Russia Targets Illegal Immigrants in Retail Trade

Police in Russia are expelling foreigners who work in the country's street markets. The authorities are enforcing new quotas aimed at removing all illegal immigrants working in the retail trade.

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Police in Russia are campaigning against non-Russians working in street markets. New regulations will remove all foreign sellers in the retail trade by the end of the year.

NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.

GREGORY FEIFER: Inside a ramshackle Moscow police station located near a central market, officers question people they've brought in from the street. Those who gave the wrong answers squat glumly in dark cages.

Outside, teams of police are stopping anyone who appears to be from the Southern Caucuses region or Central Asia.

Sergeant ANDRE CHERNOVSKY(ph) (Moscow Police Department): (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: Sergeant Andre Chernovsky approaches a man from Tajikistan for his documents. But when they appear to be in order, the police officer continues his interrogation.

Sgt. CHERNOVSKY: (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: What's the name of the official who stamped your papers? he asks. That's a question no one would normally be expected to answer. After finally letting the man go, Chernovsky says police have boosted such work a hundred percent since last year. He says that's good for Russia.

Sgt. CHERNOVSKY: (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: There hasn't been proper control over illegal immigrants, he says. They come and go as they please. Just go to any market. No one has any papers, and that creates problems for us Russians.

Markets across Russia have traditionally been dominated by people from the former Soviet republics in the Caucuses and Central Asia who sell fruit, vegetables and other products from their homeland. But a new law says only Russians will be allowed to work in any retail outlet, including street markets, by the end of the year, although foreigners will still be able to own retail businesses.

Officials deny the new employment law is either racist or xenophobic, saying it's meant to protect Russian jobs for Russians. In fact, Vijislav Pustavnin(ph), of the federal migration service, says some of the new regulations will actually help foreigners, like the procedure for getting a residence permit.

Mr. VIJISLAV PUSTAVNIN (Russian Federal Migration Service): (Through translator) Before, it was necessary to assemble a large number of documents and wait in line for a possible rejection. Now you only need a minimal number of documents, and you can even apply in any post office.

FEIFER: But the authorities' justifications for the new rules have done nothing to calm concern among foreign traders still working in Russia's markets, those not already emptied by police raids. Azerbaijani Talman Halilif(ph) runs a stall selling gifts and souvenirs. He spent many years living in Russia, even served in the Soviet army, but says he plans to leave Moscow with his family this spring.

Mr. TALMAN HALILIF (Moscow Market Vendor): (Through translator) It doesn't make sense to stay here any longer. We work around the clock, barely making ends meet, and now I get stopped on the street six times a day.

FEIFER: President Vladimir Putin proposed the new regulations last year after race riots in a town in northern Russia. Later a dispute with the former Soviet republic of Georgia prompted the mass deportation of Georgians, and Putin said it was time the authorities protect the interests of native Russians.

Population experts say the Kremlin doesn't seem to care about the consequences of its new policy. Russia already faces a serious labor shortage, and sociologist Vladimir Mohamil(ph) says local Russians won't work in markets for low pay.

Mr. VLADIMIR MOHAMIL (Sociologist): (Through translator) Limiting foreigners in markets reflects the shortsightedness of the government's immigration policies, which are influenced above all by the Russian population's xenophobia.

FEIFER: Mohamil says the government's immigration policy will raise prices and increase corruption because employers will get around the new rules by simply increasing the amounts of the bribes they already pay police.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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