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For Migrants in Russia, Shattered Dreams and Uncertain Futures

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Long before she became just one of the financially destitute legions of street sweepers that dot Moscow’s bitterly cold winter landscape, Shaknoza Ishankulova had simply wanted to do the right thing.

It was 2008, and the recent Uzbekistan National University graduate was ecstatic to secure a teaching post at a Tashkent high school, finally making good use of her diploma in secondary education.

Twenty-two years old and eager to guide younger Uzbeks toward a better life, she was shaken when Uzbekistan’s notoriously vast culture of entrenched corruption revealed itself in the form of a personal mentor and supervisor — a deputy principal at the school who notified her that, if she wished to keep her job, a full third of her weekly salary would have to be kicked back to him.

It was his cut, he explained, for having hired her in the first place.

Years passed before Shaknoza gathered the courage to broach the issue with the school’s principal, a suspiciously wealthy public servant who promptly dismissed the complaint as naively frivolous.

Taking her cue from the anti-corruption initiatives she had seen in Uzbekistan, marketed in the form of public service announcements since 2005, Shaknoza escalated her complaint to Russia’s Ministry of Education, and was summarily placed on paid leave pending further investigation. 

Two years and a cancer battle later, Shaknoza’s case had wound its way through ministry proceedings, leaving her fate in the hands of her employer, who summarily fired her, demanded reimbursement for the two years of salaried leave, and permanently blacklisted her from any professional employment.

Like many unemployed Uzbek nationals, Shaknoza was lured by Moscow’s abundance of service sector jobs that paid more than similar work in Tashkent. After spending nearly a year as a sweeper, she lucked out by landing a relatively well-paid waitressing job, only to lose the position when a Russian supervisor publicly castigated her for making conversation with foreign diners, an experience she attributed to the ethnic workplace discrimination many Uzbeks face in Russia.

Tall and slender with distinctly Asian facial features and straight shoulder-length hair, Shoksana, appearing older than her 34 years, is now a cashier and produce vendor at one of Moscow’s many 24-hour convenience stores.

Speaking with VOA on a frigid afternoon in Moscow, her bare hands balled in fists as she stood stock still in seemingly arctic gales, the former high school teacher said she has done reasonably well for herself when compared to fellow migrants sleeping 10 to a room on the city’s outskirts.

Making $37 per 24-hour shift, each of which is followed by 24 hours off, she said the salary is enough to share a two-room apartment with three other laborers: two Uzbek men and a woman, with whom she shares the bedroom.

After feeding and clothing herself, she says, she sends a small amount home to her mother.

“But it’s not enough to save anything,” she said, explaining that she lacks the resources to get ahead in Moscow and that, as a blacklisted whistleblower, any path back to Tashkent is surely a dead end.

Millions seek opportunity

By 2017, Russia was home to nearly 12 million migrants — the world’s third largest foreign-born population.

Much like in western European nations and the United States, the large numbers of immigrants have triggered unease, and a majority of Russians have become increasingly intolerant of the newcomers.

A 2018 survey by the Washington-based Pew Charitable Trust showed that nearly 70 percent of Russian nationals felt the country should allow fewer or no migrants in the future.

While many of the migrants from China, eastern Europe and the West possess a broad range of professional skill sets, the vast majority of Russia’s lowest-paid laborers hail from impoverished central Asian countries, of which Uzbeks are the largest group.

This makes them the most visible targets of anti-immigrant vitriol.

Some high-level Russian officials have relayed largely context-free statistics that they portray as an immigrant-fueled crime wave for which Uzbeks in particular are to blame.

“If you create a ranking of criminality, you will find citizens of Uzbekistan at the top,” Moscow chief prosecutor Sergei Kudeneyev told Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper in 2014. “They have committed 2,522 crimes; next is Tajikistan, with 1,745 crimes; and in third place there is Kyrgyzstan, whose citizens committed 1,269 crimes.”

“The unremitting crime rates among foreign citizens are causing serious concern, particularly since crimes of this nature draw a lot of public attention,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told a gathering of top security officials in 2016. During the televised statement, the president demanded a swift crackdown on foreign criminals.

Alexander Verkhovsky of SOVA, the Center for Information and Analysis, a think tank in Moscow, questioned the veracity and transparency of these datasets.

“Any statistics on working migrants are very blurry,” he said. “While there are police crime statistics — or at least crime documentation — that may indicate a given perpetrator’s country of origin, that specific data is never published in full.

“In general, data on crimes is organized by categories of crime, and even whether these crimes may have been committed by or against a foreigner,” he said. But by the time police records are internally digested into statistics and prepared for public presentation via the prosecutor’s office, hard data about specific countries of origin has been scrubbed.

“You never get to see the complete data,” he said.

A 2016 report by Columbia University’s Eurasia.org news site suggests migrants who have committed crimes may have acted in response to a series of new Russian laws that drastically increased living costs.

Migrant work permit requirements unveiled in 2015 required applicants to “undergo a battery of tests for HIV, tuberculosis, drug addiction and skin diseases.” Permit holders, the report says, were also required to purchase health insurance, acquire taxpayer identification numbers, and be tested on Russian language, history and laws.

Failure to satisfy requirements within a month of arriving in Russia subjected migrants to a $152 fine.

“Once migrants have jumped through all the hoops, they must pay 14.5 thousand rubles ($219) for their work permit and another four thousand rubles ($61) every month to renew the document,” the report says. “All told, this costs almost $1,000 per year.”

A December 2018 SOVA report on hate crimes that was compiled from official statistics and field research said although attacks targeting foreigners are decreasing, ethnic migrants are among the most vulnerable to violent attacks on Russian soil.

“People perceived as ethnic outsiders constituted the largest group of victims in 2017,” says the report, which recorded 28 ethnically motivated attacks, down from 44 attacks (7 fatal) in 2016.

“Migrants from Central Asia were the most numerous group in this category of victims … followed by individuals of unidentified non-Slavic appearance,” the report states. “Most likely, the overwhelming majority of these people were also from Central Asia, since their appearance was described as Asian.”

Foreigners targeted

All of the migrants VOA spoke with mentioned that they had been intimidated by racists or nationalists, swindled into weeks of free labor by dishonest employers, or were the victims of robbery.

Oibek Usupov, a construction worker from Tashkent, recounted the time he and his brother accepted jobs at an apartment development, wherein the employer required them to sign contracts to work throughout the winter. They received a small advance up front, followed by a handful of paychecks well below what they were promised.

Once the units began selling, the developer said, they would be reimbursed in full. Then payments stopped and, a week before spring, it was announced the project had been bought out by another developer.

The new boss, Usupov told us, said prior contracts weren’t binding because his company hadn’t authorized them.

“We lost months of back pay,” he said.

Adkham Enamov, an Uzbek artist who lives an hour north of Moscow, says he became stranded in Russia after intermediaries who sold his paintings at a famous Moscow arts bazaar disappeared with the profits.

“At the time, my dream was to see Moscow, to sell my paintings in Russia, but I didn’t know that half of Moscow are artists,” he said. “So my current dream is to see my motherland, to return in good health.”

Emanov, 46, who speaks very little Russian, has a 16-year-old son with cerebral palsy. His purpose in Moscow was to cover the medical expenses stacking up in Tashkent.

And then in early 2018, tragedy struck when his 4-year-old daughter, Nama, died from an undiagnosed illness.

“She was buried without me due to the Muslim tradition,” he said, referring to the Sharia ritual of washing and burying the dead within 24 hours of passing. “Well, I sent some money there. Not much.”

After a long, reflective pause, he added, “I should come back being quite rich, but my dream didn’t come true.”

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