The Maritime Territory in Russia's Far East has asked the central government to double its labour-immigrant quota to 30,000. This is indicative of the current situation, as despite a fairly high unemployment rate among Russians (8.4%), the country is still experiencing a considerable shortage of labour.
The rapidly developing fuel sector, the metallurgy and machine-building industries are in desperate need of skilled workers, who shrank in number several fold during the 1990s, a decade of profound economic decline when businesses shut down nationwide.
Large cities, including Moscow, are experiencing a labour shortage in the trade, construction, utilities and transport sectors. Immigrants dominate in these spheres, as local residents are usually put off by the meagre wages on offer. However, locals then grumble about "Azeris who have taken over all the outdoor markets," and "Moldovans who repair flats in a slipshod manner."
Skilled personnel are in great demand in science, as almost 1.5 million computer scientists, chemists, physicians, biologists, mathematicians, and medics left Russia by the beginning of the 21st century. Intellectual occupations are still prestigious but poorly paid in Russia, where scientific centres, unlike in other countries, are rigged out with outdated equipment. Besides, patenting an invention is not an easy undertaking, hence the brain drain and scholars abandoning science for other, more lucrative spheres.
At a recent meeting of the Council on Science and High Technologies, President Vladimir Putin spoke in favour of "importing" gifted scholars from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Things are no better with medical personnel. Moscow, for example, gladly invites medical specialists from across the former USSR.
Russia needs labour immigrants to ensure a balance between its working and unemployable population. The country has to start thinking about this soon, as its working population could shrink by 1 million as a result of ageing as soon as 2010.
Thus, Russia needs legal labour migrants for a range of reasons. The CIS countries make the most natural source of a labour force for Russia since, as Putin has said on many occasions, "natives of the CIS are mentally close to us and can therefore easily adapt to Russian reality". For their part, CIS residents are also interested in working in Russia: according to official data, 378,000 foreigners, nearly half of whom came from former Soviet republics, worked in Russia in 2003. Labour migrants from Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Kazakhstan and Belarus are pouring into Russia in search of better wages. Forty percent of them find jobs in the construction business, and 22% in trade and the food-and-beverage industry.
The Interior Ministry's Federal Migration Service (FMS) expects applications for registration from almost 500,000 migrants in 2004. However, Nikita Mkrtchyan, of the Migration Analysis and Forecast Laboratory at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Economic Programming, says that 5 to 15 million labour migrants - both temporary migrants and those moving for good - arrive in the country every year.
"Labour migrants are concentrated in large cities, primarily Moscow [over 40%], in the oil and gas producing regions in the Far North and Siberia, in major industrial centres, transport junctions, and in the Far East [mainly Chinese migrants]," said Valery Stepanov of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Ethnology and Anthropology Institute.
However, the population of Asian Russia, which makes up 74.8% of the country's territory, continues to decrease. People began moving to European, central Russia, back in the 1960s. The population density of European Russia is 26.6 people per square kilometre, while beyond the Urals it is 2.4 people per square kilometre. Russians are continuing to leave the Asian part of the country, and local authorities are therefore encouraging the inflow of former fellow Soviet citizens, promising them housing and jobs.
However, the inflow is dropping with every year, for various reasons. "Immigration tends to decrease as the former republics of the USSR are successfully settling political and ethnic conflicts, while some CIS countries, alarmed by the exodus of ethnic Russians, are trying to meet their demands, for example those involving the higher status of the Russian language," Mkrtchyan said. "These countries' economies are reviving, promoting new jobs, and people are becoming less interested in jobs in Russia."
The Russian government is seeking to encourage ethnic Russians to return to their historic homeland. However, Russia's immigration and citizenship laws are too tough and make it difficult to attract additional workers to the Russian labour market, which Putin has declared to be the government's major objective.
Experts agree that the current Law on Citizenship has lost its relevance for Russia, where immigrants are in great demand. This law, which stipulates a citizenship waiting period as long as five years, would be more appropriate in Western countries, which have been flooded by immigrants and which have to be increasingly elaborate in their citizenship-granting procedures, according to Yevgeny Andreyev, a demographic analyst.
However, the president is urging order in the sphere of immigration. Despite a range of advantages provided by the status of a legal immigrant - such as social security, healthcare, and education - many foreigners continue to avoid going through the formalities. According to the FMS, up to 3.5 million labour migrants are working in Russia without proper registration. Unregistered guest workers usually find jobs in large cities, where it is easier for them to get lost and where they can easily secure fake papers. Operation Illegal Migrant, which was recently conducted across the country, exposed hundreds of producers of forged papers.
Meanwhile, firms recruiting illegal migrants continue working in Russia, gravely violating the rights of these immigrants. "They began by taking away my papers," Nikolai Didenko, a builder from Ukraine, tells his tale of woe. "For six months they did not pay my wage, and when they finally did it was not the whole amount. I and the other guys were living in a building materials warehouse, while my compatriot, also a builder, was put in a shed." This is not an unusual story. More examples come from underground clothes factories, firms producing counterfeit cosmetics, and so on. Labour migrants complain about being intimidated, not allowed to go out, and working for 12 hours at a stretch. The FMS hotline has received 11,500 complaints from migrants since the beginning of the year.
The Federal Migration Service has proposed setting fines of 100,000 rubles (about $3,500) for unscrupulous employers, and sentencing persistent offenders to between two and eight years in prison. A total of over 120,000 administrative violations were exposed last year.
To keep tabs on labour immigrants to Russia, migration cards have been designed. Foreigners arriving in the country hand in one half of the migration card at the border, and data from it is entered into the relevant database. The other half has to be produced on the way back. Immigrants who fail to leave the country by the time their visa expires are included on the blacklist of illegal migrants subject to deportation. However, deportation is a drastic measure, which the FMS uses only as a last resort. "We are not going to conduct massive raids and deportation campaigns," FMS head Alexander Chekalin said.
"We have not yet worked out a civilised way to attract immigrants," Putin has said. The government is working to streamline the relevant laws.