Migrants Neglected In Ministry Shuffle

Two weeks after President Vladimir Putin abolished the Nationalities and Migration Ministry and passed some of its functions to the Interior Ministry, hundreds of thousands of refugees and millions of migrants are in limbo, as officials admit little preparation had been made for the reshuffle.

Putin signed a decree Oct. 16 to disband the ministry and dismiss its minister, Alexander Blokhin. The ministry's functions were to be transferred to the Interior, Foreign, and Economic Development and Trade ministries, with the Interior Ministry taking over migration issues -- a move that seems to have taken everybody by surprise and has led to disruptions in dealing with migrants.

The Interior Ministry is expected to take over not only migration control and issues of granting legal status to migrants, but also the social issues involved -- including the management of refugee camps and centers for asylum seekers throughout the country. These functions, the decree states, were to be transferred within a month.

But half way through this period, Interior Ministry representatives admit they are overwhelmed by the workload, while their colleagues from the abolished ministry say all they can do for the migrants is feel sorry for them.

"We have a huge workload ahead of us, and it will take a long time to sort out who will take over which of the functions that we have inherited from the nationalities ministry," the Interior Ministry's press service head Andzhela Yesayan said in a telephone interview last week.

"It's all that much harder because nobody knew anything in advance and nobody made any preparations," she said, adding that she hoped her ministry would be able to take on at least some of the functions by the end of the one-month period.

In an interview in Monday's Izvestia, Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev made it clear that arrangements for the handover had not been made.

"We will be getting advice from the government and the presidential administration" on how to deal with our new functions, he said.

Meanwhile, bank accounts of the abolished ministry have been frozen and its officials have been waiting for the Interior Ministry to create structures to which they could transfer their workload, said Sergei Podgorbunsky, the abolished ministry's official in charge of the North Caucasus. "But so far there are no signs of any such structures being created."

According to the abolished ministry's data, there are from 3 million to 4 million legal migrants and up to 1.5 million illegal migrants in Russia. Among them are economic migrants and political refugees from all over the world, as well as ethnic Russians from the former Soviet Union and refugees from Chechnya.

Human rights activists say the decree is a "natural disaster" that has broken down the fledgling managerial structures that dealt with migration issues at a time of growing animosity toward migrants.

Racist attacks on people of African and Asian origin are common. Three people died and more than 20 were wounded after attacks by skinheads last week at a Tsaritsyno market and a hotel housing Afghan refugees.

The State Duma passed a Kremlin-backed citizenship bill last month that will make it more difficult for migrants to gain citizenship.

"There is nothing wrong with giving the Interior Ministry control over migration, and that has been debated for months already," said Svetlana Gannushkina, head of the nongovernmental Civic Assistance organization, which aids migrants in Russia. "But the ministry is incapable of dealing with the human side of migration. Working with migrants requires a high-level human rights culture, which the Interior Ministry does not have."

Many asylum seekers have suffered at the hands of the very ministry that is now supposed to take care of them. They have accused the police force -- which falls within the Interior Ministry's responsibilities -- of harassment, extortion and refusal to distinguish between them and illegal immigrants.

"Putting the Interior Ministry in charge of migrants is like founding an animal rights society in a meat factory," Podgorbunsky said.