During the war against criminal elements at Moscow markets, the Moscow police have arrested more than 3 thousand illegal migrants since the end of July, most of whom are Vietnamese. How did these citizens of distant Asian countries end up in the basements of the Ancient Capital – The New Times investigates.

A concrete wall topped with a web of barbed wire extends far into the horizon; iron gates big enough for a wagon to pass through open a couple of metres, just wide enough for journalists in a narrow column to file into the tent camp in Golyanovo. About 513 Vietnamese citizens live here in khaki army tents, awaiting deportation. The press tour resembles a small African safari, where tourists are asked to take photographs only from the vehicle and not to stick their heads outside and remain close to their tour guide. During the “safari,” you occasionally encounter the broad-shouldered silent warriors of the OMON special mobile forces, and if you manage to get close to the “victim” you unsuccessfully try to talk to it. The people huddling on the other side of the metal fences do not understand Russian (or pretend not to). The well-dressed correspondent of TVC television channel on her high heels and with white make-up on her face insistently asks one and the same question: “Do you want to work in Russia?” The migrants nod their heads, until someone finally gives the long-awaited answer, “yes.”

Shower, laundry and fresh air…

“Shower, laundry, field kitchen, fresh air,” Anton Tsvetkov, the human rights activist and deputy chairman of the Public Commission of the State Directorate of the Ministry of the Interior in Russia, constantly praises the camp. He claims that the camp is much better than the temporary custody centre for foreign citizens where they have “no shoelaces, no fridges and all exercise is according to a timetable.”

The Vietnamese do not look unhappy, they are playing cards and badminton, washing their clothes, smoking tobacco from a long metal pipe, clearly meant for something else. The journalists are impatiently waiting for their “military interpreter” in order to speak to the residents of the camp. Not all of them, however. The TVC team filmed the official part and are ready to leave. But then something terrible happens: The press secretary of the State Directorate of the Ministry of Interior, Nataliya Safonova (sunglasses, flower print dress) catches journalists from the online site lenta.ru red handed. They found an interpreter from the Vietnamese embassy working in the camp who politely agreed to help them. Natalya begins to shout hysterically and literally pushes the journalists out of the camp. “The press conference is over for people like you. For you and for the other journalists. Take them away. Give me the contact details of your managers; they’ll explain everything to you.” The TVC camera crew gets involved and starts filming their colleagues from lenta.ru with the commentary: “Just look how the representatives of the so-called Mass Media are infringing the rights of journalists.”

Finally, Pavel, the “right” interpreter, turns up. We were banned from filming him and he spoke bad Vietnamese. He even had to use his dictionary for the word “religion”. When the journalists asked if there were any complaints, the Vietnamese answered in detail in a single voice. Pavel translated calmly: ‘Everything is fine, they have nothing to complain about.’ Perhaps Pasha was not telling the truth; perhaps the Vietnamese really were saying that they were happy with everything in the camp, it was impossible to understand. They answered the other questions as though they were being interrogated. “I came to Moscow as a tourist; I liked it and stayed here. I lost my passport and if I get deported, I’ll come back again…”

The uncatchable

Between 60 thousand and 1 million Vietnamese are living in Moscow according to different assessments. However, it is not an easy matter to find someone ready to talk to the press, even anonymously. Unlike migrants from Central Asia, Vietnamese migrants prefer to keep to each to other and not show themselves in public.

“I don’t see any benefit in talking to you, but I do see a lot of danger,” a Vietnamese businessman told The New Times. He has lived in Russia for a long time and really has nothing to be afraid of. “I don’t understand. Closed,” a Vietnamese guard angrily shouts at us at an industrial zone in the North of Moscow, where one of many sewing factories is situated. “The director’s not here. He doesn’t speak Russian. He’s busy. He’s leaving today,” the sales manager of the same factory who arrived at work that morning lied blatantly. The majority of the traders in the “Moscow” trade centre in Lublino silently nodded their heads when they realised that their visitor was not interested in jeans. The ones who were caught were those who didn’t manage to “forget” Russian in time.

