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Russia: Xenophobia and vulnerability of migrants from Central Asia

Article by Daniil Kislov and Ernest Zhanaev

December 4, 2017

Russia: Xenophobia and vulnerability of migrants from Central Asia

The continuous migration to Russia from Central Asia proves the mutual interdependence between the Russian labour market and migrant workers from former Soviet Union Republics due to the agreement between the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries on free movement. Recent migration levels in 2012-2016 replenished the loss of the Russian working age population (16-54 years old for female, 16-59 years old for male), which is about 15% annually and fell to 83.7 million people in 2016, while the net migration figure from other CIS countries to Russia in 2016 was 235,300 compared with 268,400 in 2012, with 8.2 million migrants at the end of 2016 in total for the period[1]. Simultaneously, there has been an increasingly xenophobic mood among the general public in the big cities of Russia. Since city elections in Moscow in 2013, in particular, tensions between ordinary citizens and labour migrants have resulted in daily abuse and harassment, which sharply rose after the suicide terror attack in St Petersburg metro in April 2013.


Public attitudes are just another hardship that migrants are challenged with. In early 2017 the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Olga Golodets accused migrants of undermining development in Russia, having ‘low qualifications and being a burden for social services with their families needing education and care,’ with a ‘negative surplus’ for the economy, and called on employers to refuse cheap and unqualified labour in favour of highly productive labour[2]. Another criticism against migrants is the fact that jobs are not always available, and some of them remain unemployed for a while until they find stable work.


It is also not always the case that rule of law and international obligations are observed when federal legislation is drafted or administrative procedures are enforced by migration, police, or judicial authorities. Administrative offences breaching migration law are strictly punishable by deportation, and it is also a direct consequence of contradictions between the federal legislation, by-laws, and its enforcement, which creates a wide range of opportunities for abuse. The only ‘guarantee’ for economic migrants to secure their presence in Russia is a bribe. The report prepared by the Grajdanskoe Sodeistvie Committee (Civic Assistance) in 2016 revealed massive abuses of labour rights of foreign migrants admitted jointly by the migration, judicial and police authorities[3]. Probably, it is a coincidence that since April 2016 migration authorities are now a part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which also includes the police and drug control department[4], so they are now integrated and part of each other officially.


Moreover, Russia still remains an unwelcoming place for asylum seekers. Those people, who were denied asylum by the authorities outside Moscow are deported along with their families according to the decision of the court based on administrative violations of the immigration law[5]. At the same time, while local migration services may also send notifications about the asylum seeker’s appeals that are not satisfied by the next level judicial authority, in fact often no legal procedures are observed, even formally, indicating a total ignorance of the law by local officials in respect of labour/economic migrants. The law on refugees is not applied at all, though the applicants clearly claimed asylum. Therefore, the number of deported asylum seekers is not reflected in the migration authority statistics. Officially, there were only 598 refugees in Russia in 2016[6], and 99% of the 228,392 people given ‘temporary asylum’ were citizens of Ukraine, while detailed and updated statistics are not publicly available. For those given ‘temporary asylum’ the government is not responsible for all matters, including employment, education, housing, and other financial assistance. In 2016, only 39 asylum seekers were granted refugee status in Russia which is a statistical record since 2007, when this data started to be tracked[7].


Public opinion is dominated by xenophobia and false statements about labour/economic migrants from former Soviet republics with claims that they are more involved in criminal activity than citizens of Russia during municipal elections in Moscow. The Levada-Centre revealed about half of the surveyed population believes in violent conflicts based on ethnic grounds, while around a third of respondents stated that ‘residence in Russia for natives of Caucasus and Central Asia must be limited’, while only a quarter of the survey participants insist that ‘no measure of restriction should be imposed on residents who are foreign born’[8]. WCIOM made similar findings in a 2017 survey among Russians on immigrants coming to Russia, revealing that a third of the respondents would welcome ‘restriction of the federal procedure on residence in Russia for migrants from CIS countries,’ while the same proportion also ‘would agree not to change the procedure,’ with only around one fifth of those surveyed saying they ‘would simplify the procedure.’[9] WCIOM previously revealed in 2013 that three quarters of their respondents ‘think that a large number of migrants from other countries is a negative phenomenon’ with half of the interviewees agreeing with ‘tightening immigration legislation’[10].


