11.05.23 Analytics

The Elephant and the Whale of Migration Policy: Who Needs the Issue of Migrant Crime and Why?

A new phase in the struggle over the regulation and control of labour migration is unfolding in Russia. As usual, the struggle is based on two strands of logic and the tussle between the economic lobby and the security lobby. The economic lobby wants to streamline and simplify the process of registering migrants. Its idea is to transfer the responsibilities of the Migration Directorate of the Ministry of the Interior to federal state unitary enterprises under the control of the Ministry of Economy and local authorities. Ideally, they will be able to extend the experiences of Sobyanin's multifunctional centres in Moscow to this area. The security lobby, supported by the Human Rights Council and the Investigative Committee, is interested in maintaining the precarity of migrants. The myth of migrant criminality is their populist trump card in this battle.

The Whale and the Elephant of Migration Policy

The Russian economy cannot survive without an influx of workers from abroad. This was made clear once again when Сovid restrictions were lifted in 2021. The war has created new tensions in the labour market as a result of mobilisation and a growing need for unskilled labour, including in the occupied territories.

Russia registers 10-15 million foreigners each year, 80% of which come from CIS countries. Most migrants (82%) come to work. And, although the total inflow of migrants in 2022 is comparable to pre-crisis figures (2012-2019), the number of provisional and temporary residence permits issued in Russia this year has increased by 54,000 compared to the figures from the previous year.

However, there is an ongoing struggle between two logics when it comes to the regulation and control of migration in Russia — an economic logic and a security logic. While economic lobbyists are keen to simplify and standardise the country's migration policy, the security lobby sees the disenfranchisement of migrants as a tool to be used for one purpose or another. It must therefore be cultivated through obtuse and complex regulations.

Following the dissolution of the Federal Migration Service in 2016, control over migration was transferred to the Interior Ministry's Main Directorate for Migration. And, at the end of last year, amid new challenges in the labour market, the Interior Ministry proposed to transfer the authority for migrant registration and issuance of work permits to its subordinate Federal Passport and Visa Service and to regional organisations such as the multifunctional centres, which are tasked with, among other things, the digitisation of migration registration. The first bill to this effect was submitted to the Duma in November last year, the second in early May 2023.

For the security lobby, a reorganised Human Rights Council entered the fray on the side of the Interior Ministry. In its negative report on the first draft of this law, the revamped Council expressed both conventional and fresh anti-migrant narratives: ‘large numbers of foreign labour migrants continue to travel to Russia's megacities, not to its labour-scarce regions’, while megacities become ‘hotspots of unrest and create a great atmosphere for externally created revolutions’; migrants increase ‘risks of a strengthened shadow economy’ and form ‘ethnic enclaves consolidated by ethnic business’.

Shortly before the second bill was introduced, the chairman of the Investigative Committee (IC), Alexander Bastrykin, joined the fight, employing classic populist anti-migrant rhetoric: the claim that crime is on the rise because of migration. Bastrykin stated that, in 2022, three times as many crimes were committed by foreigners in Russia as in 2021. According to Bastrykin, in 2022, there were 4,729 reports of crimes committed by foreigners and 4,231 criminal cases were opened. Bastrykin's statistics on serious and extremely serious crimes appeared even more frightening: according to the IC, the number of such crimes committed by foreigners in Russia has increased fivefold over the past year.

How the Migrant Crime Myth Works

Unlike statistics on migration, law enforcement data on crimes committed by migrants in Russia varies depending on who is included in the statistics, internal regulations, differences in databases and other factors. In an attempt to shed light on the issue of rising crime among migrants, Important Stories compared figures from the Investigative Committee with those from the Prosecutor General's Office. The latter cites figures that are dozens of times higher than those published by the IC: according to the agency's statistics, in 2022, foreigners and stateless persons committed more than 40.1 thousand crimes on the territory of the Russian Federation. By comparison, the figure for 2021 was 36.4 thousand crimes. This suggests that non-citizens are breaking the law more often, but not three times as often as stated by Bastrykin.  The increase was only 10.3%. At the same time, the Prosecutor General's Office recorded 21.1 thousand foreign nationals and stateless persons who committed crimes in 2022.