Lio Din Thang who works as a security guard in a business centre not far from the Golyanovo camp told The New Times that even in his small village 400km from Hanoi there was an agency that sent workers to Russia. It was too expensive for most Vietnamese to visit the agency direct from the street; they tried to find friends or relatives to negotiate a reduction. Lio Din Thang was lucky. When he came to Moscow seven years ago, his uncle was already working here. He had found work as a security guard in the hostel where his compatriots from the famous Cherkizovskii Market lived. The market was closed and Russian entrepreneurs came to the business centre. Lio Din Thang remained living in a tiny 2×5 closet with shared facilities. Since his uncle found work for him, Le Din paid only 2000 dollar for a one year student visa and tickets. Now Lio Din earns about 15 thousand roubles per month and sends most of it home. In Vietnam the average salary is $40-50, but that’s just in theory because there isn’t any work there.

“In Vietnam everything is on a conveyor belt,” the chairman of the Society for the Protection of Rights of Migrants, Irina Zisman, explains to The New Times, “When two people are interested in each other, then there will always be a mediator who will help them find the path to each other. If you want to go to Russia to work, you can’t just go to the Russian Embassy. There are people who will sort out your passport, others will wait at the consular department, where they will offer to send you an invitation, others will help you find work. Can you do this yourself? We have a very popular “all inclusive” service. The entire process from getting the passport to the sewing machine can cost up to 5000 dollar. 2000 dollar is paid there, and the rest is paid on arrival.”

The future tailors and traders are met at the airport by representatives of the mediation companies. They help them cross the border and take them to their work place in the industrial zone. The doors are closed behind them and they might spend a year behind them not leaving the confines of the factory. But why? In the Vietnamese towns everything is Vietnamese. You don’t have to speak Russian and you have everything you need in order to live. A canteen, baths, shops with Vietnamese goods, medical facilities, Internet, Vietnamese books and newspapers, there are even karaoke and billiard events.

Of course, 5000 dollars is a fortune for most Vietnamese, so ordinary families can afford to send one or a maximum of two people abroad and they will feed the rest of their family in Vietnam. The money is borrowed, often against a property pledge. The interest rates are high, sometimes up to 20% annually. If the family is not too big and there aren’t any gaps in their salary in Russia, (sewers usually earn $300-$400, and market traders $500-$700), then the debt is paid off in about five years.

“If this had been organised in Russia, then there would have been “scams” at every step,” Irina Zisman says, “But the Vietnamese aren’t like that.” The salary is agreed in advance, most of it is immediately sent to Vietnam, the employer arranges accommodation, the volume and work and timely payment.

People in terms of quota

Tin Vu from the “Moscow” trade centre in Lublino proudly shows off his passport and tells The New Times that the annual extension of his visa and work permit costs him 1300 dollar. “We do it all through a firm,” he explains.

Of course, Tin Vu could have saved money if he had gone directly to the Federal Migration Service: Officially the cost of the quota for each worker is 6000 roubles per year plus the tax for issuing the work permit – 2000 roubles and the cost of the visa – 80 dollar, which amounts to 10 500 roubles. However, it is practically impossible to get the documents issued directly,” says Lin, a compatriot of Tin Vu, the manager of a Vietnamese restaurant. In her words, the FMS previously issued quotas easily but now they have begun to refuse them without any reasons or to issue far fewer than are necessary, forcing businessmen who want to work legitimately to turn to mediators or to force their workers to work illegally. “I know of some examples where the owner of a sewing factory received the necessary quota of 500 workers one year. He brought in the people he needed, then the next year he was given a quota of only 90. What was he to do? He couldn’t send them all back, could he?” Lin said crossly. “That’s why mediators are used to get work permits for everyone, even prostitutes. It’s just a question of paying!” In Lin’s opinion, quotas and all the documents need to be issued for a “minimum of three years, otherwise it’s impossible to plan and conduct business.”

Tin Vu came to Russia 23 years ago, under the rule of Gorbachev, and during that time has witnessed all the stages of development of Vietnamese business.

The first workers from socialist Vietnam started coming to the USSR after the signature of an agreement in 1981 with Hanoi allowing the appointment of Vietnamese to Soviet enterprises and universities. Tin Vu was allocated to a factory in Tver (although he worked there for more than a year, he has forgotten the name of the factory. He says he was employed as an engineer). After the collapse of the USSR, some returned home, but many remained in Russia, getting places in colleges to ensure student visas, but at the same time trading with whatever they could. Tin Vu did not go to college; he started working as a trader on a wholesale market, and he stayed in trade, having worked at almost all the Moscow markets over the past 20 years.