At the end 2016, the findings published by WCIOM were even worse, more than half of respondents thought that ‘there are a lot of or too many migrants in their area,’ with 81% believing that it is more profitable for employers to hire migrants than local people, as well as 71% thinking that their own salaries are restricted by migrants agreeing to accept lower salaries, creating wage competition[11]. And, moreover, 78% would prefer limiting the flow of migrants into Russia, and 57% are not interested in the culture and traditions of migrants, with 29% of respondents saying they would limit a friendship of their child with children of foreign migrants by all means necessary[12].


Statistical data, at the same time, shows a different picture. The proportion of crime committed by migrant workers from former Soviet Union republics comprises 3.2% of all crimes registered in 2016, while this level, at the same time, is 8.5% lower than in 2015[13].


Despite this depressing picture some positive steps have been undertaken such as by introducing migration centres in former Soviet countries, such as Uzbekistan. Three centres have been officially opened in Tashkent based on the agreement between the governments of Russia and Uzbekistan. The centres will test applicants for knowledge of Russian, history and the basis of the legislation and maintain an electronic database[14]. Another centre supported by the municipal authorities of St Petersburg in Samarkand will provide services for those wishing to work in Leningrad oblast for half the cost than if they arrived directly at St Petersburg, collecting the necessary documents and making job applications before they travel to Russia[15]. But such examples of progress are rare, despite the opportunities for creating pathways for foreign employment in a more organised manner and reducing opportunities for corruption in this process.


The increasing military and economic presence of Russia in Central Asia drives the governments of former Soviet states towards deeper integration[16], which reflects not only increasing Russian investment in its former counterparts and favouring their labour migrants working on its territory without obstacles. It also deepens the more uncompromising cooperation in law enforcement, which is helping the governments of Central Asia to sustain their regimes through the persecution of opposition and all those citizens who express dissent. However, Russian interests in the regions have not collided with Chinese business due to Russia being more involved with military and strategic cooperation with the region, while China is represented by business interests and a revival of the Silk Road strategy entitled ‘One Belt, One Road’[17].


The case of Ashyrbai Bekiyev shows how strongly the law enforcement, prosecution and judicial authorities of Russia favour extradition requests of the governments of Central Asia[18] despite clear contradiction with Russia’s international obligations, violating the rights of individuals to be protected from torture. However, it is the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that prevents tragedies[19], and while the Russian government allowed itself to deny the decisions of the international courts, including ECtHR, it still observes the regulations in their entirety[20].


Ashyrbai Bekiyev left Turkmenistan in 2009 and lived in St. Petersburg together with his family (wife and five children). In 2015, the Ministry of National Security of Turkmenistan started criminal proceedings against him according to clause 1 of Article 177 (‘Raising Social, National or Religious Enmity’) of the Criminal Code which provides up to three years in prison as a punishment[21]. The prosecution authorities of Russia ordered the extradition of Ashyrbai Bekiyev according to the procedures stipulated by the Minsk Convention which the CIS countries signed on 22 January 1993, and he was detained on 22 May 2016[22]. He was held in a pre-trial detention centre in St. Petersburg until his release on 19 May 2017, when his defence insisted that the charges against him do not have a serious justification and are based on speculation and rumours.


Despite the FSB document certifying Bekiyev is a law-abiding resident of Russia, the accusation against him in Turkmenistan is based on assumptions about his alleged involvement in terrorist activities in Russia.


Although the trial hearings at all levels decided not to satisfy complaints about the process made by Bekiyev, it was Rule 39 of the ECtHR Rules (interim measures suspending extradition) that stopped the extradition procedure, while the lawyers stressed the insufficiency of the ‘diplomatic guarantees’ not to violate the human rights of the detainee presented by the Turkmen side[23]. Bekiyev was released from detention in St Petersburg, though the risk of being caught again at the request of the Turkmen government remains high as long as no final decision on the destiny of Bekiyev in Russia has been reached yet[24].


