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Inside Russia's campaign to forcefully enlist migrants

April 14, 2023
topic:Refugees and Asylum
tags:#Russia, #Ukraine war, #migrant rights, #political violence
located:Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea
by:Eleftheria Kousta
The Kremlin passed legislation to ease the recruitment of foreign nationals into the Russian army, and has pursued aggressive and manipulative tactics to lure migrants into enlisting.

On 1 January, videos surfaced of a Wagner mercenary in Ukraine being introduced to his battalion by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the commander of Wagner - a Russian private military company (PMC) that has gained notoriety for its involvement in Russia's wars from Syria to Ukraine.

The mercenary, who claims in the video to be from Ivory Coast, was recruited from a Russian prison. When asked why he signed up, Prigozhin intrudes, saying that he requested to be a French translator in the army, but was sent to the front instead. 

His case might be startling, but not unique. Thanks to investigations by media outlets such as Novaya Gazeta, we know that both Wagner and the Russian military source recruits from prisons, giving them an opportunity to end their sentence. But it isn't only incarcerated migrants who are targeted. 

Valentina Chupik, a human rights lawyer who has been providing migrants in Russia with legal support for decades, recorded several incidents of forcible recruitment, one of which involved the busing of over 1,000 migrant workers, mainly from Uzbekistan, to the war-trodden city of Mariupol in Ukraine.

According to Chupik, in October she received calls for help from some of the migrants who had been taken. After working for four months without payment at the construction site of the Beryozovaya Roscha housing complex in the town of Vidnoye, the men negotiated a new contract with a Moscow-based firm through their foreperson, supposedly to dismantle dilapidated buildings in a Moscow suburb. But in fact they were tricked into signing military contracts.

Chupik said she had lost contact with them, and after enquiries with the Uzbek embassy both in Kyiv and Moscow their whereabouts remain unknown. 

Meanwhile, the Kremlin passed legislation to ease the recruitment of foreign nationals into the Russian army and has pursued aggressive campaigns to lure migrants into enlisting.

Caress Schenk, Associate Professor of political science at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan researching migration and identity in Eurasia, told FairPlanet that when the war started, a small number of migrants in Russia were enticed to join the army in hopes of an easier pathway to Russian citizenship or monetary rewards.

Nevertheless, it was unheard of that people were forcibly enlisted, and recruitment activities was carried out predominantly by private military companies and middle men. It was late in September after the Kremlin announced a partial mobilisation when coercion became a factor.

"The 21 of September changed things," said Schenk. "Stories of coercion started to emerge, which included arrests for minor infractions with the purpose of forcing people into signing documents agreeing to join the military or being threatened with deportation if they refused, using a 2013 law." 

Chupik, who is monitoring the situation through calls for legal advice she receives, recorded that migrant recruitment into the military or through PMCs rose from 0.2 percent to 9.2 percent within a month of the war in March 2022, and in October, shortly after the mobilisation, had gone up to 24.1 percent.

Migrants increasingly targeted

The war in Ukraine had a mixed impact on migrants in Russia.

As Schenk mentioned, migrants, especially from Central Asia, were better informed about the situation in Ukraine because Central Asian news outlets were more transparent about the topic compared to the Russian press.

"Many are sympathetic and left the country due to moral dilemmas, but most remained pragmatic, recognising the need to make an income, which is what compels them to stay in Russia," said Schenk.

Chupik added that the overall decline of the Russian economy due to the war has led to a decrease in earnings and employment opportunities for migrants. Moreover, sending remittances to their families in their countries of origin has become more complex, with wiring methods being limited due to boycotts imposed by financial service providers such as VISA. 

Those who sought asylum in the Russian Federation have also been facing increasing challenges and uncertainty about their refugee status.

According to Svetlana Gannushkina, a member of the Human Rights Centre ‘Memorial’ and chairperson of the Civic Assistance Committee - an organisation that helps migrants and refugees in Russia, only 277 people had obtained refugee status in Russia at the end of 2022 and an additional 67,496 people - 65,314 are citizens of Ukraine - received temporary asylum. Gannushkina based her assertion on data published by the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs.

"This data shows that the institution of asylum is practically non-existent in Russia," Gannushkina told FairPlanet.

And while the number of refugees entering Russia has increased dramatically due to Ukrainian arrivals, the flow from other countries has thinned.

"A country at war has become less attractive for migrants," said Gannushkina. "However, refugees from other countries still come and need help, as they usually do not receive any legal status."

She added that students from Afghanistan and Eritrea have turned into refugees because their states have stopped paying for their accommodation and education but they find themselves unable to return home due to persecution or armed conflicts.

Gannushkina reiterated that tactics of coercion against refugees and migrants have largely remained the same, except for when it comes to Ukrainian citizens, as the Russian state is facilitating the latters' legalisation, prohibits their expulsion and enourages them to obtain Russian citizenship. "Obviously, these favourable conditions have political reasons," she said. 

Overall, hostility toward migrants and refugees in Russia has increased. Chupik stated that with rising aggression towards dissidents due to the war and heightened nationalistic sentiments, all manner of xenophobia has exacerbated, which compromises the safety of migrants. 

The groups most at risk are those whose ethnicity is visibly non-Slavic.

