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(Moscow) – Moscow police have detained thousands of suspected irregular migrants since late July 2013, for alleged violation of migration and employment regulations. Hundreds are in custody, including in a makeshift tent camp in inhuman conditions. Russia should immediately halt these arbitrary detentions and the degrading treatment of migrants.

At the end of July, Moscow police opened a massive campaign in Russia’s capital against irregular migrants, sweeping through street markets and other places where many migrants gather, and detaining people based on their non-Slavic appearance. According to media reports, over 4,000 people have been taken into custody, including nationals of Vietnam, Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt, Morocco, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

“Everything about this massive sweep violates Russia’s obligations under international law,” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. “Prolonged detention without counsel, ethnic profiling, inhuman conditions – it should stop now.”

The migrants are being held in police detention centers and holding centers for foreign nationals, with courts ordering their deportation based on perfunctory, rubber-stamp hearings. The government should guarantee the fundamental rights of anyone taken into custody and provide detention conditions that meet international standards, Human Rights Watch said.

Police sweeps are still going on. According to media reports, over 1,000 more people were apprehended at the Gardener Market in Moscow on August 7. On August 8, police authorities and city militia carried out a sweep by the entrance to the metro next to one of the main train stations in the city. Throughout the day, Human Rights Watch observed people who did not have a Slavic appearance get stopped and questioned by police at central metro stations in a clear-cut ethnic profiling operation.

Undocumented migration and crime in Russia’s capital are high on the political agenda in the lead up to the September mayoral elections. Concerns about rising migration and “ethnic” crime have become a dominant feature of official pre-election rhetoric. The massive campaign against irregular migrants was allegedly triggered by an incident at an open-air market in Moscow on July 27, when a policeman attempting to arrest a rape suspect from Russia’s North Caucasus was attacked by the suspect’s relatives and seriously injured.

With police facilities and holding centers full to overflowing, the authorities built a makeshift camp in the eastern part of Moscow, herding hundreds of people into tents with no electricity, no communications, appalling sanitation conditions, inadequate food, and lack of access to potable water.

Migrants detained during police raids typically have had no access to legal counsel or translators. They have not been able to inform family members of their fate and whereabouts, and were not allowed to pack any belongings or retrieve documents they were not carrying at the time they were detained. Some who are awaiting deportation are asylum seekers or have lawful residence permits, and thus have a legal right to be in Russia.

Systematically detaining people who appear to be of different ethnic or racial background without a reasonable suspicion of individual wrongdoing is discriminatory and constitutes arbitrary deprivation of liberty in violation of national and international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said.

On August 2, the day after a police raid of sewing sweatshops employing over 1000 allegedly irregular Vietnamese workers, the Emergencies Ministry hastily built a large tent camp in Golyanovo, in the eastern part of Moscow. The camp supposedly has the capacity to accommodate 900 people but its legal status is unclear. By August 4, it held over 600 migrants under close police surveillance. By August 7, most of the women had been moved to police detention centers and the number of people at the camp had decreased to approximately 500. Also on August 7, the authorities had to hospitalize 30 of the camp’s inmates due to severe skin rash and allergies of unknown origin.

According to media reports, some of those detained are taken to police precincts across Moscow, where the holding conditions are even more problematic than at the Golyanovo camp.

Svetlana Gannushkina, head of the Civic Assistance Committee, a human rights group that provides legal assistance to migrants and asylum seekers, said that under Russian law, foreign nationals subject to deportation can be held only in specialized holding centers. “Golyanovo is essentially an unlawful detention facility,” Gannushkina told Human Rights Watch. She said that three of her group’s pro bono clients – two Syrian nationals and an Afghan national – being held in the camp awaiting deportation are asylum seekers protected by international law.

Russia’s ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, told the news media that the sanitary conditions at the camp were unacceptable, especially the state of the toilets and the lack of proper washing facilities. Gannushkina, who visited the camp jointly with Lukin, described the conditions in the camp to Human Rights Watch as “inhuman.”

Alexander Kulikovsky, a human rights activist on the public advisory board of the Moscow City Police Department, who recently visited the camp several times, told Human Rights Watch that detainees had no access to potable water and their intake of liquids was limited to tea provided with their clearly inadequate meals.

He said that because the camp had no hot water, detainees have not been able to wash properly since they arrived. He also said that the authorities failed to provide them with such basic necessities as soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes, towels, underwear, footwear, medical kits, etc. The tents were dirty and overcrowded and appeared unprotected from inclement weather, he said. Dozens of photographs of the camp examined by Human Rights Watch confirm this assessment.

Kulikovsky said detainees cannot communicate with family members or lawyers, as access to the camp is restricted and there are no payphones or facilities to charge cell phones.

The Civic Assistance Committee told Human Rights Watch that its staff lawyer encountered severe obstacles when she went to the camp on August 6, to meet with their three clients. The police prevented the lawyer from entering the camp for about two hours, demanding “special permission” and trying to wave her off despite her repeated explanations that lawyers need no “permission” to see their clients.

Finally, after the group made several phone calls to the authorities, she was able to see two of her three clients. However, the police allowed them no privacy, so they had to speak standing on opposite sides of a hedge under the surveillance of a police officer.

“Obstructing a meeting between a lawyer and his or her client in detention is a blatant violation of international human rights law,” Lokshina said.

The absence of phones and translators has worsened the problem of lack of access to counsel, leaving the detainees facing great obstacles in challenging the legality of their detention or requesting asylum, Human Rights Watch said.

Gannushkina told Human Rights Watch that most of the migrants she interviewed in the camp had no money and had not been paid for the work they were doing before they were detained. They said their documents, clothing, and other possessions had been left behind at the dormitories where they had been staying. The migrants were particularly concerned that they would not be able to reclaim their papers and personal belongings, she said.

Others had their migration cards and work permits with them, but told Gannushkina that the court would not examine their documents or listen to the migrants’ explanations. Court deportation orders appeared to be made automatically, with no consideration for the specifics of individual cases. An Afghan asylum seeker held in Golyanovo informed the Civic Assistance Committee that during his court hearings he had been given no opportunity to inform the judge about his status.

In the detentions Human Rights Watch observed on August 8, some of the people targeted were apparently taken into custody for being unable to answer questions because they did not speak enough Russian and police officials had no translators with them. Kulikovsky said that five Tajikistan nationals detained by police in July spent 14 days at the temporary detention center of a police precinct, in inhuman conditions. Russian law does not allow police to hold people at police precincts for longer than 48 hours. The cells are not designed for longer stays, and the precincts do not have adequate sanitary facilities. The Civic Assistance Committee also told Human Rights Watch that they are aware of dozens of people who were unlawfully held at police precincts for three to five days awaiting court hearings.

“Nothing can justify massive detentions based on ethnic profiling,” Lokshina said. “If the authorities are serious about improving security and public order in Moscow, they should focus on fighting crime and stop trying to divert public discontent by using migrants as scapegoats.”

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