Other notable cases showing the efficiency and importance of Rule 39 to prevent ill-treatment include G. Saliyev vs Russia[25], or B. Mamashev and M. Kadirzhanov vs Russia[26], all of them wanted by Kyrgyzstan, but blocked by the ECtHR due to the practice of torture which is widespread in law enforcement authorities (especially against ethnic Uzbeks in the aftermath of the June 2010 violence).


The terrorist attack in St Petersburg in April 2017 again shocked the public in Russia and caused another strong wave of pressure against migrants from Central Asia, which resulted in mass deportations without the legal opportunity for the deportees to appeal the decision of the authorities who were to a certain extent acting randomly. Such actions by authorities have already been marked as random and tough previously by the report of human rights defenders[27].


The case of Ali Feruz (Hudoberdi Nurmatov), a Novaya Gazeta journalist in Russia, is another remarkable example of how the Russian authorities ignore their international obligations along with the provisions of their own national laws. Though, Ali Feruz was born in Russia, he worked as a journalist in Uzbekistan and a citizen of that country, but was forced to leave the Central Asian country due of the pressure imposed by the security services. He applied for asylum in Russia because he lost his passport, but when his application was denied he was detained by the migration authorities ahead of proposed deportation to Uzbekistan.


Ali Feruz appealed[28] the initial rejection of application for asylum and was freed in May 2017. However, the Russian police confined him again on 1stAugust 2017 and on the same day the Basmanny District Court of Moscow decided to deport the journalist on the grounds of violation migration law due to his stay in Russia, which his lawyers have slammed as completely unlawful. Despite the verdict of the Moscow City Court on 8th August confirming the need to comply with the ECtHR Rule 39 interim measure suspending his deportation, he remains confined in the detention centre awaiting deportation.[29]


If his is deported back to Uzbekistan he faces persecution and punishment for his activity as a journalist and for his sexual orientation. Moreover, a diplomat from a European country requested the Russian authorities legalise Ali Feruz (which would mean to give him a travel document) so that they could provide him with asylum, but the Russian migration authorities have so far prevented such an action[30].


A fact that one suspect in the St Petersburg terror attack case, Akram Azimov, was detained by the special services in Kyrgyzstan, and then ‘captured’ again in Russia as he had been walking in a nearby Moscow village did not cause any disturbances among the leading human rights organisations in Russia.[31] Even in Kyrgyzstan, where human rights defenders are more independent than anywhere else in Central Asia, they are very cautious about allegations of kidnapping and staging the arrest of the suspect. It shows how the special services in Kyrgyzstan are growing aggressive towards the human rights community, but are still dependent on the almighty FSB at the same time. There is nothing about rule of law or observing international obligations in protecting human rights and freedoms in either country.


The media spread a video of his apprehension by FSB officers, showing how he had been taken away from a private clinic by the GKNB (State Committee for National Security) of Kyrgyzstan. This was reported in a letter of the head physician of the Hosiyat clinic Zina Karimova and the physician Sanjarbek Tokhtashev, who had been administering Azimov’s treatment of his acute sinusitis, according to reports by the Rosbizneskonsalting (RBC) on 21 April[32]. According to the mother of Akram Vazira Mirzaakhmedova, her son did not have a passport and money for the ticket during the hospitalisation and he could not fly to Moscow independently.


The GKNB refused to comment to the RBC about the letter from the Hosiyat clinic, and the official representative of the Committee Rakhat Sulaimanov said: ‘All questions go to the Investigative Committee of Russia and to the FSB. Do not call us on this issue.’ RBC sent inquiries to the Investigative Committee of Russia (SKR) and the FSB.


Other brutal operations undertaken by the FSB in capturing terror suspects led to the deaths of some of them[33]. However, the public accepted this brutality as a sign of the government’s fervour to protect civilians in Russia and only increased xenophobic attacks against migrants, which were supported by the major mass media and politicians in Russia. There are reports about terror suspects, such as the Azimov brothers mentioned above, being subjected to torture in secret prisons in Russia before being shown on TV as apprehended and pressured during the further investigation and interrogations. This raises serious concern about the continuous inability of the law enforcement authorities of Russia to treat foreign citizens of Central Asia fairly and impartially during the fulfilment of their duties[34].