"Central Asians, Syrians, Afghans and Africans are at risk," Gannushkina said, noting, however, that people of Central Asian descent are particularly vulnerable.

Chupik shared that the Russian police identify as ‘migrants’ only those whose appearance is highly distinguishable because "these types of migrants are considered defenceless and unable to resist the authorities."

Gannushkina further explained that citizens of former Soviet countries or their descendants are preferred for military recruitment due to their knowledge of the Russian language. Commenting on this point, Schenk stated that this doesn’t only affect Central Asian migrants who are undocumented or hold temporary permits, but also those who have acquired Russian citizenship.

"Citizenship hasn't saved or protected people," said Schenk. "In some ways it made them even more vulnerable to mobilisation." 

Incidents of anti-migrant raids have also become more frequent, and are carried out by the authorities as a display of force and for political gains. During New Year’s celebrations in the centre of St. Petersburg, for instance, it was reported by Russian media that the local police were conducting a 'preventive raid,' during which nearly 2,000 people "from neighbouring countries" have been detained, citing the regional Ministry of Internal Affairs' press office.

According to Schenk, the decision to publicise a raid depends on whether it can be effectively demonstrated to the public, whether it aligns with 'populist moments' and whether it can be used for political capital. Raids can also be used to indicate that the government is in control and takes migration security seriously.

Additionally, a major legislative change back in 2013 made it significantly easier for the authorities to deport non-citizens. 

The role of the authorities 

Tactics of coercion are often based on non-transparent quotas that enforcement agents strive to meet. Schenk explained that there is no official data on such quotas, but said it becomes increasingly known that they exist in different police departments and that they can lead to arbitrary arrests and detention.

"For migrants, encounters with the police can vary depending on the individual officer, with some simply ticking off boxes to meet their targets, while others have more latitude to make decisions," said Schenk. She added that various strategies are employed by different actors, some as simple as "snatching military-aged migrant men off the street."

Gannushkina explained that the police's role in immigration enforcement primarily involves inspecting individuals proper documentation at work sites. If violations are found, the employee is typically punished - not the employer. The courts easily side with the organs of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and issue rulings on fines and expulsion.

Citing corruption as a motivating factor, Gannushkina said that the police often conduct checks in order to solicit a bribe, with migrants keeping cash in their passports in advance so that the 'inspection' will go smoothly.

Chupik also revealed that, paradoxically, while the reduced number of policemen on the streets following Putin's September mobilisation did lower the rate of illegal detention of migrants, there has been an increase in the average amount of extorted bribes and the brutality towards illegally-detained migrants. This, she claimed, is because in the absence of oversight, officers can act with greater impunity.

"There is nowhere to turn for protection, and criminals and state employees alike know that there won’t be any repercussions for exploiting or abusing migrants," explained Chupik.

Furthermore, the Russian state itself has become more involved  in stopping and recruiting migrants. A military recruitment branch was set up right next to the main migration centre in Moscow. "If this is indicative of the military’s recruitment drive, then that's a pretty strong signal," said Schenk.

"Civil Servants have become the main recruiters, using violence, threats and fraud to recruit," said Chupik, who recorded multiple cases in which clients came to her seeking help after civil servants fraudulently signed military contracts without the signatory's consent.

Chupik said this is the most common method employed to forcefully enlist migrants, followed by threats of falsification of criminal cases and physical violence and torture in police stations.

How are activists helping? 

Although migrants have very few resources at their disposal, activist groups and diaspora associations have served a lifeline for them. Chupik runs online forums on social media where she posts useful information that people in distress might not come across otherwise.

Gannushkina also said that social networks and independent blogs constitute an important resource for migrants and refugees, as they provide information and facilitate a space for migrant voices and issues to be highlighted. But these forums, she added, are vulnerable to trolling campaigns typically financed by political forces looking to obstruct the the discussion and make it harder to moderate. 

Gannushkina’s Civic Assistance Committee and the Migration and Law Program of the CHRA provide legal support to refugees and migrants. Gannushkina also said that there are diaspora organisations involved, but added that they are not particularly active, and are sometimes corrupt.

"We work with some diaspora organisations, but they need the support of the state, for which they are often ready to give up the protection of their compatriots," she said. 

Chupik said that her group has helped migrants at risk of being forcibly recruited leave Russia. She noted, however, that it is difficult to keep an eye on everyone, and acknowledged that many fall through the cracks. Importantly, though, Chupik said that she had so far managed to dissuade everyone who contacted her for advice from voluntary enlistment, and saved others from forced recruitment.

Image by Egor Myznik.

Article written by:
Eleftheria Kousta
Russia Ukraine Uzbekistan Afghanistan Syria Eritrea
Embed from Getty Images
Migrants in Russia are being tricked into signing military contracts.
Embed from Getty Images
Migrant recruitment into the military or through PMCs rose from 0.2 percent to 9.2 percent within a month of the war in March 2022, and in October, shortly after the mobilisation, had gone up to 24.1 percent.
Embed from Getty Images
Only 277 people had obtained refugee status in Russia at the end of 2022 and an additional 67,496 people - 65,314 are citizens of Ukraine - received temporary asylum.
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