Lawyer Alexander Popkov, facing an officer guarding the way into a district police station in Russia’s Winter Olympics host city of Sochi, turned on his phone camera and launched into a tirade.
“I’d like to report a crime,” he told the stony-faced policeman. “You have dozens of people detained illegally in your courtyard.”
Popkov has been trying to help people detained in a city-wide round-up of illegal migrants ahead of the Games in February — many of whom are employed to build infrastructure for the event.
“It’s a wide sweep, they detain everyone, and then start figuring out what to do with them,” said Popkov, who offers his services pro-bono to a consultation center set up by rights group, Memorial.
“We work with migrant workers, but now we are forced to help all Sochi visitors, even Russian tourists,” who have also been targeted, he said.
The raids started last month, when the governor of Krasnodar region, Alexander Tkachev, approved 60 “mobile squads” designed to rout illegal migrants.
Tkachev is a loyalist to Russian President Vladimir Putin who has dipped into nationalist rhetoric on many occasions. He has dispatched Cossacks to team up with migration officials and police in checking every Sochi apartment where migrants might hide.
In one recent visit to the central Sochi police station, Cossacks in traditional garb flanked by men in migration service jackets along with police officers brought in two busloads of men, presumed to be migrants, over the course of just one hour.
Workers are rounded up in their homes, in the street, or just outside construction sites, and often spend at least a night in detention, disrupting work, said a representative of one construction company who came looking for a vanished Uzbek worker.
Large numbers of migrants are being employed by construction firms racing to finish Olympic-related building works on time.
“Anti-migrant groups wait by our site like hawks, and then detain workers as they leave,” the company representative said, who did not want to give her name.
“Two hundred workers would leave for the night, and in the morning 150 would show up at work. Where did 50 workers go? Nobody knows,” she said.
The Uzbek worker, who had all his papers in order, was returned to his employer after spending almost three days in the police station courtyard, where people have to go without food or a place to sleep.
The campaign has even affected Russian citizens on vacation in Sochi. Squads have kept them for several hours without explanation just because of their “ethnic” looks, one detainee said.
“We showed them our bus tickets, our Russian passports, but they took us to the station anyway,” said Zair Isayev, who was detained along with two friends and nearly 300 other people crowded in the rain with no shelter.
“We were just in Sochi for three days of vacation, how can they treat tourists like that?” said Isayev, who lives in the southern Astrakhan region. “I’ll never go to Sochi again, even to the Olympics. The Olympics can go to hell.”