1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Russia's Tajiks face discrimination after Moscow attack

Maria Katamadze in Riga, Latvia
March 27, 2024

Many Central Asians in Russia, especially the Tajik community, have faced heightened xenophobia following the recent attack on a concert hall near Moscow. Some politicians have also called for curbs on immigration.

Five young Central Asian men seen in front of tents, leaning on a yellow metal barrier
Central Asian migrants have long experienced xenophobic intimidation in RussiaImage: Denis Vyshinsky/dpa/picture alliance

"Are you Tajik? If you are, cancel the ride."

This was what many taxi drivers in Russia have heard from potential customers following last Friday's attack on the Crocus City Hall near Moscow. The attack claimed the lives of at least 139 people, either shot at point-blank range or suffocated by the smoke when the attackers set the concert hall on fire.

This week, the Basmanny District Court in Moscow arrested 11 people, including seven of Tajik origin, who are suspected of committing or of being complicit in the biggest such attack Russia has witnessed in past decades. While Russia has pointed fingers at Ukraine, a branch of the militant group "Islamic State" known as ISIS-K has claimed responsibility for the attack and released body-cam footage of the carnage.

 Man being manhandled into court by Russian security officials
Seven Tajik nationals were among those detained in relation to the attack on the concert hallImage: Sefa Karacan/Anadolu/picture alliance

The nationality of the suspects has sparked a heated debate on tightening migration laws among Russian policymakers. It has also led to rising xenophobia against the Central Asian community working and living in Russia, particularly Tajik nationals.

Travel warnings for Central Asian migrants

In the wake of the deadly attack, the Tajik community has warned Tajik nationals against leaving their homes in the evenings, according to reports by Baza, a Russian Telegram news channel. What\s more, some Central Asian states such as Kyrgyzstan, have warned their citizens against traveling to Russia.

While xenophobia has long been a major threat to Central Asian communities in Russia, many Tajiks living there who spoke with DW following the attack are concerned things will now get worse.

Alisher, a fire safety worker from Tajikistan now living in St. Petersburg, told DW that after the attack, he was approached by strangers on the streets.

"Once they asked me about my ethnicity and whether I supported terrorists. I told them that I am a Russian citizen without any accent, and they left me alone. I am here legally, but those who are here without papers are afraid of deportation," he said.

Some Russian far-right and pro-war Telegram channels have been flooded with messages inciting violence against migrants, suggesting that Central Asians and their entire families be deported.

Before the attack, Abdullo, a fruit vendor in one of Moscow's markets and another Tajik national, told DW that he occasionally received xenophobic messages on social media. But after March 22, the hateful messages had become more intense.

"They try to threaten me online to push me to leave Russia. But I don't consider that because I cannot make a good living back home in Tajikistan," he said.

Physical attacks against Tajiks in Russia

Abuse against Central Asians has also not just remained verbal, but also taken on physical form. In Blagoveshchensk, in Russia's Far East region, for example, a cafe shop run by Tajik nationals was set on fire.

In a different incident, in Kaluga, a city located 200 kilometers (around 125 miles) southwest of Moscow, three Tajik nationals were beaten up by persons unknown. Since last Saturday, a group of recently arrived Kyrgyz citizens has been held in the airport for checks.The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti has reported that controls on arriving immigrants may be tightened.

A memorial to the victims of the terrorist attack, with a candle projected on a wall
The Crocus City Hall attack claimed at least 139 lives Image: Dmitry Golubovich/Russian Look/IMAGO

Edward Lemon, an expert on Central Asia and research professor at Texas A&M University, told DW that ordinary Russians perceived the post-Soviet Central Asian region as backwards, despite what they see as efforts to "civilize" it under Russian and Soviet rule. He said "media and nationalist influencers portray Central Asians as uneducated, potential criminals and terrorists. They face marginalization and racism on a daily basis."

Central Asians face police checks, unlawful detentions

However, Central Asians are also facing ethnic discrimination from Russian officials. Russian independent media outlet Mediazona reported that rights groups had received more than 2,500 complaints from Central Asian migrants about unwarranted police checks and unlawful detentions in the two days following the attack. It said dozens of them have even reportedly been subject to torture and deportation.

In the wake of the massacre, Russian policymakers have also been pushing for entry restrictions and digital controls for migrants.

"The suspects reported in the media are migrants. And this raises the problem of migration policy. [...] Information about crimes committed by migrants appears in the media almost daily,"   Sergey Aksyonov, the head of Russian-annexed Crimea, wrote on his Telegram channel on Sunday.

Temur Umarov, a Central Asia expert at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, told DW that while Moscow wants to maintain good relations with its longtime ally Tajikistan, it also can't ignore public feeling in Russia.

"That's why [Russian President Vladimir] Putin emphasizes that the terrorists have no nationality, but that doesn't mean that society has the same attitude. The Russian government has to show that they are dealing with that problem, as some people will not be drawing differences between radical Islamists and labor migrants and pressure the government to limit the number of those migrants," he said.

Russia mourns as concert attack suspects appear in court

Russia depends on migrants

Most migrants from Central Asia come to work in Russia as taxi drivers, janitors and construction workers. According to the Institute of Demographic Research at the Russian Academy of Sciences, more than 3 million Tajik migrants were living in Russia in 2023.

While Umarov thinks the attack will affect migrants both with regard to their situation under law and in day-to-day life, he doubts the Russian state can afford to cut off migrant flows, as the Russian economy relies heavily on Central Asian labor.

"I don't think it is possible to change this situation because there are not enough Russians of a certain age that would be able to replace 5–6 million migrants annually, considering that the demographic situation is getting worse. It will be a miracle if Russia is able to kick out migrants and replace them with Russians," he said.

The names of the Tajik nationals interviewed for this article have been changed to protect their identities.

Edited by: Timothy Jones