There are as many as 12 million migrant laborers in Russia. Only 2 million work in the country legally.
MOSCOW -- Bek Takhirov knows all too well the problems that migrant workers face.
The 38-year-old ethnic Uzbek came to Russia in 2004 and worked illegally, stacking cargo in a warehouse for alcoholic beverages. Two years ago, he completed a lengthy application for Russian citizenship in order to step out of the shadows. He now works legally in St. Petersburg as a translator by day and moonlights as a security guard by night.
He also uses his experience to help newly arrived migrants from his homeland navigate Russia's increasingly difficult labor market.
"Every year it becomes harder," Takhirov says. "It used to be easy to find work quickly -- you didn't need any documents or anything. But nowadays you fill out all the documents and then they still deceive you and throw you out all the same. There is so much deceit everywhere."
That deceit includes things like nonpayment of wages, exorbitant bribes to obtain work permits, and arbitrary detentions by police.
It is due to such conditions that only 2 million of Russia's estimated 10 million to 12 million migrant laborers, most of them from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, work in the country legally. The rest subsist in the shadow economy.
Russia's policy toward migrant laborers is plagued by contradictions, analysts say. On one hand, the Kremlin would like to reap tax revenues that legalizing foreign workers would bring. The authorities also realize that migrants are needed to plug gaps in Russia's workforce due to an aging population.
But persistent anti-immigrant sentiments, poor enforcement of existing regulations, and a thriving shadow economy that counts on illegal workers have conspired to make it harder for migrants to legalize themselves.
Vasily Kravtsov, of the Moscow-based Center for 21st Century Migration, says the obstacles for migrants are only getting worse.
"Unfortunately, everything is being done to obstruct people who want to work legally, to resettle in Russia or receive citizenship -- this is particularly the case in the last two years," Kravtsov says.
Kravtsov was among the authors of a new Kremlin policy paper on migration that was unveiled in June. The paper recognized migration as a positive factor in the Russian economy, recommended that the authorities ease barriers to foreign laborers entering the workforce, and called for steps that would help integrate migrants into Russian society.
Words And Action
The Kremlin formally endorsed the concept outlined in the paper, which is intended as a policy blueprint through 2025 and lays out priorities such as promoting immigration. But, as Kravtsov notes, in practice this is not happening.
"The [state migration concept] was interesting, innovative and relevant, but what does it matter if they adopted it, if unfortunately nothing is changing?" Kravtsov says. "I for one don't see any change. Have we seen a rise in legal migration or has it become easier for migrants to become citizens and integrate with society? No, we haven't. It begs the question: what is this concept for?"
Moreover, the political rhetoric from President Vladimir Putin on down directly contradicts the spirit of the policy the Kremlin claims to endorse. During his presidential campaign last year, Putin pledged to tighten up laws requiring migrants to register with the authorities. He also called for them to pass exams in the Russian language, history, and culture as a precondition to work in the country -- a proposal which has since been signed into law.
In November, Moscow annulled an agreement with Kyrgyzstan, signed in 1996, that simplified the procedure for Kyrgyz citizens to obtain Russian citizenship.
In his annual address to parliament in December, Putin called for tougher punishments for illegal migration and said migrants should only be allowed to enter the country using international passports. Earlier, residents of some former Soviet republics could enter Russia using their internal documents.
Zhana Zaionchkovskaya, head of the migration laboratory at the Russian Academy of Science's Institute for Economic Forecasting, said such rhetoric and policies aim to appease xenophobic sentiment in Russian society.
"I don't think that this tough rhetoric is good for the country because it frightens migrants," Zaionchkovskaya says. "They have their internal migrant information networks. They pass news on to each other. This [rhetoric] could deal a blow to migration flows."
Zaionchkovskaya adds that another reason it is becoming more difficult for migrants to work legally in Russia is the aftershocks of the global economic crisis, which slowed the construction sector considerably. In reaction, the Russian authorities reduced the number of work permits it issues by half, forcing potential legal migrants into the shadow economy.
The current political climate is also unfavorable. A poll conducted by the independent Levada Center in November found that 65 percent of Russians wanted fewer migrants in the country and 73 percent favor the deportation of those in Russia illegally.
Despite all this, Takhirov is skeptical conditions will improve anytime soon.
"[Many migrants] are unable to find work legally. They just try to show you on television that everything is fine, but it's slave labor in disguise," Takhirov says. "But [migrants] are also content because they are able to earn 500 to 600 dollars and send it home. For Uzbeks and Tajiks, that's big money."
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.