that the Russian government treats migrants as a homogenous, faceless mass and not as normal people. These actions also match the spirit of the recently-adopted Roadmap for State Migration Policy, which. while recognizing the need “to improve the legal, organizational, and other mechanisms regulating foreign citizens’ entry into the Russian Federation and temporary residence on its territory,” also lists migration as a factor of negative socioeconomic processes presenting a threat to Russia, as if intentionally shifting the focus towards a distaste for migrants.
In Russia, and particularly in the regions outside of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, where the majority of people are not satisfied with their quality of life, it is relatively easy to drive the “masses” to displaced aggression towards “others.” In this sense, xenophobia reinforced by the authorities’ assent is becoming a serious threat not just to the exercise of migrants’ rights and freedoms, but also to the country’s security and harmonious development. Authorized xenophobia towards “distant foreigners” arouses enmity towards “closer foreigners,” and then forces people to seek “foreigners” among their own.
First published on the Radio Svoboda blog
Photo – Tamara Iva / Shutterstock.com