NPR HOST LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: The hundreds of migrants aboard those abandoned ships this week have highlighted the plight of people fleeing Syria's civil war for Europe. Our last guest mentioned Germany and Sweden as the main destinations. And we're going to hear about another country where tens of thousands of Syrians live - Russia. The two countries have had close political ties for decades, but Syrians in Russia have trouble getting legal status and face exploitation. Joanna Kakissis reports it's got even tougher for them since the war began back home.
JOANNA KAKISSIS: Drive 21 miles east of Moscow and you'll find Noginsk, a no-frills city landscaped by bland apartment blocks and factories - a textile hub. For years, this was a land of opportunity for Syrians created amid the long, close relationship between Moscow and Damascus.
I meet Yasser, a 25-year-old tailor from the northwestern city of Aleppo, in his cramped apartment. He and his father moved to Noginsk six years ago, recruited by one of the many Syrian-run clothing factories in the Moscow area. Yasser doesn't want his last name used for fear his bosses might retaliate for what he says. The deal was the company would take care of his airfare and visa and pay him about $700 a month. It all went well until 2011 when the Syrian civil war began.
YASSER: (Through interpreter) After the war began, everything started to change. Our bosses stopped paying us on time. They paid us less than we were promised and they said if we didn't like it, we could go back to Syria.
KAKISSIS: But of course it was too dangerous to go back. Yasser's temporary work visa expired. Local police shake him down nearly every day.
YASSER: (Through interpreter) They say, well, you have no papers, so pay 500 or 1,000 rubles and we won't arrest you. If I don't want to pay, they actually look in my pockets for the money. If I don't have the money, they drive me out of town to the middle of nowhere and leave me there.
KAKISSIS: Yasser's former boss, Amal al-Naimi, another Syrian from Aleppo, says he's heard Russian police are extorting money from his workers.
AMAL AL-NAIMI: (Through interpreter) We have tried talking to the police chief. We told him things can't continue like this, but nothing changes.
KAKISSIS: We meet at the restaurant of a Moscow hotel where Syrian businessmen strike deals as a young Russian woman bellydances under a glistening disco ball. Al-Naimi's middle-aged, an overcoat slung over the shoulders of his suit. He's worked in Russia for more than 20 years, part of a wave of Syrians who opened businesses here after the fall of the Soviet Union. He denies he's underpaid or abandoned his workers, and says it's the Russians who started cracking down on visas when the civil war began.
AL-NAIMI: (Through interpreter) If you get caught working without papers, you're deported and you have to pay huge fines. My business is 100 percent according the law.
KAKISSIS: The next day, we visit his factory, located in a fenced-in compound with old tires and rusted cars. The manager, another Syrian from Aleppo, leads us inside. Next to piles of sweaters embroidered with figures of reindeer, young men hunch over sewing machines. Many, like 22-year-old Mohammed Nasser, are also from Aleppo and came to Russia after the war began.
MOHAMMED NASSER: (Through interpreter) I really had no choice, he says, my house was destroyed and there was no work.
KAKISSIS: He can't go home but there's virtually no chance he will receive asylum in Russia, says Svetlana Gannuskina, a prominent Russian activist for refugees.
SVETLANA GANNUSKINA: (Through interpreter) The doors are actually closed for these refugees even though the borders are open. They just have no hope of receiving any legal status here. They don't understand that this is going to happen. That's why Russia's sort of a trap for them.
KAKISSIS: Gannuskina estimates there are 10 to 20,000 Syrians in Russia who are undocumented but can't go home. The UN refugee office in Russia says none has been granted asylum this year, including Yasser, the young tailor we met earlier. He now works at another Syrian clothing factory and is trying to renew his expired visa. His mother and brothers have also come from Aleppo to escape the war.
YASSER: (Through interpreter) He says he dreams about moving to Western Europe, but he barely has enough money to survive in Russia.
KAKISSIS: For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.