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In Pursuit of the African Migrant Experience: HSE Doctoral Student Sheds Light on an Understudied Segment of the Moscow Population

In Pursuit of the African Migrant Experience: HSE Doctoral Student Sheds Light on an Understudied Segment of the Moscow Population

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At the recent seminar of the HSE International Laboratory for Social Integration Research, Isaac Olumayowa Oni, HSE doctoral student and lab research assistant, spoke about African migration to Russia. In an interview with HSE News Service, Isaac discussed his research and talked about what it’s like to study at HSE and live in Moscow.

Isaac Olumayowa Oni

African Migration: Issues and Challenges

I am interested in African migration to Russia and the what it is like for African migrants living in Russia. In my research, I focus on the integration of African migrants into the social and economic spheres of Russia. The title of my dissertation is ‘The Socio-Economic Integration of African Migrants in Russia’.

While I have been living in Russia, I have had the privilege of working as an intern at the Civic Assistant Committee (CAC) and the Moscow Protestant Chaplain (MPC). I have also been in contact with some other NGOs that are interested in issues related to migrants. I obtain all my data from conducting interviews using the snowballing method to get participants for the interviews. It’s been an inspiring experience all along.

Russian society is heterogenous and composed of many ethnicities. As some scholars argue, among many factors hindering the smooth integration of Africans within the Russian social and economic space, the most important is that the contact with the migrants is fairly recent compared to places like the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and some other Western countries.

Some scholars also argue in support of the nationalistic feeling of Russians with the view of ‘Great Russia’. However, to ensure that there is a cordial interaction between the host society and the migrant community, there’s a need to recognize and accept the presence of each other. African migration to Russia has been increasing since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There’s an increase in the number of labour migrants from Africa and therefore cultural variation is a major issue that most of them contend with upon arrival. The government needs to build awareness and also help protect the migrants. The media could also help promote such awareness by introducing more diversity in advertisements and among programme anchors. Migrants would engage with the community more in an atmosphere where they are recognized and welcomed.

The findings of my research so far indicate that though African migrants have the smallest migrant community in Russia, its presence cannot be overlooked. They still struggle to navigate social and economic life. The social and economic constraints that they experience have limited their interaction to within their ethnic groups and in many instances, their country’s communities.

Thirty-two in-depth interviews with sub-Saharan African migrants from Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal were conducted about their experiences in the social and economic integration of African migrants in Moscow. The analysis of the interviews reveals the subtleness and implicit nature of racial discrimination that sub-Saharan African migrants experience in their social spaces, such as when they use public transport and search for accommodations; and also in their economic space, such as employment opportunities available to them, managerial opportunities, and alienation at the workplace.

There is an overall feeling of unwelcomeness that African migrants perceive from the treatment received from their host community. This study calls for a re-evaluation of the Russian integration policy that would incorporate people of colour into the administrative system of the country. There is also the need to consistently sensitize the populace to recognize the multi-diversified nature of the country.

From Master’s to Doctoral Programme at HSE University

My postgraduate studies have been both interesting and challenging. The support I get from many scholars at HSE has always been inspiring. They include my supervisor, Dmitriy Oparin; the programme supervisor of the Doctoral School of Sociology, Olga Savinkaya; the programme supervisor of the Master’s programme in Population and Development, Vladimir Kozlov; Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova, the head of the International Laboratory of Social Integration Studies (ILSIS); Victoria Ivanova; Professor Tim Jaekel; and my colleagues.

My journey to Moscow started in 2015. One of my friends who had travelled to Russia to study at HSE told me to apply the following year. I applied and I got a scholarship. I have always wanted to pursue an academic career. However, I was also quite eager to know more about the country and its people. 

By the time I applied for an HSE scholarship, I was already teaching at a college in Nigeria. When I was completing the application form online, I selected two Master's programmes: Population and Development, and Political Analysis and Public Policy. I was selected for interviews in both programmes and, fortunately for me, I got a scholarship for both, but I chose Population and Development because it's closer to my interest.

At first, it was challenging but I was always interested in learning more about the country, which allowed me to overcome challenges easily. Upon completing my Master’s programme, I applied for a doctoral position at the HSE School of Sociology. I was given a scholarship, which has made it relatively easy to continue my education in Russia.

Before coming to Moscow, I didn’t know a single word of Russian, but after my arrival, I knew that I had to understand some words in order to communicate. The openness I have towards knowing more about the people and country made it less complicated to integrate myself into society even though I couldn’t speak or understand the language. However, I am always ready to learn new things. To some extent, things like the Google Translate app were very helpful in bridging in the language barrier. Now I can say that I understand more than I speak the language. I take reality as it is and I always adjust to it.

The advice that I would like to give any prospective international student to Russia and in particular those from Africa is that they should have an open mind if they want to enjoy their stay here. Take the challenges as they come and live by your standard. 

I sincerely hope I can continue my research to the postdoctoral level. There are other aspects of the African migration to Russia that are still understudied. There is also the case of the second generation of African migrants which is gradually increasing and also deserves a scholarly study.

Dmitriy Oparin
Research Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy, Research advisor of Isaac Olumayowa Oni

For three years now Isaac has been conducting anthropological work on Africans in Moscow. I think his work is very important, first and foremost because the African diasporas in Russia and Moscow in particular remain practically unknown to the academic community. Human rights workers (such as employees of the Civic Assistance Committee) and some journalists who have written about life for Africans in the city have certain information. Who belongs to Moscow’s African diasporas? What are their practices and perspectives? What are their migratory strategies and problems, how do they find housing and employment, and in what main spheres do they work? Isaac is studying these very aspects of the socio-economic integration of African migrants. He has a perfectly good basis upon which to approach this field – Isaac has lived in Russia for quite some time, he himself is from Nigeria, and during his time here he has managed to establish contact with many representatives of the African diasporas.

Isaak has already written an article on the problem of finding housing for Africans in Moscow, as well as the problem of discrimination against Africans in various spheres, ranging from government institutions to interacting with people on the street. He conducts lengthy, unstructured interviews with his informants; he communicates with some of the key figures of his study regularly and for a long time. It is important for him to describe everyday life of Africans in Moscow in all of its complexity and show the pluralism of their practices and perspectives. I think his work has made and will make a significant contribution to our understanding of what it is like for migrants from sub-Saharan countries to live in Moscow.

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