Crackdown on Moscow’s foreigners

13/01/2011

The Federal Migration Service has launched a mass crackdown on illegal migrants after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin voiced concerns over “prematurely” relaxed migration rules.

Putin’s comments came in wake of nationalist riots sparked by the murder of a Spartak football fan in December, and some rights activists believe the migration service has reacted by “blaming the foreigners”.

“We have detained more than 400 foreigners over the holidays,” Zalina Kornilova, a spokeswoman for the migration service’s Moscow branch, told The Moscow News. The service in Moscow changed its document check policy as of January 1, Kornilova said. Instead of occasional raids on construction sites and markets, migration service officers are now stationed permanently at “places where the public congregates,” such as metro and train stations, Kornilova said.

When asked about criteria in selecting people to be checked, Kornilova singled out those that “loiter aimlessly”, and also said that ethnic criteria would “probably” be used.

She denied, however, that these changes have anything to do with either a proposed policy shift or nationalist violence in the city before the New Year.

The new document check policy has some migrant workers up in arms, with over 30 people, predominantly migrants, detained in the southwestern Moscow district of Cheremushki on Tuesday as they attempted to stage an unsanctioned rally against the crackdown, Interfax news agency reported.

Meanwhile, scores of people of non-Russian appearance have been detained as they attempted to attend New Year’s Eve festivities on Red Square, Amnesty International said.

Some human rights campaigners say the intensified crackdowns appear to be a direct response to comments made by Putin on December 17.

“We recently adopted a decision that registration in a city such as Moscow could be done by application through the Internet. It was apparently too early for us to move to such liberal changes,” RIA Novosti quoted Putin as saying. “It is possible to increase the penalty for violations of administrative regime, possibly even make it a criminal offence.”

Selective document checks near metro stations have long been the norm in Moscow, but were not conducted as part of a publicly announced policy. According to widely publicised complaints, police had often used the checks to solicit bribes rather than enforce migration rules.

Kornilova declined to comment on Putin’s recent statement about migration policy.

But human rights advocates see a connection between the recent crackdown and a government policy shift on foreigners.

That shift evidences confusion and a general lack of a migration strategy, said Svetlana Gannushkina, chairwoman of Civic Assistance, an NGO devoted to helping migrants and refugees in Russia. “All we have are nervous, sometimes hysterical sporadic actions that usually follow a single headline or a comment on television made by one of our country’s leaders,” she said.

According to Gannushkina, policy decisions like these are made on the basis of “government by signal”, in which any phrase by Putin or Medvedev, however casually uttered, can be used by those in power as a “signal” to implement a campaign or policy change.

“On December 11, some people, many of whom didn’t really have any ideology in mind and were just looking for some trouble, got together on Manezhnaya for a nationalist riot,” Gannushkina said. “After that, our heads of state started to make comments, from which it suddenly turned out that the ultimate people to blame were foreigners, the very people at whom all the hatred of the participants of that riot was directed.”

The migration service, Gannushkina said, interpreted this as a directive to correct the error, and went on to implement it.

The crackdowns, she said, were not likely part of a long-term policy, however.

“I hope that this will eventually die down,” Gannushkina said.

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