Russia has adopted new registration rules impacting millions of foreigners working in the country – executives and hard-up migrants alike.
All foreigners visiting Russia have long been required to register their stay with local authorities. More recently, foreign workers could register with their work address. The new rules – which came into force on July 8 – require foreigners to register where they live. The catch is that many landlords, seeking to dodge taxes and protect themselves from vague immigration laws, often refuse to allow tenants to register.
For wealthier workers, the new rule poses yet another surmountable, if not annoying, bureaucratic hurdle. For the poorest, however, it will make them more vulnerable to police harassment, rights activists say, while costing them more in fees. The law could also cost the Russian budget.
According to the United Nations, almost 12 million foreigners live and work in Russia, making the country one of the top migrant destinations globally. Of those, about 8 million are thought to have legal status; migration authorities have said millions more lack proper papers. Most are economic migrants hailing from impoverished post-Soviet countries. And the confusion following any change in regulations, activists say, offers police new opportunities to shake down migrants. In cities like Moscow, it’s common to see police stopping people with Asian features to ask for their documents.
“The law will most likely trigger a wave of police raids to identify migrants, and there is little doubt that such raids would include extortion and other police abuses,” said Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch.
The new law leaves migrants “prey to unscrupulous police officers. The majority of migrants have not yet fully realized the degree of influence these changes have on their lives. And those who understand this law are against it,” Batyrzhon Shermatov, a migration lawyer in Moscow, told Eurasianet.
One undocumented migrant, 26-year-old Manu from northern Tajikistan, said the law has had immediate consequences for him and his compatriots.
After the new regulation came into effect, Manu asked his landlord to register him in his apartment. The landlord “said it would be no problem, but told me to pay an extra 3,000 rubles [about $50] every three months,” said Manu, who declined to give his last name out of fear of reprisal from authorities.
The registration process is a lucrative business, observed Anna Rocheva of the Migration and Ethnicity Research Group, a government-funded research outlet in Moscow. Even before the latest change in regulations, ambiguity bred an industry for middlemen.
Manu – who works odd jobs, mainly delivering food to markets around Moscow – must now procure a proper work permit. Manu’s existing permit is essentially fake: He purchased it through a company that specializes in creating illicit work permits to help deter police shakedowns – but the permits are not registered with migration authorities. Third-party outfits issue these documents based on fake contracts. “They take the cash and don't record it anywhere. The migration agency doesn't know you’re working,” he explained, adding that many of his friends have such dubious documentation. Moreover, since they are not registered with the migration service, the workers pay no income tax and their employers do not pay required taxes.
Under the new rules, which Novaya Gazeta has reported apply to all foreigners already in Russia, the burden falls on both employer and employee: Employers face fines of up to 50,000 rubles (about $800) per unregistered employee or 400,000 rubles for falsifying registration documents.
Tatyana Kotlyar, a human rights lawyer and activist in Kaluga Oblast southwest of Moscow, has long advocated for a mechanism to enable migrants to register legally. She has been charged and found guilty numerous times for registering thousands of Ukrainian refugees in her apartment. “People who come to me don’t have the opportunity to register. If they do, I explain to them how to do it,” she told Eurasianet. But if they don’t, she registers them in her own home, a practice known as creating a “rubber apartment.”
Though the new law is supposed to force migrants out of the shadows in an effort to make them pay taxes, it might end up costing the state, believes Valentina Chupik, a migration lawyer in Moscow. Facing the cost of registration, more migrants will likely go underground, she reasons. The new regulations “will turn legal laborers into illegal laborers. That doesn’t mean that there will be fewer migrants, there will be just less money going into government budgets from the migrants. There will be more bribes and discrimination.”
Migrants in Russian cities often find support in thriving diaspora communities, which provide critical financial assistance to their homelands. In 2017, remittances totaled the equivalent of approximately 36.6 percent of Tajikistan's GDP and 30 percent of Kyrgyzstan's, according to the World Bank. Those two countries top the list of global economies relying on remittances. Anything that threatens these remittances can have a dramatic impact on Central Asian economies.
“This law has put millions of people into an illegal position overnight. We expect enforcement to increase after the World Cup,” Natalia Gontsova of the Civic Assistance Committee, a nonprofit legal support group for foreigners in Moscow, told Eurasianet.
For Manu and his friends from Central Asia, anxiety remains.
“You are walking around always nervously thinking you could get stopped and if you don't have any money, the police will ask you to call some friends and [have them] bring money,” he says. "For [us] living in Moscow is no dream anymore; it's about working to send some money back home.”
Nicholas Muller is an American photojournalist and writer covering the post-Soviet space.