Migrants to Get Metal Homes of Their Own

A City Hall plan to house migrant workers in metal containers was sharply criticized Wednesday by ethnic community leaders, who complained that it would lead to the segregation of native Muscovites and the capital's large population of migrants.

The container plan was approved at a Tuesday meeting of the city government, and it is part of a larger drive to reform the treatment of migrant laborers, most of which consists of noncontroversial initiatives, such as simplifying registration procedures.

The moveable structures will allow migrants to live comfortably near the places where they work, such as construction sites, a city official said Wednesday.

"It's not about ghettoization, but about creating comfortable living conditions for workers," Alexei Alexandrov, head of the city government committee on interregional relations and national policy, said by telephone.

But Tafik Melikov, a spokesman for Azeri community group Odzhakh, criticized the housing of migrants at construction sites, arguing that it isolated the migrant labor force from the rest of Moscow. Most Azeris just want to live with their neighbors like normal people, Melikov said.

"Many of us left home to work here a long time ago," he said. "[Migrants] came here with their families and their children, and this is a fact that, unfortunately, is not being considered."

Melikov said he supported other parts of City Hall's program, such as easier registration under the so-called "one window" program.

Alexandrov shrugged off concerns that separate living areas for migrants would lead to segregation, arguing that most migrants do not want to stay permanently in the capital.

"Those who come for temporary work don't aim to integrate into our culture or study the language," he said. "They just want to earn their money and leave."

Alexandrov also touted the project as a public-safety program of sorts. Separate living spaces can help lower the risk of migrants infecting healthy Russians with their many illnesses, he said.

"A rather high percentage of them are have dangerous diseases, and what, are they supposed to use public transport?" he said.

Estimates of the size of Moscow's migrant-worker population vary, but they are widely believed to number in the millions. Many come from impoverished former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Finding suitable housing for the throng of short-term laborers is a thorny issue, especially against the backdrop of Moscow's exorbitant housing costs. Many migrants live in crowded apartments, dormitories or rickety trailers.

While many construction workers already live in temporary metal structures near their construction sites, the difference with the new, City Hall-approved containers is that they have already been cleared by city health and safety inspectors, making it simple for employers to set them up.

Employers will pay to set up the containers, said Olga Veldina, an assistant to Alexandrov. She described the plan as a way that the city government is helping companies that use migrant labor.

Although living in a box may not appeal to everyone, the company that designed the containers said they were safe and had all the utilities needed for habitation. "There will be central heating or electric heating, light, electric connections, bathrooms, sinks and shower cabins," said Viktor Nosikov, deputy director of the Center for Structural Calculations.

The containers will be metal on the outside and made of plaster slabs on the inside, with nonflammable basalt fiber used as thermal insulation, Nosikov said. Each will have an area of 14 square meters and is designed to house two people. They can also be connected to each other to form a two-story building meant to house 100 people, he said.

Nosikov even proposed some other potential applications for the containers. "In the future, they may be used by students and to host guests for different events," he said.

Activists representing migrant workers were less enthusiastic about the containers. One Moscow-based Uzbek political activist described the plan as an example of Russia's long history of exploiting minorities. He complained that City Hall treats them as disposable.

"The Moscow government loves people from Central Asia," said Bakram Kharoyev, an activist who consults for Human Rights Watch. "They love it when we come here to work, and they love that we work so cheaply."

Allison Gill, a researcher specializing in migrant labor issues with Human Rights Watch, was disturbed by the sound of the plan. Migrant laborers are already ruefully alienated, she said.

"The sound of living on construction sites in plastic boxes raises concerns about basic living conditions," she said.

But another diaspora leader said the problems of living in boxed housing were nothing compared with being stabbed to death or sleeping in a stairwell.

Gavor Dzhugayeva, director of the Tajikistan Foundation for Immigration and Law, said rising xenophobia was the real problem facing migrants in Moscow. Attacks against dark-skinned foreigners have skyrocketed this year, according to organizations that keep track of hate crimes.

"It's much safer to live in a compact apartment than an area that's full of nationalists," Dzhugayeva said. "The main problem is reforming the system of registration for migrant laborers so that they can live in safety and receive the aid they need."