The New Serfs

kozyrev-muscovitesPhoto by Yuri Kozyrev for the project Muscovites. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

The New Serfs
On July 9, Millions of Migrant Workers and Foreign Students Will Be Stripped of the Right to Freedom of Movement in Russia in a Single Bound. What Has Happened?
Vyacheslav Polovinko and Tatyana Vasilchuk
Novaya Gazeta
July 6, 2018

On June 28, Vladimir Putin signed Federal Law No. 163-FZ, which clarifies the guidelines for immigration registration in Russia. According to the amended law, such notions as a foreign national’s place of residence and the party hosting the foreign national have been defined more precisely. The majority of media outlets have described the new law as making the lives of migrant workers less burdensome, since the new law says foreign workers can be registered as dwelling in construction site trailers. This has provoked grumbling among “tolerant” Russians, who have complained migrant workers will arrive in even greater numbers and occupy all the country’s trailers.

In fact, the situation is quite different. The new rules are a blow to all law-abiding migrant workers and nearly all foreign students. Any legal entity that attempts to hire foreign nationals to work or study in Russia could find itself in violation of the law.

Even people who have all the papers and permissions for staying in Russia could be deemed lawbreakers.

The July Eighth Law
When a foreign national arrives in Russia, she is obliged to present herself to the immigration authorities and register her place of residence. However, she cannot register herself: the people or entities who invited her are obliged to do this. If she has come on a private visit, this would be the owner of the flat she has rented or the hotel where she is staying. If she has come to Russia to study, the university where she will be studying is obliged to register her. If she has come to Russia to work, the company in which she is employed must register her. (The last instance is more flexible, because her company is obliged to register her with the immigration authorities, but they may or may not register her place of residence as they wish, apparently.) Private landlords are a separate topic, but legal entities would take the easy way out. The law used to permit them to register the university or the company’s main address as a student’s or employee’s domicile. However, the foreign national could actually live somewhere else. It was understood, however, that if the police or other competent authorities were looking for her, they could do so at the address where she was officially registered.

The old system had its advantages and its shortcomings.

“There are companies that have five or six thousand foreign nationals on staff. It is convenient for them to register people at their business address to oversee whether their employees are paying for work permits and extending their residence permits on time,” says migration expert Svetlana Salamova.

The other side of the coin has to do with the poor living conditions of some foreign workers. This is most often the case among migrant workers from Central Asia.

“Employers would sometimes accommodate fifteen people at a time in trailers, in which the living conditions were rough. Besides, finding people via their legally registered domicile was often quite complicated,” explains human rights defender Andrei Babushkin.

To solve these problems, the definitions of key notions in the immigration laws have been amended. Actually, however the circumstances of migrant workers and their Russian employers have been considerably worsened, not improved. The amendments signed into law on June 28 stipulate that the place where the foreign national stays cannot be a normal domicile, but it can be other premises where the foreign national or stateless person actually resides, i.e., regularly uses for sleep and relaxation. If she is registered by a Russian organization, the foreigner must live for all intents and purposes in premises belonging to the organization. However, the premises must be equipped as a dwelling space.

In other words, if a foreign worker wants her company to register her with the authorities, she is obliged to reside full time in the company’s living accommodations.

The catch is that most legal entities simply do not having living accommodations. Construction companies will have the easiest time of it. They will now actually be able to register workers as legally residing in trailers and makeshift barracks at construction sites. All other companies have nowhere to accommodate their employees from other countries. A sofa and a microwave are not sufficient conditions for turning a room into a legal residence.

“Legally speaking, a domicile is a place that has been registered as such,” says Salamova. “An office with a sofa in it is not a domicile, but if your company lets you keep your suitcases there and install a stove and refrigerator, theoretically you could be registered as dwelling there. In this case, however, the employee from the personnel department who registers you with the Russian Interior Ministry [i.e., the police] will have to supply the immigration authorities with paperwork showing the room has been registered as a domicile.”

Will Russian companies be willing to turn their offices into bedrooms? The answer is obviously no.

Large auditing and consulting agencies, a field in which many foreign nationals are employed in Russia (not only expatriates but also graduates of Russian universities who are nationals of the former Soviet republics) have started to warn their employees about the need to look for a place where they can be registered as residing. Victoria Plotinskaya, marketing and public relations director at AT Consulting, told us that foreign employees at her company must register at their actual addresses before July 9. Previously, AT Consulting registered them at its business address, but now it is willing to provide them with legal assistance. Plotinskaya assumes their employees will have no difficulties, since registering oneself as residing in a rented flat is not a problem,  she claims.

We, however, have learned that several employees of major companies have been thinking about quitting their jobs or transferring to their home countries because their landlords have no intention of registering them.

“Companies will lose the ability to keep track of the immigration registration of their foreign national employees, while  foreign nationals who live in rented flats will have to negotiate with their landlords about registering them,” says Roman Gusev, director of Ernst & Young’s taxation and legal services department. The company does not plan to lay off any employees.

