Shadows of people suspected of violating immigration rules in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013 (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
If the past week is any indication, the plight of Russia's illegal migrants may be about to go from unenviable to impossible.
Police in Moscow in the past week arrested 1,400 immigrants from Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Syria, Morocco, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Egypt. More than 600 have been forced into a sweltering tent camp to await deportation.
Meanwhile, Russian migration authorities have called for more than 80 detention centers to be built nationwide, signaling that the battle against illegal workers is gathering steam.
Observers say the sweep is aimed at currying favor with nationalist-minded Russians ahead of regional elections next month.
But critics like Mohammad Majumder, the president of the Russian Federation of Migrants, say the move overlooks the real problem with migration -- the rampant cycle of corruption and bribes that it perpetuates among police, bureaucrats, and middlemen charging exorbitant fees in exchange for legal documents.
"CIS citizens should pay just 2,000 rubles ($60) in custom duties for a work permit. Instead, they're really paying 20,000 to 25,000 rubles ($600-$750). It's a matter of expenses," Majumder says. "Our officials are creating thousands of these intermediary firms. It's an illegal business built on migrants."
Majumder says as many as 90 percent of Russia's 10 million migrants are in the country illegally -- a fact that leaves them highly vulnerable to abuse, blackmail, and violence.
As a case in point, some have pointed to the incident that prompted the weeklong raid.
Khalimat and Magomed Rasulov, watermelon vendors from Daghestan, attacked a policeman with a baseball bat at Moscow's Matveyevsky market, leaving him gravely injured even as other policemen stood by, refusing to intervene.Critics ranging from President Vladimir Putin to vendors themselves have suggested the attack may have been prompted by the Rasulovs' refusal to pay a bribe.
Enver Kisriyev, a Caucasus expert with the Russian Academy of Sciences, says workers from the North Caucasus are subject to some of the worst abuse, despite the fact that they -- unlike migrants -- are Russian citizens.
"All the traders -- all of them, without exception -- pay bribes! And Caucasians pay much more than all the others because of the monstrous phobia regarding the Caucasus," Kisriyev says. "Watermelons don't even grow in the mountains of Daghestan. They have to buy them, at their own risk, from the watermelon barons in Astrakhan and bring them here, risking all their money and the money of their relatives in order to earn something from these watermelons, as middlemen."
Rights groups like Memorial say migrants rounded up in raids have the right to demand documents describing their alleged violations and to be detained for no more than three hours before they must be provided food and proper housing.
Vladimir Lukin, Russia's human rights ombudsman, has already expressed concerns that conditions at the Moscow tent camp -- where residents have limited movement and scarce access to food -- "do not comply with government provisions."
Some have speculated that the market crackdown, which comes just a month before September 8 regional elections -- including the Moscow mayoral race -- is a deliberate tactic to drum up support among Russian voters who take a dim view of foreign migrants.
In St. Petersburg, impromptu groups of young nationalists -- some still in their teens -- have staged their own market raids, demanding migrants' documents, tipping over boxes of fruit, and handing out free produce to passersby as police looked on.
Aleksei Dymovsky, the former police major who made headlines with his 2009 video plea to Putin about law-enforcement corruption, says markets are an enormous source of profit for police, who use their control over the vendors to extort frequent bribes.
"Earlier on the territory of the city of Novorossiisk, there were three markets. There were beat cops at each of the markets. As I remember, they collected bribes from each of these markets," Dymovsky says. "The bribes were in the form of fruits, money, vegetables, potatoes. Or [a police officer] would be building a dacha, using Tajiks, Uzbeks. Where did he get food for them? He just took it from the market."