Russian Youth Group With a Mission: Sniffing Out Illegal Migrants

Andrew Roth, New York Times, September 3, 2013

As dusk fell, nine young men gathered on a leafy street in Chertanova, a bedroom community on the outskirts of Moscow. Their hair cropped short, some put on surgical masks and thick work gloves. Aleksei Khudyakov, their leader, issued final instructions like a platoon leader briefing his soldiers for a raid.

“The dorms where they live are on the other side of the building,” Mr. Khudyakov, 25, explained as his cadre shuffled with anticipation.

“They” are the latest target of political and popular outrage here: unregistered immigrant workers, especially those from former Soviet republics like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. And Mr. Khudyakov’s team intended to catch them where they slept.

“We’re going to go in,” he told the group, half warning and half pleading with them to refrain from violence or even foul language, “but we’re not going to be rude. I don’t want to see aggression.”

They call themselves Moscow Shield, a self-described “rights” organization that, like dozens of others here, is attracting young men and women, some out of zeal and others out of boredom, a search for purpose or a sense of belonging.

The group breaks into cramped basements and other crowded living spaces identified through anonymous tips from residents, and then tries to hold immigrants there until the police arrive. In an online tally, Moscow Shield claims to have “discovered” more than 600 illegal migrants, seven of whom have been deported, since its creation in March.

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Like Cossack patrols in southern Russia or improvised neighborhood watch programs fighting drug dealers, Moscow Shield has been given unusual latitude by the police—and at times tacit assistance—as its members sometimes have pursued aggressive, even illegal, tactics.

The group, like other nationalist and patriotic youth organizations, is giving auxiliary support to Russia’s on-again, off-again crackdown on immigrant workers, which intensified last month when the police interned about 1,500 migrants in an outdoor detention camp.

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Moscow Shield, the creation of Mr. Khudyakov, a six-year veteran of a pro-Kremlin youth group called Young Russia, has held more than 50 “raids”—surprise inspections of the basements and street-level workers’ quarters that house some of Moscow’s estimated two million illegal migrants.

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{snip} In certain districts, members say they have even been used as support in some large operations.

In one raid last month, five organizations—including Moscow Shield and two others known as Light Russia and Attack—claimed to have caught more than a hundred illegal migrants while the police supervised the operation. Video of the raid showed muscle-bound young people wrestling migrant workers in the stalls of a market.

A spokesman for the district police said its officers do not hold joint raids with activists. But organizers for several of the groups said that about 40 members of law enforcement, including local police and immigration officers, attended the raid. Photo and video reports uploaded to social networking sites showed officers and group members making arrests side by side, and the police marching detainees to buses.

“We create a perimeter; the police check documents,” said Igor Mangushev, the head of Light Russia, which has been holding raids for two years and asserts that it has had more than 1,000 migrant workers deported.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Mangushev said that his group had cooperated with the police in joint raids in three city districts. Last month’s operation also served as a training exercise for newer organizations, he added.

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