“In practice,” Gusev continues, “we see that many landlords refuse to deal with this procedure, because they don’t want the added administrative burden. In such cases, foreign nationals will have to urgently look for new accommodations. On the other hand, landlords who agree to meet the new requirements will have to keep close watch over their foreign tenants’ arrivals in the Russian Federation, since they have to be registered with immigration authorities after each such arrival.

“There are also risks for conscientious landlords. If their foreign national tenants arrive in the Russian Federation and fail to inform them, the landlords will be breaking the law without knowing it. On the other hand, foreign nationals could also find themselves in a pickle if their landlords suddenly refuse to register them with the immigration authorities or are simply unable to do what the law requires of them because they happen to be out of town,” concludes Gusev.

Unfortunately, the new rules are also retroactive, apparently, meaning everyone who is registered as residing at a business beyond July 8 will be in violation of the law come this Monday—unless, of course, they are unable to swiftly persuade their landlords to register them. In this case, however, no one can vouch that landlord will supply this service for free. Rental agreements presume that landlords pay taxes on the rent they charge. Verbal agreements to rent someone a flat and register them while not paying taxes could lead to a rise in the price of flats let to foreign nationals in Russia.

Formally, nothing has been said about the retroactive force of the amendments to the law, as signed by Putin. However, human rights activists have already been getting reports of attempts to deport migrant workers for dwelling in places where they are not registered to reside. In fact, the Interior Ministry already has the power to deport a non-Russian national if an inspector discovers him somewhere other than his registered domicile, say, at another flat in the evening.

This was what happened to Uzbek nationals in Omsk Region, says human rights activist Valentina Chupik. The Uzbeks went to a immigration center with registration papers obtained from a middleman, and they were sent off to be deported, allegedly because they did not live at their registered domicile.

In other words, under the new law, migrant workers no longer have the right to spend the night somewhere other than their legally registered, actual residence.

Under Article 54 of the Russian Constitution, laws cannot be applied retroactively. This was underscored by the specialists at Alliance Legal Migration, a firm based in Petersburg. In theory, then, all registrations issued before July 8 should be valid for their full terms. This can be proven only in court, however. Yet Russian courts rarely side with migrant workers.

Dormitory Hostages
Foreign nationals employed by Russian companies are only half of the problem. If push comes to shove, they can pay landlords extra money to register them. All foreign students in Russia are now at risk as well. Previously, universities would register their main buildings as the legal domiciles of their foreign students, but now they will be obliged to register all of them in university dormitories. However, the number of rooms in the dorms does not match the number of foreign students, and out-of-town Russian students have to live in dorms as well. Besides, there are students who do not want to live in dorms and can rent flats, students who have children, for example. Previously, they could count on their universities registering them, but now they will have to take care of their own registration.

The new law also applies to students who left for summer holidays not knowing they would return to Russia in the autumn on new terms. In addition, students who are registered in dorms are virtually their hostages.

Any violation of university regulations or, for example, attendance at an opposition rally gives university deans the chance to opportunity to revoke the registration of “troublesome” foreign students, which automatically means they are in violation of immigration laws and can be deported. Considering the fact that many international students have never experienced serfdom, they behave like free women and men. Their freedom will now be harshly restricted by the hours when the dorm’s main entrance closes.

Universities themselves seemingly have not yet figured out yet what they are going to do. The new rules have been a big surprise to most of them. The main issue they face is how they will now enroll international students if registering all of them legally has become impossible.

The Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (RUDN) refused to comment on the amended rules. We were told by a spokesperson at the Higher School of Economics (HSE) that they were in the process of working out a way of dealing with the new rules. However, we have in our possession correspondence between students and the HSE’s immigration department, who categorically informed the students they could be registered only at their actual places of residence.

At Moscow State University (MGU), we were told, “The issues of timely migration registration and visa extensions for foreign students residing in rented flats is currently being examined by university management in order to find the optimal solution.”

“The university has not contemplated any limitations to enrolling foreign students due to the adoption of Federal Law No. 163-FZ, dated June 27, 2018,” a MGU spokesperson added.

Other universities failed to respond to our inquiries before this issue of the newspaper was sent to the presses.

“If a university does not have a dormitory or does not have enough room in its dormitories, students can ask for a written request from the university to landlords, asking them to register the students at their actual domiciles. And then the landlords can register them if they want to do so,” explains Salamova.

Closely Watched Flats
You should not imagine that all of the above is a headache for foreigners, but has nothing to do with you.

According to the new rules, Russian nationals who let flats to foreign nationals are automatically regarded as “hosts,” meaning they are obliged to register them as residing in their dwellings and are responsible for them.

“There will also be increased check-ups and fines in the case of noncompliance with the laws for people who let flats to foreigners,” predicts Salamova.

In all fairness, such fines also existed earlier, but they were almost never issued. We have been informed that as soon as the World Cup ends, the police will make an extra effort to inspect all residential buildings and search for unregistered foreigners living in them.

