Moscow Suburb Riot Shows Russia's Tense Ties With Migrants

Authorities in Moscow have rounded up more than 1,600 migrant workers after an ethnic riot took place over the weekend. Russian nationalists and soccer hooligans attacked a market area in a gritty industrial suburb of Moscow that's home to many migrant workers from the North Caucasus. The riot broke out after police announced that they were searching for a North Caucasian man suspected in the stabbing death of a young, ethnic Slav man. The situation highlights Russia's immigration problem — the country needs migrant labor, but fears what it perceives as foreign influence.

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Tensions are high in Moscow today after a weekend in which rioters targeted migrant workers. Most of those workers are Muslim. And today, security is tight around the city's mosques. The riots, in one of Moscow's grittiest industrial neighborhoods, brought calls for new anti-immigration measures.

As NPR's Corey Flintoff reports, they also led to a crackdown on migrants who are already in Russia.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The chain of events began last week when a 25-year-old man was stabbed to death as he walked home with his girlfriend. He was an ethnic Slav. Police put out a description of his attacker as a migrant from the Caucasus, the mountainous region that runs from southern Russia to Turkey. Word spread through the working-class neighborhood of Biryulyovo and was picked up by nationalist groups and soccer hooligans looking for a fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SMASHING GLASS)

FLINTOFF: On Sunday, a protest turned violent and a mob attacked a market where many migrants work. The rioters smashed windows, looted shops and overturned cars. They attacked migrant workers and police with rocks and bottles. Police say they arrested nearly 400 people during and after the melee. Moscow's Deputy Mayor Alexander Gorbenko said the riot was instigated by what he called a handful of nationalist scum.

But the following day, it wasn't nationalists, neo-Nazis or skinheads that the police were after. It was migrant workers. Police rounded up more than 1,600 people. State TV showed dozens of dark-haired men lying face-down on the pavement being handcuffed by police in riot gear.

It was a familiar pattern, and one that has played out several times over the past few months. Police stage mass round-ups at city markets and other places that employ a lot of migrant workers every time there's a high-profile crime involving immigrants. Russia's human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, issued a call for tolerance on state television.

VLADIMIR LUKIN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: We must learn to live together, Lukin said, but he added that Russians must also work to counteract rampant corruption. That nod toward the issue of corruption brings up a major complaint from both the anti-immigrant side and those who say they seek justice for migrants. While police may arrest migrant workers during the periodic round-ups, some also profit from taking bribes to ignore illegal workers during the rest of the year.

Illegal workers are forced to accept cheap wages and bad working conditions while their employers evade social taxes and benefits. Svetlana Gannushkina is the chair of the human rights committee Civil Assistance. She says the problem is a system that has turned out to be very lucrative for everyone but the migrants themselves.

SVETLANA GANNUSHKINA: (Through Translator) It takes a dishonest employer who doesn't want a contract with a worker. For him, slave labor is more profitable than the labor of a legal migrant. It takes bureaucrats who cover up for the employer and police who get bribes. And the nationalists who keep people in fear of immigrants fit into this system very well.

FLINTOFF: Gannushkina says Russia doesn't need tough new laws to control migrants. She says it needs to enforce existing laws designed to provide employers with legal workers and keep those workers from being exploited. The talk about tough measures against immigrants, she says, is just aimed at channeling public indignation against the most vulnerable people in the system. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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