Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has become the second largest destination for immigrants, after the United States. Unlike many Western countries, however, the overwhelming majority of people are coming not as political refugees or asylum seekers, but rather as economic migrants looking for employment, in order to support their families back home.
“Moscow’s Little Kyrgyzstan,” a short documentary produced in the summer of 2016, offers an intimate glimpse into the daily lives of Kyrgyz migrant workers in Moscow. Though some of these individuals have already secured stable jobs, others are still struggling to navigate a complex and corrupt state bureaucracy, all while facing police harassment and wide-spread anti-immigrant sentiment among the Russian population.
According to Franco Galdini, the film’s producer and scriptwriter who spoke to Muftah via email, the documentary’s main purpose is to introduce a Western audience to the topic of migrant workers in Russia. Galdini believes it is an area that has gone largely unreported in the mainstream English-language media, despite being connected to the broader phenomenon of migration. “It is quite surprising how the difficulties Central Asian migrants encounter in Russia are pretty similar to those refugees and asylum seekers encounter in Europe these days,” Galdini told Muftah.
Valery Solovei, professor at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations, is featured in the film. He estimates that the minimum number of migrants in Russia is 8 million, but that there are actually 10 to 12 million, if not more.
Through the lives and stories of several migrant workers, “Moscow’s Little Kyrgyzstan” exposes Russia’s flawed migrant labor policies, where poor working conditions and a corrupt state bureaucracy create exploitative conditions for cheap labor with little to no legal protections and guarantees for migrant workers. “This doesn’t happen only in Russia but globally; it is a neoliberal economic trend, whereby a precarious labor force is exploited and all conditions are created [to have] illegal workers,” Bermet Borubaeva, a PR manager at Fabrika Art House in Moscow, notes in the documentary. “[They] haven’t got labor contracts, so they can be paid very little, or late, or not at all. They haven’t got those labor rights which are guaranteed by law, meaning that on construction sites workers can be exploited for as little as a bowl of soup.”
Migrants from Central Asia come to Moscow knowing about these challenges and dangers. They keep coming because the the salaries they receive, though modest by Muscovite standards, go far in their home countries. “People come because here you can earn living, you can save money, and buy something for yourself and for your family. We don’t have such salaries in our home country. This is why people are still drawn here,” said Shukurinsa Kamalova, an interpreter from Moscow who is featured in the film.
Indeed, migrant workers in Russia make significant contribution to their countries’ economies. According to the World Bank, in 2014, Russian migrants contributed to 36.6 percent of Tajikistan and 30 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDPs.
Migrants also contribute substantially to Russia’s financial well-being. In the film, Dmitry Poletaev, director of the Migration Research Center, notes that in 2015 migrant workers brought 57 billion rubles (approximately $1 billion) to the Russian economy. Despite this, the Russian state has failed to improve the working conditions for migrant workers or ease legal restrictions affecting this population, leaving migrants vulnerable to corruption and exploitation.
Watch “Moscow’s Little Kyrgyzstan” in full here.