The number of illegal migrants in Russia is close to 4 million, and that’s leading to concerns that difficult socio-economic conditions for these migrants could make them potential recruits for ISIS.

Immigrants from post-Soviet republics line up at a Federal Migration Service division in Moscow. Photo: AP

As part of their “Migrant 2015” raid in late October, Moscow’s law enforcement authorities conducted 2,000 investigations and arrested 800 citizens of the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). While the goal of the raid was to make these illegal migrants legally formalize their stay in Russia, 55 of these were nonetheless deported.

Despite the fact that new rules making it easier for foreigners to find employment in Russia were implemented almost one year ago, the number of illegal migrants in the current year remains approximately the same as in the past – about 4 million people. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that illegal migrants have become a source for new recruits into radical Islamist groups.

Experts and the migrants themselves, who were interviewed by Russia Direct, believe that the problem of illegal migration to Russia will not be resolved until there are clearly defined goals in the country’s migration policy, and until the corruption component is removed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking at the CIS Summit in Kazakhstan on Oct. 16, said that fighting on the side of the Islamic State of Iraq and Gretaer Syria (ISIS) are anywhere from 5 to 7 thousand immigrants from Russia and CIS countries.

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Recruitment for this radical Islamist group of immigrants from post-Soviet countries is usually carried out in Russia. These people then travel from Russia and then via Turkey in order to reach Syria and Iraq.

Experts believe that there is a connection between the increasing number of terrorists coming from the CIS countries to join Islamist groups and a decrease in the attractiveness of the Russian labor market, due to the economic crisis in the country, and consequently, falling earnings.

Migration selection

New rules for the employment of foreigners in Russia, in force since January 2015, have simplified and streamlined the procedure for the legalization of migrants in Russia. On the other hand, however, the cost of official migration services has risen sharply. Until 2015, to work legally in Russia, workers had to obtain a work permit. There were quotas imposed, and not everyone could get this document.

Under the new rules, the limits on patents – documents legitimizing the status of migrants in Russia – were canceled. Anyone can apply to a Territorial Office of the Federal Migration Service (FMS) of Russia with a request to have a patent issued. After a medical examination, and passing exams on the Russian language, on history, and on rights of foreigners, a patent is issued in about 2-3 weeks. However, this patent is issued for a particular region of Russia. A document obtained, for example, in the Ryazan Oblast, does not allow one to work in Moscow, and vice versa.

A Multifunctional Migration Center was established in Moscow in order to facilitate the procedure of legalizing the status of migrant workers. Here the “one window” system is in operation, where a migrant pays one lump sum that includes a medical check-up, exams, notarization and translation into Russian of a passport. The fee for receiving this coveted document is 15,000 rubles ($240).

To extend this patent, the person must pay a monthly income tax of 4,000 rubles ($65). According to official statistics of the Federal Migration Service of Russia, during the first nine months of 2015, Russia-wide, a total of 1.5 million patents were issued, which brought into the state budget 24 billion rubles ($381 million) - and this during a period of economic crisis.

Eldar Mamedov, a migrant worker from Azerbaijan, has worked in Moscow for five years as a programmer in large IT companies. This young man finds this new procedure for the legalization of the status of migrant workers more liberal than the old one. However, it vexes him that the obtaining of a patent does not lead to an automatic renewal of registration in Moscow, as it did before.

Now the registration can be renewed only for the period for which the tax is paid. Otherwise, a fine is levied, all the way up to deportation from the country. The young man says that he did not immediately grasp the subtlety of the new rules, and as a result, he had to pay a fine once.

“The line between legal and illegal migrants is very thin. It is possible to live and believe that you are doing everything according to the law, but just one silly little thing, and you can become illegal,” he said. 

Another problem that Eldar faces in Moscow is that he does not own any property, where he can register. Friends and landlords quickly disappear when they hear the phrase “I need a registration.” The young man uses the services of private firms, where he pays for a Moscow address at which he can be officially registered. A three-month registration in the capital city costs 5,000 rubles. Being legally employed in Moscow, said Eldar, is not a luxury the poor can afford, but he is trying to get used to it. “What else can one do? One must work,” he sighs.

Bakhrom Ismailov, member of the Public Council under the Russian Federal Migration Service, said that the increased cost of obtaining a patent has led to a better quality work force.

“There are now fewer people, but the employers have to pay more,” said Ismailov. “The labor market for foreigners is contracting.” 

Recently the social movement led by Ismailov – “Country Without Racism” - sent a letter to the Federation Council with a proposal to issue labor patents to foreigners for up to 3 years. They are still waiting for a response.

Material for recruitment into ISIS

The high cost of legalizing one’s status as a migrant in Russia, in the face of declining demand for cheap foreign labor, and the fall of the ruble against the dollar, is forcing many migrants to return to their home countries. Or, having no hopes of finding employment in their homeland, to look for other ways of earning money.

“Previously, in a single construction crew, up to 200 Uzbek migrants could be employed. Now this number hardly reaches 70,” says Alisher Ismailov, a migrant worker from Uzbekistan who has been working at Moscow building sites for 12 years already. After leaving Russia, says Ismailov, Central Asian migrants usually return home, or go to work in other countries, such as Kazakhstan, Turkey, South Korea, or the United States.

