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Human rights issues under the spotlight ahead of Sochi Olympics

In recent years, the Russian Federation has actively looked to increase its international standing by hosting a series of prestigious sporting events including the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, the 2018 Football World Cup and the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Even if the start of the Olympics is still several months away, the eyes of the international community are already focused on Russia, but this is more to do with human rights concerns than with the event itself.

The “anti-gay law”

© katalinks / Fotolia

Both civil society organisations and officials in the West have, in recent months, severely criticised the adoption of the so-called anti-gay law in Russia. They argue that the law, adopted last June, and presented as a way to protect minors from “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”, in fact criminalises any kind of public promotion of homosexuality and can be arbitrarily interpreted. Calls for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics have echoed in the West and the International Olympic Committee has put pressure on Russia, fearing discrimination against gay athletes and supporters. In order to assuage these fears, Russian president Vladimir Putin himself guaranteed that everyone will be welcome “regardless of their ethnicity, race or sexual orientation”. Despite these reassurances, the controversy has not died down.

Exploitation of migrant workers

Much less attention has been focused on an issue more intrinsically connected with the Olympics themselves, namely the exploitation of migrant workers mainly from former Soviet Union countries. Vast spending on the construction of facilities look set to make the Sochi Olympics the most expensive in history and large numbers of workers are needed to finish the project in time.

Since last February, Human Rights Watch and the Sochi branch of one of Russia’s leading human rights associations, Memorial, have repeatedly denounced the exploitation of migrant workers – part of the 16 000 strong foreign workforce employed on the Olympic sites. Alleged abuses by employers include withholding wages, the confiscation of identity documents and unhealthy living conditions. On top of this, authorities are also accused of abusing the rights of migrants by holding them in arbitrary detention and inhuman conditions, denying them the right to access a lawyer and deporting them.

Figures disputed by organisers

The Games organisers dismiss these allegations, arguing that “employment law was strictly enforced”; they add that only eight to ten per cent of all workers involved in building the infrastructure were foreigners. However, Memorial, which provides free legal help to migrant labourers, underlines that official figures only take into account a very small minority of foreigners with work permits and contracts.

At a time when Russia is taking a strong stance against civil society and sexual minorities, discrimination and abuses against migrants are becoming an alarming phenomenon, as recent anti-immigrant riots and demonstrations in Moscow illustrate. Nevertheless, the international community has not taken a firm stance on this extremely delicate issue.

Further readings:

Human Rights Watch report Race to the Bottom, February 2013

Shrinking legal space for civil society in Russia, Library Briefing, October 2013

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