After the terrorist attack in Russia, Tajik migrants face repression

Muhammad said he had found a better life in Russia. After emigrating from Tajikistan last fall, he began driving delivery vans in Siberia, enrolled his children in a local school, applied for a Russian passport and began planning to buy an apartment with his salary savings much higher.

The arrest of a group of Tajik citizens accused of carrying out the attack that killed 145 people in a Moscow concert hall last month has upset these plans, filling Muhammad with the fear of being overwhelmed by the resulting crackdown on the Central Asian migrants supporting Russia's economy.

The attack, he said, erased all the efforts his family had made to integrate into society. In a telephone interview from the city of Novosibirsk, he added that he would return to Tajikistan if the police or nationalist radicals targeted him.

“I will only have a piece of bread, but at least I will be in my homeland, living without fear of someone knocking on my door,” said Muhammad, whose last name, like those of other migrants mentioned in this story, is being withheld to protect them from possible retaliation.

Russian police responded to the terrorist attack, the deadliest in the country in decades, by raiding thousands of construction sites, dormitories, bars and warehouses that employ and supply migrants. Russian courts have deported thousands of foreigners after snap hearings into alleged immigration violations. And Russian officials have proposed new measures to limit immigration.

The official crackdown has been accompanied by a spike in xenophobic attacks across Russia, according to local media and human rights groups, which have documented beatings, verbal abuse and racist graffiti directed at migrants.

The crackdown highlighted one of Russia's key contradictions in wartime, where government-sponsored nationalist fervor drove xenophobia to new highs, even as foreign workers became an irreplaceable part of the country's war effort.

As Russian blue-collar workers went to fight in Ukraine, took jobs in weapons factories or left the country to avoid being drafted, citizens of Tajikistan and two other Central Asian countries partly filled the void.

They kept consumer goods flowing, built homes to accommodate the real estate boom fueled by military spending, and rebuilt occupied Ukrainian cities battered during the war. Some signed up to fight for Russia, with the promise of unexpected paychecks and expedited Russian passports.

But those needs are measured against other priorities. President Vladimir V. Putin made this clear in a speech to police officials on Tuesday. “Respect for our traditions, language, culture and history must be the determining factor for those who want to come and live in Russia,” he said.

Igor Efremov, a Russian demographer, estimates that three to four million migrants were working in Russia at any given time. He said Russia's total population is about 146 million.

Most of these migrants – most of whom come to do manual labor for months at a time – come from three poor former Soviet republics in Central Asia: Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. These Muslim-majority countries have become increasingly dominant sources of migration to Russia as Western sanctions have made the country less attractive to many foreigners.

The massacre in the concert hall highlighted the fragility of their positions. Because most migrants in Russia today come from countries with different languages ​​and cultures and a different dominant religion, they have been particularly exposed to harassment during a war that the Kremlin has presented as a fight for the survival of Russian cultural identity.

About a dozen Tajiks working in Russia spoke to the New York Times about their fears after the March 22 attack. Some said they had not left their homes for days to avoid possible detention or because they were ashamed that their fellow countrymen appeared to have caused this. a lot of pain.

“You pass by and hear these comments: 'Get away from me, get away from me,'” said Gulya, a Tajik cleaner who has worked in Russia for nearly two decades. “I love Russia, I love it as if it were my own, but people have become angry and aggressive,” said Gulya, who is considering returning home if tensions persist.

Valentina Chupik, a lawyer who provides legal assistance to migrants in Russia, said Monday that she had appealed 614 deportation orders after the terrorist attack. Another migrant rights activist, Dmitri Zair-Bek, said he was aware of around 400 deportations that had taken place in that period in St Petersburg alone.

“We have never seen such a scale of anti-migrant operations,” Zair-Bek said in a telephone interview.

Tajiks proved particularly vulnerable.

Tajikistan descended into a long civil war soon after gaining independence, a conflict that accelerated the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

The country's status as the poorest ex-Soviet state means there are few jobs available at home if people are sent back. And some Tajik citizens who sought refuge in Russia from civil unrest at home said it was unsafe for them to return.

Evgeni Varshaver, a Russian migration expert, estimates that about one million Tajiks, or about a tenth of Tajikistan's population, are in Russia at any given time.

Tajikistan's poverty and political isolation make Tajiks particularly likely to settle permanently in Russia. According to the Russian statistics agency, three of the four long-term foreign residents Russia has gained since it invaded Ukraine were from Tajikistan.

Most Tajiks in Russia are male economic migrants who work in jobs increasingly shunned by native Russians, such as in construction and agriculture. Many speak little Russian and work on the fringes of the formal economy, making them particularly vulnerable to abuse by corrupt employers and officials.

Aside from seasonal workers, Russia remains the primary destination for Tajikistan's small class of professionals, who often see the Soviet era as a time of stability and relative personal freedoms compared to the upheavals of civil war and the growing Islamic fundamentalism that followed the independence of their country.

Fluent in Russian and well educated, these middle-class Tajiks tend to face fewer cases of xenophobia.

“I saw how Tajiks are scolded, how officials make fun of them, just because they can,” said Safina, a Tajik professional who has worked in Russia. “But when I go to the same places, I get treated very well.”

However, even those who are culturally integrated have been targets of criticism since the terrorist attack.

A conservative Russian commentator has reported Tajik singer Manizha Sangin to the prosecutor's office after the singer called the brutal beatings of Tajiks suspected of the attack “public torture.” Ms. Sangin represented Russia at Eurovision in 2021 with the song “Russian Woman”.

Human rights activists fear the government's treatment of suspects has helped fuel recent racist attacks against Tajiks.

Russian immigration experts say the concert hall attack will likely shift the country's immigration debate further toward national security priorities, to the detriment of the economy. Various conservative politicians and commentators have called for new laws to limit migration while foreign labor advocates in economy ministries and big business have remained largely silent.

A conservative businessman, Konstantin Malofeev, created a political institute to push for ways to limit migration.

“We are ready and want to coexist with Tajiks, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz; they are our neighbors,” Malofeev said in a video interview from a Moscow office decorated with Orthodox Christian icons. But, he added, “these migrant workers should be much more Russified.”

According to the Russian Central Bank, the need for soldiers and military workers pushed Russian unemployment to a record low of 2.8% in February, creating a severe labor shortage that is fueling inflation and destabilizing the economy. The country's rapid population decline makes it impossible to solve these shortages without foreign workers, migration experts say.

“The needs of employers are no longer taken into account,” demographer Efremov said. “The most important thing is that the enemy does not go unnoticed.”

Milana Mazaeva, Grandma Heitmann AND Oleg Matsnev contributed to the reporting.

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