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Finding themselves without work in Russia and desperate for money, migrants are favorable material for recruitment into international terrorist networks, says Andrey Kazantsev, director of the Analytical Center at the Institute of International Studies, MGIMO-University.

“A significant share of terrorist recruits that are entering the ranks of radical groups today, including ISIS, are natives of Central Asian countries, recruited in Russia and living in the most marginalized socio-economic situations,” says the expert.

In Central Asia, the majority of the population practices the Muslim Hanafi faith, the most liberal of the sects, so Saodat Olimova, director of Shark, the Tajik research center, is not inclined to make the connection between the decline in Russia of Central Asian migrants and growth in the region’s residents being recruited into ISIS and other extremist groups.

“Tajik society is still conservative,” says Olimova. “Families are members of religious communities, where the elders still hold high moral authority. The traditional clergy is firm in its positions, which hinders the spread of radical Islamic movements. For migrants returning home from Russia, it is harder for them to fall into the networks of Islamist recruiters, than is the case in Russia itself.”

Olimova strongly believes that when the media write about Tajiks fighting on the side of ISIS, they neglect to mention that, “When these were recruited, the majority of them were citizens of another country.” The problem with migrants returning from Russia to CIS countries, the expert sees is that, not finding adequately paid work at home, these workers will lead to a growth in opposition sentiment in their home countries.

“The trigger for this development may be an excessive tightening of control over Islam, being observed today in Tajikistan,” believes Olimova.

The migrant worker Alisher does not deny that various religious groups are trying to manipulate workers, and not only Islamic ones, with the illegal immigrants being particularly at risk.

“In Russia, on construction sites, in factories, and on farms, where migrants typically work, actively recruiting members for their networks are also evangelist Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. They promise them permanent residency in the United States and the Kingdom of God already on Earth. So I am more apt to believe an Uzbek-evangelist rather than an Uzbek-ISIS militant,” he said.

Migrants: A threat or a source of economic growth for Russia?

The problem of illegal migration in Russia, according to experts, is largely related to the fact that neither the Russian authorities, nor the authorities of the countries from which the migrants arrive, are effective in carrying out informational and educational work, explaining to them their rights and obligations.

It is important to carry out similar work not only with migrant workers, but also with other employees of Russian institutions dealing with migration policy.

“The Federal Migration Service of Russia is not enough interested in what is happening in the countries of origin of the migrants, leaving this task to other structures,” says Mr. Kazantsev. The expert proposes to start such work by training researchers in the field of migration, which could then organize educational work on this issue inside various government departments.

Bakhrom Ismailov said that formally, such work is being conducted with employees of the Federal Migration Service, the only question is in its quality.

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“In Russia, the problem of illegal immigration cannot be solved as long as the corruption component remains in place,” said the expert, noting that the solution of the problem of illegal immigration should be sought in the reform of the Russian Federal Migration Service.

“In Canada, for example, the migration service is called the Ministry of Human Resources; that is, they see people not as migrants, but as resources.”

Sobir Azimov, a migrant from Tajikistan, has lived in Moscow for 20 years already. He has worked as a builder, loader, plumber, vendor, merchandiser, and even once looked after a pensioner. In 2008, when the global economic crisis hit Russia, he lost his job. Someone, through a friend, approached him with an offer to take care of an 85-year-old academician. He agreed. Thus he learned a new trade – that of caregiver.

Sobir looked after the old man for five years – went on walks with him, cleaned the apartment, washed clothes, cooked meals, and in the evenings - talked about life. His salary was paid by the old man’s grandchildren, who were always away at their jobs. This elderly academician became very accustomed to Sobir and did not want him to go away on leave to Dushanbe. Six months later, when Sobir returned to Moscow, he learned that the old man had died.

“I felt that I had lost a close person. We had become such strong friends,” said Sobir.

The problem of illegal migration, according to this Tajik handyman, is a result of fear in many migrants.

“They are afraid to ask others on how to become legal – thinking that the police and employers will immediately see them as violators of the law. Even if their documents are in order, young Uzbeks or Tajiks cannot defend their rights. They simply plead guilty. Pay the fines and bribes. After that, they no longer venture out anywhere,” says Sobir.

Olimova believes that the problem of illegal migration will be solved when in Russia they will determine whether the country really needs migrant workers, and what the goals of the national migration policy really are.

“It is not clear what is more important – to exercise control over foreigners or to regulate the labor market to achieve economic growth? If it is the former, then everything is being done correctly. If it is the second – and foreign migrant workers are considered as a factor of economic growth and modernization of the country, the laws and regulations that apply to migrants must change, and migration must be dealt with not only by the Federal Migration Service, but by the Ministry of Labor,” the expert believes.

During his twenty years in Russia, the handyman Sobir has had many opportunities to obtain Russian citizenship. However, he has refused to do this: “My Motherland is Tajikistan. I do not want any other!” he declared.