MOSCOW — Nadesda Vilkina is a former schoolteacher from Chechnya who now makes her home in Moscow's Kursky train station.
But according to Russian authorities, she does not officially exist.
Mrs. Vilkina and her husband left Chechnya after their son died and their house burned down in the 1994-1996 war. On their first night in Moscow, a thief stole their belongings. All that was left was a smudged photocopy stating that their IDs were destroyed. That wasn't enough for police, who picked up her husband for not having the proper registration and held him for several days.
Their story is similar to those of thousands of other displaced ethnic minorities and foreign refugees. Says Vilkina, "The attitude we face in Moscow is: 'We are sick of you, get out of here.' But I have nowhere else to go."
Human rights activists are alarmed by what they say is Moscow's intolerance toward dark-complexioned outsiders. Since the Soviet Union's collapse seven years ago, the city has received a flood of migrants. But the same old strict social controls and suspicion of strangers persist.
"Anti-Semitic hatred a century ago has been transferred to a new target - ethnic minorities of dark skin. The police will grab anyone with the wrong-shaped nose," says Lidia Grafova, a human rights campaigner. Her Coordinating Council for Assistance to Refugees and Forced Migrants, which works closely with the United Nations refugee agency, is trying to fight a legal Catch-22 that makes life difficult for asylum-seekers in the Russian capital.
Although a Commonwealth of Independent States law mandates free movement of people within the Russian-dominated federation, the Moscow government has revived the Soviet-era practice of demanding registration for all city residents. Without such a document, a person can be imprisoned or fined. But immigration officials often refuse to accept registration forms from displaced people and refugees. Human rights groups say those without such documents are afraid to report crimes against them, and are at the mercy of poorly paid police. They say those unwilling or unable to pay bribes may be beaten or jailed.
Angolan Fernando Mozala sits with other asylum-seekers at a UN-run clearinghouse. Touching his cheek, bandaged after a police beating, Mr. Mozala describes harassment by authorities. "At every hour the police demand money. They don't accept these [United Nations] documents," he says. "When I was in jail I wasn't allowed to call anyone. I don't have any protection."
Yuri Ovsyannikov, an official with the interior ministry's visa and registration department, says there is no official policy of harassment.
"On the official level, there are no violations of human rights," he says. "But of course there are some cases in real life of militia officers who violate them." Mr. Ovsyannikov adds, police have to be vigilant of the displaced and refugees, because "sometimes they are used by criminals or commit crimes themselves."
Refugee activists say Moscow's powerful mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, bears much of the responsibility for the problem. Although Russia's Constitutional Court has ruled the registration system illegal, Mr. Luzhkov declared last month, "The [registration] will exist in Moscow all the same."
In Luzkhov's defense, the swell of humanity is a lot to absorb. Some 4.5 million people are thought to be uprooted throughout Russia. In Moscow's official population of 10 million, there are 12,000 officially registered as displaced, although officials believe the number is far higher. An additional 32,000 foreigners have sought refugee status from countries including Afghanistan, Somalia, Angola, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
Authorities say they lack the resources to cope and that wealthier Western countries should accept responsibility for the displaced. "These people have a lot of problems. But we do not have the social or economic conditions to resolve them properly," says Yuri Achiprov, an official with the Federal Migration Service.
Such words do not placate the UN refugee agency. About 4,000 refugees have been deported and only 15 applicants granted asylum, says Djamel Zamdum, director of the UN refugee reception center in Moscow.
He adds, "This is negligible. There is a true lack of political will to tackle the problem."