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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow: Little Refuge in a Turbulent Refugee Life

Alongside elektrichka tracks east of the city, a tall man ran through the woods holding a baby above his head.

He loped into the shantytown and the whole group of refugees burst into screams of gratitude. Mirdzhakan, a one-year-old toddler, had been lost for three days, and the string of Tajik families living by the train tracks could talk of nothing else. When a militia officer returned Mirdzhakan to his father, the community welcomed the baby home with a delighted racket and gold-toothed smiles.

He wasn't coming back to much. Spread throughout the grove in Moscow's eastern outskirts are a succession of shantytowns where hundreds of refugees from Tajikistan and Nagorny Karabakh have found a temporary home, cleaner and safer than the train stations they inhabit during the winter. They live in tents made of cardboard boxes and wash their babies in saucepans full of river water. For money, they beg. By now, most of them are used to moving.

"We left Kurgan-Tube a year ago," said Ravil Akhrarov, 41, whose wife and son arrived in Moscow this week with a group of about 60 Tajiks who worked together on the Maxim Gorky collective farm until they decided to leave. "Since then we have been in Yaroslavl, Rybinsk, Vologda, Danilov," he said, ticking the towns off on his fingers. "It was the same everywhere."

In other words, closed. Traditionally, Moscow has had one of the most exclusive refugee policies in Russia, and Mayor Yury Luzhkov reinforced that tradition with a decree last November. According to city law, refugees can only stay in Moscow if they have relatives with residence permits as well as five square meters of extra bedroom space, said Sergei Solntsev, a spokesman for the Federal Migration Service.

Otherwise, they register with the federal service and can be relocated to camps or dormitories in outlying regions such as Tver or Vladimir, he said. But before any of that happens, they have to earn refugee status through the official city organization.

"Many of these people say they are refugees when they really just have no place to live," Solntsev said. "There have been great troubles with the Tajiks."

The official attitude toward shantytowns like the one in Sokolniki is patently hands-off. Solntsev said his office had calculated that most homeless beggars earn far above the minimum wage, making between 150,000 and 400,000 rubles a day ($33 to $87) -- more than most of his co-workers.

Legally, they are forbidden to live in Moscow because they have no residence permits, and many social service organs consider them a matter for the militia. Another migration service official, who would not give his name, said the homeless groups generally pay off local militia not to evict them.

"I live here in Moscow with my wife and my child. I don't want it to become Nagorny Karabakh," he said. "If they want to house all those people they should build another city."

Other city officials said the homeless communities had directly refused help from the government. Boris Skochko, director of social development in Moscow's eastern region, said representatives of his service had approached groups living in the woods to offer help, but had always been turned away.

Inside the shantytown, the Tajiks regard virtually any public official as a threat. Upon being approached for permission to photograph their children, the group's leaders made a panicked search for their passports, assuming that they were being kicked out again. Since the hostage crisis in Budyonnovsk, the militia had been arriving more often, Akhrarov said.

"It's a dog's life," said Fyodor, 50, who said his group had come from Nagorny Karabakh. His whole family had been killed in fighting before he left five years ago, he said. Fyodor's eyes were bleary from drinking and his clothes were grimed with dirt. "You know, if I washed and slept every night, I wouldn't look like this," he said. "I would look completely different."

After two days of rain, the site was abandoned, except for dozens of flattened cardboard boxes and cast-off clothing. The tents had been dismantled and the forest was completely empty. A nearby pastry vendor, Marina Kylishova, said the whole group had left the area by train in the morning, "maybe because of the rain, maybe because of the militia."

Nearby, locals said they had had little trouble from the homeless groups that habitually gather in the woods. Most said they were just sorry for the children.

"You know how they treat outsiders here," said Maria, who would not give her last name because she herself is a Georgian refugee living in Moscow illegally. "They don't even treat them like human beings. They don't even consider them human."