“Inhumane, Wrong, but Nothing Can Be Done”: Migrant Workers on Clashes with the Russian National Guard in Tomsk
January 11, 2018
The Russian National Guard dispersed a crowd of migrant workers in Tomsk on January 9. Over 2,000 foreigners had paralyzed the work of the immigration center and refused to leave, after which security forces used cattle prods and batons against them. Why did it happen?
In 2018, Tomsk Region has received a quota of only a thousand temporary residence permits. Yet the permit is issued only once annually, setting off a brouhaha among foreigners. The queue for those applying for the permit formed on January 2. Eight hundred people were on the list, and they checked in every day. On the day the permits were to be issued, a huge crowd had gathered at the entrance to the immigration center, located on the Irkutsk Highway, by six in the morning. The queue included students at Tomsk universities and workers alike.
The immigration center opened at nine, but work ground to a halt at eleven-thirty. Having serviced only three hundred people, the center’s employees stopped seeing any more clients and declared an emergency. The Russian National Guardsmen and OMON riot cops who arrived at the scene pushed the foreigners back and blocked the entrance to the building.
“Riot Cops Disperse Mob of Migrant Workers in Tomsk with Cattle Prods.” Video published on YouTube, January 8, 2018 [sic], by vtomske
One Center Instead of Numerous Local Federal Migration Service Offices
Most of migrant workers consider policy makers in the presidential administration responsible for the incident. Whereas last year foreigners were served by various local offices of the Federal Migration Service (FMS), as of this year all of Tomsk Region [the sixteenth largest region in Russia, although not all of its land mass is habitable—TRR] is served by one center.
“Since the ninth [of January] I have been busy running round to various government offices, trying to find someone who could help me and other students. I have so far struck out. I have been trying to get a temporary residence permit for four years running. I always encountered queues and crowding, but this was the first time I witnessed such a nightmare,” says Günel, a Kazakhstani citizen and second-year grad student at Tomsk State University.
According to Günel, it is wrong to issue a thousand permits at the same time on the same day, although the young woman is not eager to condemn the actions of the police.
“I cannot say anything bad about the Russian National Guard and OMON riot police acted. They were doing their jobs, after all. I saw the cattle prods, and I saw them being used, but I did not notice the police beating anyone up, as has been written about a lot in the media instead of analyzing the causes of the situation. I was not in the crowd. To break through to the front door, you would have had to stop at nothing, pushing women and old men aside. It’s also hard to blame the people who generated the crush. They had been waiting for their permits for a year, and some of them had waited longer. There were young students in the queue, and ethnic Russians who had decided to return to their historic homeland. There were also a lot of people from other countries who need a temporary residence permit to avoid paying for a work permit every month. Basically, they could not care less about citizenship.”
Günel argues that a thousand temporary resident permits is much too few for Tomsk, so permits are obtained through personal connections from year to year. She does not believe it is possible to issue a thousand permits in two hours.
Unjustifiably Small Quotas
Seil, a Tomsk State University anthropology grad student from Kyrgyzstan and employee of the company Immigrant Service, argues the clashes were the consequence of administrative errors caused by the peculiarities of the quotas. Temporary residence permits are issued only in keeping with the demands of the labor market. If Tomsk Region needs a thousand foreign workers, it does not matter how many people come to the region over and above the thousand-person quota, and how many of these people are university students.
According to Seil, numerous immigrants, in fact, work in the city of Tomsk and Tomsk Region illegally, without a legal permit.
“Then why, I wonder, are we talking about the need for foreign labor and setting quotas on the number of laborers at the same time? Everyone knows the actual circumstances are extremely different from the circumstances on paper, but no one tries to change the status quo,” Seil says, outraged. “Unfortunately, we have to follow the regulations. It is inhumane, wrong, and ugly, but if 1,001 people come and apply for temporary residence permits when the quota is 1,000, nothing can be done for the ‘superfluous’ person.”
Seil argues it is not profitable for Russian state agencies to issue temporary residence permits, but those who have work permits are forced to pay 3,500 rubles [approx. 50 euros] a month in Tomsk Region.
“It is unprofitable, of course, for the state to lose this source of revenue. Tomsk Region makes several million [rubles?] a year from the tax on the work permit alone,” says Seil. “I’m certain that if the quotas were set so the numbers reflected the circumstances in the region, there would not be a huge difference between supply and demand, and emergencies would be prevented. Something similar happened last year. People nearly broke the door down, there was such a brouhaha.”
Seil condemns the actions taken by employees of the immigration center.
“Maybe an emergency really did occur, but why was it necessary to close the doors at 11:30 a.m.? They could have tried to resolve the difficulties. Employees at such institutions like to boast that if closing time is 6 p.m., they won’t work a minute later than 6 p.m. Sure, they wear uniforms [i.e., because the FMS was dissolved, and a new immigration entity was established within the Interior Ministry, that is, within the Russian national police force—TRR], but why treat people that way? They could have worked at least another ninety minutes, until lunch time, in order to take the situation down a notch.”
Quotas have been reduced nationwide in 2018, not only in Tomsk Region. In November 2017, the Russian government approved a quota that provided for only 90,360 temporary residence permits, which was 19,800 fewer permits than were allowed the previous year. In 2016, however, the quota was 125,900 temporary residence permits, and in 2017 it was 110,160.
According to a prognosis by Rosstat, Russia’s able-bodied population will have decreased by seven million people by 2025. A reduction like this cannot be compensated only by increasing the Russian population’s labor productivity and economic activity, so an influx of immigrants is necessary for economic growth.
Translated by the Russian Reader