Moreover, Russians are currently responsible for foreign nationals, even if they have left the country but their immigration registration is still valid. A law bill, sponsored by Irina Yarovaya and on the verge of its second reading, has been tabled in the State Duma. If passed, it would make it possible to remove foreigners from the immigration registry instantly and on one’s own via the web. This means landlords would also be able to remove tenants from the registry whenever they wanted, claiming, for example, that they had lost touch with the migrant workers in question. Foreign tenants would thus be subject to the whims of landlords, who could raise their rent at the drop of a hat, threatening to remove them from the immigration registry if they failed to pay. Besides, if a migrant worker does not live in the flat where she is officially registered, she can find herself without papers at any minute because, according to yet another amendment, she can be stricken from the rolls as residing in a particular flat without her knowledge. This means that beat cops can stop her on the street and automatically fine and deport her.

In mid June, the State Duma approved yet another law bill in its second reading. If passed, it would make organizations that invite foreigners to Russia wholly responsible for their actions. For example, if a foreign national works somewhere else than the organization that invited him or “is up to no good,” as MP Viktor Karamyshev has put it, the authorities will pay a call to the foreigner’s primary host organization. In addition, companies would have to make sure that when an employment contract ends, the migrant worker leaves the country instantly. Otherwise, the companies would be fined.

At the same time, the State Duma approved a new list of fines for noncompliance with all these rules on the part of organizations and ordinary Russians.

Under the new regulations in the Administrative Offenses Code, individuals will pay fines of up to 4,000 rubles for violations involving migrant workers, while officials will pays up to 50,000 rubles, and legal entities will pay up to 500,000 rubles [approx. 6,700 euros].

Beneficiaries  
By and large, the batch of laws that have been adopted or are still under consideration (the Interior Ministry, for example, has launched an expert group to draft a Migration Code) should at least be sent back to the relevant committee for revision, since, as Babushkin says, “The harm they do outweighs the good.” But the way the new rules have been drafted and adopted behind the scenes—they did not warrant a single public hearing nor, as far we have ascertained, did their authors consult with independent migration lawyers—suggests their oppressiveness is advantageous as they currently stand.

Who stands to gain, however? MP Irina Yarovaya, for example, argues that certain changes, such as the ability to remove migrant workers from the registration rolls on one’s own, are in the interests of ordinary Russians. She states her case in a clarification to the law bill that the MP’s aides sent to us in reply to a request for comments. On the contrary, human rights activists argue the Interior Ministry, which now has complete oversight over immigration, has received yet another tool for extorting bribes. Any migrant worker can be stopped on the street by the police and threatened with deportation: he will find it easier to pay them off. Any landlord can be intimidated with fines.

The threat of deportation is a convenient tool for dealing with troublesome individuals.

Our newspaper published the story of Gulchekhra Aliyeva and her family. She and her son were locked up for five days without food and water at the Ramenki District Police Station in Moscow. They were let out of their cells twice a day to go to the toilet. According to the Aliyevs and human rights advocates, the police tried to extort them, promising to deport them if they did not pay up. The ostensible cause was the tightening of security on the eve of the World Cup. After human right defenders intervened, the Aliyevs were released, and a criminal investigation into allegations of torture was launched.

“However, when the Aliyevs were summoned for questioning, it transpired  the police planned to deport them for being registered at their place of work rather than where they actually lived,” says Chupik.

Moreover, this happened before the new law had taken effect.

“We basically saved them by escaping the police station,” recalls Chupik.

The special services also stand to benefit from the new law. As we have learned from a source with ties to the academic world, special services officers have connections to the immigration departments in several Russian universities.

This is tantamount to reviving the Soviet system of “working” with international students at universities. Given that they inevitably violate the rules, they can be inclined to “friendship” and “cooperation” when necessary.

Besides, foreigners per se will now be unable to take the slightest step in Russia without official registration. Nationals of our allies Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan will also be punished, but that is collateral damage.

Finally, fly-by-night fake migration registrars stand to gain from the law, since their entire business will disappear into the shadow economy. Even now, migrant workers who travel to the Multi-Purpose Migration Center (MMTs) in Sakharovo, in the far southern outskirts of Moscow, cannot have their domiciles registered while other papers are being processed, including their work permits. Human rights activists say the MMTs has lost this right due to the new law.

“Everyone mobs Kazan Station, getting registered by people who give them counterfeit papers,” claims Chupik.

As far as we know, the neighborhood around the Kazan Railway Station, in central Moscow, has the largest number of people offering such dubious services. Moreover, these deals are made more or less in plain view of law enforcement officers, who do nothing about them: maybe they know something important we do not know or know more thane we. The price of counterfeit registration papers is between seven and eight thousand rubles [approx. 95 to 110 euros], a hefty sum of money for migrant workers.

The Interior Ministry stubbornly persists in saying nothing about how the new law will be enforced: it has not published any official clarifications. We have sent the ministry a request to comment, but when this newspaper went to the print, the ministry had not yet responded.

Thanks to Sergey Abashin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

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