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Vast underground migrant sweatshop found beneath Moscow street

A vast, secret underground complex for undocumented migrant workers - complete with a canteen, movie theater and chicken coop - was discovered beneath a Moscow street, police in Russia said Wednesday.

About 200 immigrants, most of them from central Asia, were arrested when police uncovered the subterranean living space.

Video footage issued by police showed the underground complex was almost a complete world of its own - with living quarters, work tables with sewing machines, a cafe, and even a casino.

The migrants were living underneath the site of the former Cherkizovsky market, which was one of the largest in eastern Europe until it was shut down in 2009. Trading everything from everything from electrical goods to clothing, it attracted many immigrant workers.

Moscow attracts millions of migrants from the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, which have been left in poverty after the break-up of the USSR in 1991.

Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are some of the poorest countries in the region, and many there rely on money its nationals send home from their jobs abroad.

Nine million migrant workers entered Russia in 2011, according to Russian authorities. 

Workers from the former satellite republics are often employed in low paying jobs, such as street-cleaning and construction, and they often fall victim to poor living conditions, police raids and attacks from Russian nationalists.

 “Migrants are constantly in a state of danger…they are in a constant state of stress. But they are needed and are beneficial to those that keep on exploiting them,” said Svetlana Gannushkina of the human rights group Assistance for Citizens.

She said tactics such as police raids would do little to end the problem of illegal immigration, describing them as “just for show.”

Muslims from the former Soviet republics are the fastest-growing demographic in Moscow, changing the face of the once predominantly-white Slavic capital.

In December 2010, thousands of Russian nationalists took to the streets in Moscow in the worst race riots since the fall of the Soviet Union. The rioting was sparked by the death of a soccer fan after an alleged fight with a group of men from Russia’s North Caucasus.

The illegal status of many migrants makes them -particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Just outside Moscow, in the Rublyevka district where millionaires including Russian President Vladimir Putin live, migrant workers often live in squalid conditions.

The “gastarbeiters’ (guest workers), as they are known, often earn much less than their Russian counterparts for work on constructions of roads or homes.

An estimated 100,000 immigrant workers have been employed on construction projects in Sochi, the southern Russian resort city which will host the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Earlier this year, a Human Rights Watch report found evidence that migrants there were subjected to long working hours, poor living conditions and in some cases workers not being paid at all.

 Migrants are “typically poor, often speak or read limited Russian, and have limited contact with Russian civil society or other resources that can provide assistance,” the report said.