The logic of how labour migrants become extremist is explained quite frankly by local experts in Russia. The President of the ‘Religion and Society’ Information and Analytical Centre Aleksei Grishin described how newcomers are radicalised in a sophisticated (more criminal-like) way by radicals residing in Russia, inventing a variety of approaches to frame financially and legally vulnerable people and render them ‘assistants’, when they are ‘captured’ by fake police officers. Only after that these ‘groups extort them to join their closed community of most devoted believers’[35]. These radicals, the experts believe, came from state persecution in the early 2000s from Central Asia to Russia. This is how easily the recent radicalism in Russia can be explained.


Usually discussions about the reasons for radical extremism in Russia are complete with the naming of globally known foreign organisations like Al-Qaeda or ISIS. Although the statement above made by the experts shows no roots or analysis of radical extremism by any foreign or local organisation, it is telling of an already existing mechanism of recruitment and consequences appearing in the news, or at least, that is the situation as it is seen by these local experts.


It seems that the issue has not been examined deeply or thoroughly by anyone yet. If there is any high quality reporting or analysis done, for example, by the security services, it remains unavailable to a wider audience. In the end, it seems the people responsible for the radicalisation of labour migrants and Russian-born citizens have been found. They are, actually, migrants from Central Asia too, just those who had arrived in Russia earlier. Given that it is the only ‘substantiated’ interpretation of the situation in Russia other than those speculations, far from reasonable analysis, proclaimed by the mass media on a regular basis.



Surveys that studied xenophobic trends among the population in Russia revealed mostly a negative attitude towards labour migrants coming into the country. And it is not the people that must be singled out, but the government that has control over the media promoting and increasing hatred for any difference: ethnic, religious or sexual. Labour migrants in low-paid jobs associated with customer services, street cleaning or construction are more visible and easily targeted as the main reason for government economic, security or political failures.


It is the authorities of Russia that deny any guarantees of fundamental human rights for migrants, substituting them with the introduction of legal acts that promote abuse of the federal legislation, whether for political gains or corruption, thus ignoring international obligations and rule of law. A federal norm able to overturn any judicial ruling compliant with international law only increases impunity at local levels. It calls for ignorance and undermines any achievement made by Russia after the Soviet era.


‘Identifying behaviours universal to all humans from cultural and idiosyncratically personal to a particular individual in a specific situation’[36] is a factor of the culturally intelligent leader championing diversity and sustainable development. It is the duty of the government, civil society and international community leaders to promote cultural intelligence as a way of celebrating difference. Accommodating and integrating migrants is in the interests of society and it is common sense for survival of the state responsible for the prosperity and wealth of the people, both hosting and joining. While respect and promotion of fundamental human rights guarantees for individuals, who find themselves on the territory of the Russian Federation as labour migrants, asylum seekers or victims of human trafficking, is essential not only for a constructive dialogue between the Kremlin and the international community, but also and more importantly, for the Russian community itself.


[1] Российская экономика в 2016 году. Тенденции и перспективы, Выпуск 38, Институт экономической политики им Е.Т. Гайдара, 19 апреля 2017 года,

[2] Голодец обвинила гастарбайтеров в демотивации развития в РФ, Интерфакс, 12 января 2017 года,

[3] Константин Троицкий, «Административные выдворения из России: судебное разбирательство или массовое изгнание?», «Гражданское содействие», 2016,

[4] Указ Президента Российской Федерации от 05.04.2016 г. № 156,

[5] Константин Троицкий, «Административные выдворения из России: судебное разбирательство или массовое изгнание?», «Гражданское содействие», 2016,

[6] 39 признанных беженцев в 2016 году. Российские антирекорды и почему Мальта сильнее России, Комитет “Гражданское содействие”,

[7] 39 признанных беженцев в 2016 году. Российские антирекорды и почему Мальта сильнее России, Комитет “Гражданское содействие”,

