Russia's migrant workers dream of making long journey home
Many achingly long journeys start and finish at Moscow’s Kazansky railway station. Here, not far from the platforms, Murat is waiting for friends travelling from Tashkent, some three days and 2,815km away.
Murat (26), a trim figure in jeans and a leather jacket, has a wife and three-year-old daughter in his native Gulistan in eastern Uzbekistan. Of course he misses them, he says, but he works in a Moscow warehouse because the money is so much better. At home he could earn $500 or $600 a month, not enough to pay his bills. In Moscow he can earn twice as much.
He helps compatriots find work, but is cagey about the details, which is hardly surprising as an estimated three-quarters of migrants in Russia are illegal. “Some stay for years, some stay for months, some become homeless, some die here, ” he says over cups of sugary coffee. In a run-down cafe in the warren of underground walkways beneath the platforms, other migrant workers cite Moscow wages as their reason for moving thousands of miles north.
The place is jammed with tables where customers, nearly all men, sip hot drinks and eat samsa, meat-filled triangular pies, an Uzbek speciality.
Since the Soviet Union collapsed, millions of Central Asians, especially from the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have made Russia their home.
Exact numbers are hard to pin down, but some experts think that as many as 10 million migrants are living in Russia.
Many do the dirty or dangerous jobs that Russians shun. They toil on construction sites, sell fruit and vegetables, clean offices, shops and cafes.
Russia needs migrants to fill shortages in the labour market, says Zhanna Zaionchkovskaya, director of the Migration Laboratory at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Without migrants, Russia would certainly have a lower rate of economic growth, she adds.
According to a government paper published in June, migrant workers will help make up numbers caused by Russia’s shrinking population.
Low birth rates and abnormally high death rates indicate Russia’s population could drop by 14 million by 2030 – more than the official population of Moscow today – leaving a smaller working population supporting more pensioners. The government hopes migrants will help defuse this demographic time bomb.
Most Russians are not convinced: 67 per cent think foreign workers take jobs from natives, according to a poll published by the Levada Centre last year.
Young Russians do not understand the contribution migrants make to the economy, Zaionchkovskaya says. “Young people always take a tougher line against migrants than older people. It is very sad because there will not be any fewer [migrants] in future.”
Her worst fears were brought into focus two months ago when thousands of far-right nationalists marched through Moscow chanting “Russia for Russians”. It was the first time this annual gathering was allowed to take place in the heart of the capital. Speakers demanded visa restrictions on Central Asians and accused the government of neglecting the Slavic population, while crowds waved black-and-yellow tsarist-era flags that have become the far right’s standard.
At the Uzbek cafe, nobody will say a word against life in Russia. But few want to stay for a long time.