TASHKENT -- Russia's harassment of migrant workers has taken a fresh turn in recent months, with some plucked off the streets of Moscow on flimsy pretexts and sent to the front lines of the Ukraine war, migrants and officials said.
Among them is Sunnat, a 35-year-old Uzbek courier working in Moscow, who told Caravanserai he has been apprehended by the police twice in three months but has so far managed to avoid being sent to fight in Ukraine.
Sunnat, using only his first name to protect his identity, said he migrated to Russia three years ago. Although his documents are in order, he said, Russian police claimed there was a problem with them each time he was stopped.
Each time, he said, they have fined him 5,000 RUB ($51) and threatened to take him to the police station if he does not pay the money.
"In early July, they took me to the police station and spread out a Russian army contract in front of me," Sunnat said.
"They asked me to sign it and go to Ukraine."
"They said I would be there for three months and would return with a lot of money, and I would then be able to get Russian citizenship," he said.
Moscow-based lawyer Yulduz Ataniyazova told Caravanserai she is aware of the way the police treat migrant workers.
"They create unbearable conditions for migrants in pre-trial detention centers," she said. "They don't allow them to eat, drink or use the toilet."
Russian guards have told long-term inmates to abuse the migrant workers until they "sign a voluntary agreement to join the 'special military operation'."
"The next step is 'Cargo 200' [coming back in a coffin]," Ataniyazova said.
Warning to Uzbek citizens
On July 22, the Ukrainian military general staff published a communique that noted Uzbek citizens have been observed working illegally as construction workers in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory.
"The presence of Uzbek citizens has been noticed in Russian occupation units located in temporarily occupied Horlivka, Donetsk province," it said.
"These individuals came to Mariupol for construction work. Upon arrival, their passports were taken away and they were transferred to a warehouse of the occupying troops as volunteers," it added.
On July 24, the Ukrainian embassy in Tashkent posted a message to the citizens of Uzbekistan on its website, calling on them to avoid participating in the Russian war against Ukraine and to stay away from the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine.
The embassy noted that as Russia has lost a significant number of troops in combat in Ukraine, the Kremlin is attempting to lure foreigners into fighting in Ukraine.
"Foreign citizens participating in armed aggression against Ukraine will be prosecuted and held accountable in accordance with the norms of Ukrainian law and international law," the embassy said.
'Dangerous to be in Russia'
In mid-June, the BBC's Russian service published an investigative report on citizens of Central Asian countries imprisoned in Russia who were recruited to fight among Russian forces in Ukraine.
According to the report, 93 of these individuals have died in combat. Of that number, 34 were Uzbek. The rest are citizens of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
All of them had worked in Russia, and for various reasons ended up in prison, where they were recruited by the Russian mercenary Wagner Group.
While Uzbekistan is far from the combat zones, some of its citizens have ended up on the battlefront, where they have been sent to restore destroyed infrastructure, dig trenches and fight as mercenaries.
Most migrant workers do not know Russian and are ignorant of the law, Uzbek human rights activist Valentina Chupik, who now lives in the United States, told Caravanserai.
"Not understanding the details of the contract with the Russian Defense Ministry, migrant workers sign it, thinking it is to perform construction work," Chupik said.
"Then, on the spot, their passports are taken away and they are driven to forward combat positions," she said.
After his most recent encounter with Russian police, Sunnat, the Uzbek courier, was held at a Moscow police station for two hours. After he demanded a lawyer and refused to sign the contract, the police had to release him.
"It's becoming very dangerous to be in Russia," Sunnat said, following his ordeal.
"Police officers commit outrages, and many of my compatriots complain that they are being forced into a military contract to be sent to Ukraine," he said. "Closer to winter, my wife and I plan to return to our homeland."
Protecting Uzbeks in Russia
On July 25, the Uzbek Agency for External Labor Migration called on Uzbek citizens temporarily working in Russia to avoid work in combat zones, and to spurn any participation in the war that Russia euphemistically calls a "special military operation".
The agency pointed out that a citizen of Uzbekistan who joins a military force or security service, police force or military judicial agency, or other similar body of a foreign state, may be punished under the law.
Punishments can range from a fine to three years of correctional labor -- and for recruiting, up to five years in prison.
Uzbek journalist Timur Yuldashev often writes about the fate of migrant workers and their families, and has heard about their problems firsthand.
"The Uzbek government needs to be more actively involved in protecting its citizens in Russia," Yuldashev told Caravanserai.
"Maintaining neutrality on what is happening in Ukraine will in no way prevent Uzbek citizens from being shipped off to Ukrainian territory," he said.