[8] Ксенофобские и националистические настроения среди россиян: данные репрезентативных опросов 2002-2015 гг., Левада-Центр, 25 августа 2015 года,

[9] Иммигранты из стран СНГ в Россию: любим, но … Не ждем!, ВЦИОМ, 10 февраля 2017 года,

[10] «Добро пожаловать» – или «посторонним вход воспрещен»?, ВЦИОМ, 07 августа 2013 года, Пресс-выпуск №2366,

[11] Мигранты в России: эффекты присутствия, ВЦИОМ, Пресс-выпуск № 3254б 29 ноября 2016 года,

[12] Мигранты в России: эффекты присутствия, ВЦИОМ, Пресс-выпуск № 3254б 29 ноября 2016 года,

[13] Состояние преступности январь – декабрь 2016 года, Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russian Federation https://xn--b1aew.xn--p1ai/upload/site1/document_news/009/338/947/sb_1612.pdf

[14] Узбекистан: В Ташкенте создаются три центра по тестированию трудовых мигрантов, ИА Фергана, 26 июня 2017 года,

[15] В Самарканде будет создан российский центр по организованному набору трудовых мигрантов, Новости Узбекистана, 20 июня 2017 года,

[16] Россия усиливает военные базы в Таджикистане и Киргизии, 7 июня 2017 года, РИА Новости,

[17] Central Asia’s Silk Road Rivalries, International Crisis Group, 27 July 2017,

[18] Fergana News Agency, European Court of Human Rights suspends extradition of Turkmen citizen from Russia, May 2017,

[19] Fergana News Agency, Russia Turkmen citizen released from detention thanks to ECHR intervention, May 2017,

[20] Путин подписал закон, разрешающий КС признавать неисполнимыми решения ЕСПЧ, 15 декабря 2015 года, ТАСС,

[21] Дело Ашырбая Бекиева: Европейский суд по правам человека приостановил экстрадицию в Туркменистан, 18 мая 2017 г.,

[22] Commonwealth of Independent States, (Yelena Burova English Translation), Minsk Convention on Legal Assistance and Legal Relations in Civil, Family and Criminal Matters, via CIS, January 1993,

[23] European Court of Human Rights, Interim Measures,

[24] The information about Ashyrbai Bekiyev is actual as of 19 May 2017.

[25] ECHtR, CASE OF GAYRATBEK SALIYEV v. RUSSIA, no. 39093/13, ECtHR (First Section), Judgment (Merits and Just Satisfaction) of 17.04.2014, via Eurocases, April 2014,

[26] ECHtR, CASE OF KADIRZHANOV AND MAMASHEV v. RUSSIA, no. 42351/13, ECtHR (First Section), Judgment (Merits and Just Satisfaction) of 17.07.2014, July 2014,

[27] Константин Троицкий, «Административные выдворения из России: судебное разбирательство или массовое изгнание?», «Гражданское содействие», 2016,

[28] The information about Ali Feruz is actual as of 08 August 2017.

[29] Moscow city court suspends deportation of Novaya Gazeta journalist, Fergana News Agency, 08 August 2017,

[30] Журналист «Новой газеты»: «Я застрелюсь, но не поеду в Узбекистан», Открытая Россия, 1 июня 2017 года,

[31]Maryse Godden, Prepped to Kill?, April 2017, The Sun,

[32] В Киргизии опровергли версию ФСБ о задержании фигуранта дела о теракте, РБК, 21 апреля 2017 года,

[33] Террористы сбежали от ФСБ, 20 апреля 2017 года,

[34] Илья Рождественский, Поиски «секретной тюрьмы» ФСБ, Republic,

[35] Ekaterina Ivashchenko, Russia, Central Asia, migrants. Where and how extremism threatens? Fergana News Agency, 25 May 2017,

[36] Van Dyne, L., Ang, S., & Livermore, D. (in press). 2009, Cultural intelligence: A pathway for leading in a rapidly globalizing world. In K.M. Hannum. B. McFeeters, & L. Booysen (Eds.), Leadership across differences: Cases and perspectives. San Francisco, CQ: Pfeiffer.

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