The life of a migrant worker is never easy. The upheavals of the past 20 years in the former USSR have resulted in waves of Central Asians going to Russia to find work. To judge by their tales, the bureaucracy is finding it very hard to cope. Medina Aitieva spent some time with migrants in Siberia.
In mid-May 2012, a local news channel in Russia’s Far East reported that crowds of migrant workers from Central Asia had unsuccessfully lined up for months to obtain work permits, or patents, in Vladivostok. ‘Just like here!’ Talant, a Kyrgyz man in his mid-20s, exclaimed with surprise while watching the evening news after a typically late dinner due to typically late work hours.
In Russia, labour patents allow non-citizens from visa-free countries to work legally. The practice began in July 2010 to improve the operations of Russia’s Federal Migration Services (FMS) as they coped with increased labour migration from the ex-Soviet republics and other neighbouring countries.
Two months of daily observations and discussions with migrants in Yakutsk in the spring of 2012 suggest that the reforms to the FMS, which remains disorganized and inefficient, are incomplete.
Talant came to Yakutsk from a village in central Kyrgyzstan, where he left his newly-married wife and ailing mother, to earn a living and support his family as a welder for a local construction company. To qualify for the patent, he, like other foreign migrant workers, was required to pass a state medical examination. Early one morning, I joined a group of four migrant men aged between 22 and 48 to see the process for myself. Completing the numerous medical examinations required us to wake up earlier than roosters, line up for hours before the hospital opened, and push our way through crowds of angry people just to get a slip from the nurse on duty (Figure 1). With this slip, we were allowed to line up again in the same hall, this time in front of a chest physician’s office to test for tuberculosis.
'Two months of daily observations and discussions with migrants in Yakutsk in the spring of 2012 suggest that the reforms to the Federal Migration Services, which remains disorganized and inefficient, are incomplete.'
The unventilated hospital hall quickly filled beyond its capacity and became loud and full of odours, while the temperature outside was -28C. The two nurses, who arrived five hours after more than the hundred or so patients (both locals and migrants) had begun to queue, appeared to detest their working conditions as well. They exercised their authority by slinging insults at the queuing patients: ‘This isn’t Kirgizia for you! Take care of your hygiene!’ a nurse yelled as Talant entered the physician’s office. She continued talking to him in raised tones as those behind the door waited patiently and silently for their turn.
Yet Talant emerged smiling and uttered, ‘We’re done here.’ Having started at 5 a.m., we returned home nearly 11 hours later, without eating breakfast or lunch and having stood in more than a dozen lines to get injections, complete numerous checkups, and submit documents. They would have to spend yet another full day completing their HIV/AIDS testing.
Migration office and other problems
Living in a house with nearly two dozen migrants, I learned the trials and tribulations of each migrant’s documentation process. Nothing was easy. Urmat, Talant’s 28-year-old co-villager, who recently arrived in Yakutsk to support his parents and younger siblings in Kyrgyzstan, left the house after midnight to increase his chances of being at the head of the queue to submit documents to receive a work permit.
'Living in a house with nearly two dozen migrants, I learned the trials and tribulations of each migrant’s documentation process. Nothing was easy.'
When he and three other roommates arrived at the migration office, they started a sign-up sheet, which by 9 in the morning consisted of over 150 names. When the migration office opened at 9:30 a.m., only the first ten people were permitted to enter the building (where they had to line up once again). There were only five women in line, so the men allowed them to move to the front of the line, but as the first dozen entered, the guard at the door tore up the sheet of paper. He told them migration service workers had discovered that some migrants had been queuing up early in order to sell their places in line to those further back, promising significantly increased chances of being seen. For this reason the migration service was going to implement their own system of admitting people that day. The men were fortunately already in the building and were able to submit their documents, and received their patents one week later.
Ulan, another roommate, admitted that although he had lived in the house for nearly two years, he was officially registered in another apartment. Why should this matter? In Russia it mattered, Ulan explained, because he feared being stopped by policemen, asked for his registration papers, and even tested on whether he actually lived there. He explained how a local firm providing registration services for migrants told him he should know how to get to his registered address in case he was questioned by the police.
Ulan actually found the address and learned how to get there, including which public transportation he would use to get ‘home.’ He was indeed stopped by policemen one day when he was in a local market shopping for food. He passed the test, but only because he had agreed with the people living in ‘his’ apartment to hang up a picture of him in case the police showed up. That’s how far a migrant needs to go avoid facing fines or deportation in Russia. ‘I wish I could just be legally registered where I live, but my landlady wouldn’t let me…so I had to do it,’ Ulan said to justify his deception.
'Every step a migrant makes in Russia is a decision between legality and illegality, the boundaries of which are often fragile and difficult even for experienced migrants to navigate.'
Every step a migrant makes in Russia is a decision between legality and illegality, the boundaries of which are often fragile and difficult even for experienced migrants to navigate. When faced with time pressures, limited financial and emotional resources, and a lack of immediate family support, sometimes bribes become the only option to stay legal. The Federal Migration Service’s incapability of serving the needs of the constantly increasing number of migrants only compounds the problem. Being informed of their rights and responsibilities may help migrants, but it won’t protect them from racist remarks and attitudes, from police raids, or from arbitrary checks of Central Asians in public spaces.