A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
Khusanjon, a 44-year-old labor migrant from Uzbekistan, was expecting a busy Sunday at the Khovansky construction market in southwest Moscow.
Instead, he and dozens of fellow Uzbeks were rounded up in a raid by OMON special forces on August 4, handed over to local police, and locked in a sweltering garage, where they were beaten and deprived of food.
Three days later, Khusanjon remained in detention. In a phone interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service from custody in Sherbinka, in the Moscow Oblast, he described the situation as increasingly desperate. He said one of his fellow migrants was suffering from head injuries after being beaten with batons by police.
"We haven't eaten for three days; we're lying on bare earth," Khusanjon said. "There are people here who need emergency medical care. They took us to several police departments and made us sign some kind of papers. One of the guys has been seriously injured, and his condition has gotten worse. They took him to get the wound sewn up. They beat us for no reason. There are 29 of us, and we've checked by the court. If they let us go, we're all going to buy tickets and leave for Uzbekistan."
Similar scenes are unfolding throughout Moscow and elsewhere in Russia in a week that has seen massive sweeps of city markets aimed at rooting out the country's illegal migrants.
Russia's Federal Migration Service has called for toughening the laws regulating the country's estimated 10 million migrants, many of whom are believed to be in Russia illegally.
Deportation proceedings have already begun for hundreds of migrants, a move that is likely to be welcomed by native Russians.
Recent polls by the country's VTsIOM research center indicate that three-fourths of Russians take a dim view of foreign workers, particularly darker-skinned non-Slavs.
But the current wave of "zachistki" -- or cleanup operations, as the market sweeps have been termed -- has sent panic through the Central Asian migrant community and families back home, many of whom are fully dependent on remittances from Russia for their survival.
Sofiya Faizulloev, a Tajik mother of two, says her husband has been held in Moscow's Golyanovo tent camp for nearly two weeks, since a police raid on the Moscow market where he worked as a seasonal laborer.
"We had to send him to work in Russia, because we live in a rented flat and we need money. We have two children who are always sick," Faizulloev says. "They detained him and promised to release him after 10 days. Today's the 11th day, but he's still in jail. I've begged him to come back and just find a job here in Tajikistan, but he says he can't because he's in prison."
Police have said all the Golyanovo detainees -- the majority of whom are Vietnamese -- are destined for deportation.
Allegations Of Extortion
A woman held in the camp told RFE/RL the detainees were suffering from extreme fluctuations in temperature and had been given very little food.
The recent raids were spurred by an incident in which two Daghestani market vendors severely beat a Moscow policeman. But activists say the zachistki are unfairly punishing any migrants, many of whom are regularly forced to pay hefty bribes to police in order to avoid arrest.
Many detainees say police are continuing to ask for money in exchange for food and simple necessities.
One Uzbek migrant told RFE/RL that the Sherbinka detainees were being asked to pay up to 15,000 rubles ($450) for bread and water.
Mahmud Karimov, a Tajik migrant who was briefly detained in late July in Mytishchi, a city just outside Moscow, says he was forced to pay $150 to secure his release. Back at the market, he speculates, the police are certain to ask for steeper and steeper bribes from the intimidated migrants that remain.
"The police told us, 'That's how you need to be dealt with -- we need to show you that we're still here,'" Karimov says. "We had been paying them 1,000, 1,500, 2,500 rubles before. Now they're asking 5,000."
Abuse And Squalor
Russia has taken a somewhat schizophrenic approach to the issue of labor migration -- courting Russian-speaking Central Asians as potential new citizens on the one hand, and on the other, publishing "migrant handbooks" depicting Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Kyrgyz as paintbrushes, brooms, and other tools of manual labor.
Migration authorities, however, argue that Russia is using the sweeps to rescue many migrants from squalor and abuse from slave-labor rings run by Central Asians themselves. (Such claims were made slightly more awkward for authorities this week when the Russian Interior Ministry on August 7 admitted that two high-ranking police officers and a Federal Migration Service employee had been implicated in a criminal slave-trafficking scheme.)
Anton Surnin, a spokesman for the Russian Interior Ministry in Novosibirsk, said an August 6 roundup of 400 Central Asians in the southwestern Siberian city, had included a number of young children living in filthy conditions.
"Among those delivered to the police were 12 minors who were being held in completely unsanitary conditions," Surnin said. "The children were living in improvised sheds and barns, in proximity to livestock. Currently, 10 of these children have been taken to various medical facilities in Novosibirsk, where they will receive social and medical assistance. After that, they'll be returned to their parents. But most likely that will happen as the parents are being deported from the Russian Federation."
'We Don't Have A Choice'
The threat of deportation hangs heavy over many Central Asians, who make up half of Russia's migrant work force, and face chronic unemployment and poverty at home.
In the short term, however, many may be relieved to escape the confines of Russia's makeshift deportation centers, where detainees say the conditions are rapidly getting worse.
"We eat rice, doshirak [instant noodles] every day," says one Kyrgyz woman. "On the first day, they gave us some buckwheat, but since then we've eaten only rice and noodles. They also provide bread and tea. That's it. We don't have a choice; we have to eat it."
Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting by Umid Bobomatov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Torokul Doorov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, and Normahmad Kholov and Ganjina Ganjova of RFE/RL's Tajik Service