If we compare the level of crime committed by migrants with the crime rate among Russians, Bastrykin's statement appears to have been made up to be a bogeyman. According to the statistics cited by Important Stories, only two or three of every thousand migrants commit crimes, a figure that has not changed over the past six years. Among Russians, the figure is twice as high: six in every thousand people break the laws of the Russian Federation. In total, 1.9 million crimes were committed in 2022, suggesting that migrants account for only about 2% of all offences committed in Russia. Thus, the 'norm' of crime among migrants is lower than among Russians.

Russia's regions are also keeping a close eye on migrant crime statistics. Representatives of the Novosibirsk Regional Prosecutor's Office, for example, claim that migrants commit just over 1% of all crimes per year, most of these are related to migration procedures, phone fraud and theft. This is clearly in line with federal statistics.

Crime in Russia, 2019-2022

Similarly, Bastrykin's claim that migrants are more likely to commit serious crimes is not based on evidence and is an assertion intended to scaremonger. According to statistics from the Prosecutor General's Office, the number of murders and crimes involving serious harm to health committed by migrants increased by less than 100 cases to a total of 380 cases in all of 2022 — less than 1% of all new crimes committed by foreigners and stateless persons. Important Stories clarifies this data: ‘If you add beatings and rapes to murders, you get about 2,400, or about 6% of all crimes in 2022.’ Of all sexual offences committed between 2015 and 2021, the reporters calculated that only 5% involved migrants.

In reality, the structure of migrant crime looks more like this: a third of migrant crimes are theft or other property crimes. In 2022, the number of such offences increased by 700 cases. On average, in Russia, another third of all migrant crimes are related to document falsification and violation of migration legislation, which are offences specific to migrants. Significantly, with the exception of Moscow and St. Petersburg, most of the crimes committed by foreigners are registered in the border regions: Orenburg, Rostov, Smolensk, and Chelyabinsk. This phenomenon suggests that the main reason for the increase in crime statistics among migrants is not their criminal tendencies, but rather strict migration legislation and enhanced border control measures. In this way, law enforcement agencies can adjust data on migrant crime by manipulating the rigidity of migration regulations. Moreover, an investigation by Novaya Gazeta uncovered evidence that foreigners are often the victims of the reclassification of administrative cases as criminal ones. In other words, Interior Ministry officials meet their performance indicators for reporting offences at the expense of migrants.

The majority of criminal offences committed by migrants in Russia are drug-related (in this sense, the situation of migrants is similar to that of ordinary Russians). In 2022, drug distribution accounted for more than 80% of new crimes committed by non-Russian citizens. However, the reason for the increase in such crimes is different: in some regions, the rules of counting have changed and each ‘dead drop’ (a common method of selling drugs in Russia) is now considered a separate crime, which automatically increases the number of crimes related to drug trafficking.

Crimes committed by foreign nationals in Russia, 2022, thousand 

The distortion of crime statistics is a problem that experts have been highlighting for years. Inter-agency competition leads to total incomparability of data. As a result, researchers say, national statistics are the result of compromises made between agencies and departmental estimation systems, and are thus a poor reflection of actual crime.

So, while the economic lobby is interested in transferring powers to Federal State Unitary Enterprises with the goal of replicating the experience of Sobyanin's multifunctional centres, the security lobby is using the issue of migrant crime to advance its own agenda. In 2021, for example, Bastrykin proposed the introduction of genomic registration for foreigners arriving in Russia. And, over the past year, the security lobby has been predominantly concerned with strategies to involve migrants in the hostilities in Ukraine. The transfer of the power to register and track migrants to commercial Federal State Unitary Enterprises will almost certainly make life much easier for migrants. However, the security services will still fight to maintain migrants' precarious position in Russian society and thus their control over them. Therefore, the issue of migrant crime is likely to be raised again and again in the near future.