“Vietnamese like to imitate each other,” Lin smiles. “In 1993 the first wholesale market was opened, and a year later there were a number of such markets.” Chinese, Polish and Turkish goods were imported by Vietnamese and Chinese travelling traders and brought to Moscow. The Moscow Vietnamese sold these goods to Vietnamese in the regions. Markets were opened in former hostels or hotels, where the rooms served as both shops and homes.

Two years later in 1995, the first Vietnamese retail markets started sprouting out of the ground like mushrooms, almost half of Moscow bought their clothes from them. “In 2000 they realised: why bring Chinese and Vietnamese clothes here when it’s more profitable to bring the Vietnamese girls who make the clothes here,” says Irina Zisman. In recent years most of the sewing and trading hostels have been closed down, so the Vietnamese now live under ground. “In Moscow there are about twenty semi-underground Vietnamese towns, where about 600,000 people live. Everyone knows where they are,” Irina Zisman continues. “Administrative or manufacturing buildings that are either closed for reconstruction or officially demolished, are easily rented out to Vietnamese businessmen who fill them with thousands of their compatriots.”

They’ll never leave

The peace and calm of the residents of the Vietnam towns depends on the mood of the local police, representatives of the FMS and other services. Raids are a very rare event. They are normally restricted to planned and announced visits by representatives of the authorities, during which for appearance’s sake they check the documents of the exemplary workers and collect a “tribute” from all the others. Depending on the region the cost of peace and calm can cost between 1,000 and 3,000 roubles per person per month. Taking into account that up to 500 people work in the largest factories, this is not an insignificant catch.

“But if someone is picking on you and for some reason of statistic or policy you need to be arrested and deported, like the case in Golyanovo, then there are a load of ways of getting out of it,” says Irina Zisman. When foreigners commit a breach of residence terms in Russia, an expulsion mark should be placed in their passport and for a period of five years they cannot obtain a new visa, which means that all the money paid is simply wasted. Therefore, everything has to be done to avoid such a stamp in the passport. This can be done by leaving the Russian Federation and returning with a new invitation. The companies that acquire visas and work permits can also procure an exit visa without expulsion. It costs 500 dollar, but a ticket needs to be purchased, and then a new Russian visa is obtained in Vietnam. For many people this takes too long and is too troublesome. “You can get a visa and work permit in Russia, and send the passport back with an official of the Vietnamese embassy, who will place a stamp in the passport for crossing the border in Hanoi and Sheremetievo,” says Irina Zisman, “This service costs about 1,000 dollar.”

However, if you don’t have the money, you can just “lose” your passport, like the 513 “prisoners in Golyanovo” did. The Russian authorities cannot by law expel such a migrant, since his citizenship cannot be established. In this case they can obtain a certificate from the embassy allowing them to return home. They use it to return home and get a new passport and come back to Russia the same way as the first time. Or they can get a new passport directly from the Vietnamese embassy, but it costs a little more.

“In Vietnam the importance of a consul in any country is defined by how many clean passport covers he is given to take with him,” says Irina Zisman, “because if you want to obtain a passport in compliance with all the formalities, you will have to wait about three months, while the embassy sends an inquiry to your village and obtains an answer. Or you can pay 300 dollar and get everything done in three days.” The new passport does not contain any stamps relating to arrival, and so there can be no infringement of the period of stay. The holder can leave and come back again.

Actually it seems that the Golyanovo migrants have decided to ask the Vietnamese Embassy not to hurry to issue the certificates to return home. In the words of the human rights lawyer, Anton Tsvetkov, it is difficult even to determine the names of the arrestees since they use invented names. “All assumptions of the Russian officials about when they (the migrants) will be deported carry no weight, since everything depends on the Vietnamese embassy” says Anton Tsvetkov during the press tour of the Golyanovo camp. The Russian authorities once again appear to have overestimated their force when they made such a fuss around the arrestees. The 513 migrants hung around in Golyanovo, until the moment that Edward Snowden, who leaked the NSA documents, got stuck in Sheremetievo airport.

Irina Zisman knows a lot about the world of migrants and she says confidently, “Do you know why the Vietnamese were arrested? You can’t get a lot from the Uzbeks, and the Vietnamese are always willing to pay; either they or their employees always have set aside resources for such purposes. So you see, they will never leave.” •