Was anyone shocked when news of alleged slaves being held captive for years in the basement of a Moscow grocery store came to light?
Please tell me you weren’t.
Tell me you weren’t, because we have been hearing about migrant workers living in cramped, dismal conditions for years – and the incident with the grocery store is only the logical extension of the issue of exploitation of migrants.
The fact that the police at first refused to help the volunteer social activists who had attempted to rescue the slaves also seems pretty consistent. When did you last see a police officer being nice to migrants from Central Asia? I’m not saying it doesn’t happen – stranger things have occurred in this world - I’m saying that it isn’t something we have come to expect.
And the horrible cruelty of their experience – the migrants told Novaya Gazeta that their children were taken from them (and were probably sold, seeing as their captors then said that the children had “died”) – well, that’s just a hallmark of modern-day slavery, isn’t it? Migrants have also been known to perish in deadly fires after being literally locked up in sweatshops, and it’s not as if anyone is surprised by that either.
No, what’s really interesting about this scandal is the fact that the people who allegedly held the migrants captive are Central Asian migrants themselves. This, apparently, still has the power to surprise us.
“How could they do this to their own people?” A friend wrote to me on Facebook shortly after the scandal began hitting the headlines.
I recalled speaking to a Mexican-American social worker in North Carolina, who told me horror stories about similar Mexican “slavers” – people who had the opportunity to, say, prey on vulnerable young girls from poor families back home. Because they spoke the same language and had the right connections, they could traffic the girls to the United States easily enough, at which point the girls were forced to work in inhuman conditions, most of them never seeing an actual paycheck.
There is a great deal of psychological pressure that traffickers can exert upon their victims if they happen to come from the same background. This is something policemen understand all too well – and one of the “outs” they have as far as not getting involved, because the entire arrangement often takes on the appearance and general tendencies of an abusive relationship.
Traffickers convince their victims that the latter “owe” them something, they convince them that no one cares about them, that they will not get any help and that they do not deserve help – and the victims become passive observers of their own sad fate.
Politicians the world over are fond of talking tough when it comes to illegal immigration – but it is also illegal aliens, those without any rights, who provide cheap labor, as well as ample opportunity for corruption to thrive (because “someone” must be paid to avert their eyes when you’ve got a basement full of slaves working for you). Let’s just face it: some people’s poverty is other people’s opportunity.
So what to do? Well, when it comes to Russia in particular, having a coherent approach to the issue of migration would be a good start. As Russia’s native population continues to age and shrink, migration will only grow. This may not make everyone happy – but happiness is not what’s at stake here.
If people can find simple and legal ways to work in Russia – the traffickers will begin going out of business. Not all of them, I’m sure – from what I know of international trafficking, these criminals are like cockroaches and some will always persevere.
But if a migrant worker knows that he or she has the opportunity to be treated at least somewhat fairly by the authorities – then their incentives to stay in a basement to be beaten and starved and robbed of their own children will be that much lower.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was borxn in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.