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Analysis & Opinion
14.11.11 Lessons In Migration
By Svetlana Kononova

United Russia deputies have proposed a new draft law in the State Duma that will require migrants coming to work in Russia to prove their knowledge of Russian through a language test or other documents. The law, which was developed by Deputy Speaker of Parliament Oleg Morozov and his colleagues, will make language exams obligatory for all foreigners who want to work in the public sector, housing and communal services and trade. If the legislation gets passed, migrants will also be able to prove their Russian language skills with a high school or university diploma issued before September 1, 1991, or in Russia at any time.

According to the authors of the bill, about 200 educational institutions in Russia already offer language courses for foreigners, conduct exams and grant certificates. The Russian Education and Science Ministry has already developed a language test for migrants. The bill envisages migrants covering the costs of this language test out of their own pockets.

Currently most foreigners who apply for Russian citizenship have to pass language tests. However, only 3,500 of 1.24 million working migrants from countries that have a visa-free regime with Russia received such certificates last year, the lawmakers said. The authors of the draft law believe that most young migrants who come from former Soviet republics have poor knowledge of Russian, which leads to ethnic tension. They also think that improving language skills would help migrants to understand, and better protect, their rights, while also helping them to integrate into society faster. A similar practice of obligatory language tests for foreigners exists in the United States and many European countries, the deputies said.

But immigration experts and human rights activists criticized the lawmakers’ initiative as an anti-migration measure, which might breed corruption in the country. “As usual, this proposal is a concealed attempt to hinder migration,” said Ella Levkovskaya, a manager of the Migration Barometer in the Russian Federation project at the New Eurasia Foundation. “If foreigners trying to find their place in a host country have poor knowledge of the local language, it is their personal problem. Of course, it is good when a state helps migrants to learn the language – if they try to do something about this in Russia, and in the migrants’ home countries, that would be right. But the latest restrictive draft [on obligatory language tests] will increase illegal migration and corruption.”

Gavhar Juraeva, the president of the Migration and Law Centre, an NGO that offers information and legal assistance, agreed with this point of view. “Strategically, the idea that migrants should know Russian is absolutely right. It is especially important for people who work in the service sector and contact clients on a daily basis. But I fear that later on, the Russian test may become obligatory for all foreigners who wish to work in the country. If this happens, it would require huge investment and put extra financial pressure on migrants,” she said.

Juraeva estimated that language tests will cost from 3,000 to 6,000 rubles (about $100 to $200) depending on the educational institution where they are taken. Migrants currently pay middlemen 1,500 rubles (about $50) for registration and 25,000 to 30,000 rubles ($750 to $1000) for a work permit. “This money doesn’t go into the state budget; migrants are part of a corrupt system. If the language test became obligatory, migrants would be forced to buy test certificates and pay middlemen extra money,” she said.

The Migration and Law Centre works on decreasing the number of non-working migrants who can’t find a job and can’t go home for financial reasons. It also protects the rights of working migrants and has proposed a few simple ways to help migrants escape the vicious cycle of corruption. For example, newcomers could pay the state a certain amount of money for the right to work when they cross the Russian border. The organization has also made proposals on improving migrants’ Russian language skills. “Most migrants have basic Russian speaking and writing skills, and there are many ways to improve this knowledge. For example, migrants could learn the language using online educational programs in free public libraries. That would be much cheaper than organizing classes,” Juraeva said.

Sergei Kilyazov, an immigration adviser, said that amendments to the Federal Law on Migration are not likely to be put up for public discussion, but will be routinely approved from above. “If the draft is approved, the lives of migrants in Russia will become more difficult, and opportunities to work legally will be reduced, especially for the unskilled labor force. Even now, in 2011, foreigners are already struggling to get a work permit by themselves in some regions of Russia, including Moscow, due to decreasing quotas. Next year quotas will remain the same. This means that the possible introduction of a language test would create the kind of environment for average working migrants from visa-free countries that is likely to boost the illegal job market,” Kilyazov said.

Russian has more native speakers in Europe than any other language. There are 165 million native speakers at home and abroad, and 115 million people who speak Russian as a second language. It is the fourth most-spoken language in the world. But according to official statistics, the number of native Russian speakers has decreased by nine million since the collapse of Soviet Union because of demographic changes in Russia and CIS countries. If this trend continues, the number of Russian speakers may half in the next 20 years, scientists warn.
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