Vigilante students tackle skinheads

November 15, 2002

Students at Voronezh University in Russia have set up a vigilante unit to protect overseas students from racist attacks by local skinheads.

Muggings of students of non-European origin by local skinheads have reached endemic proportions.

Many of the victims are students from developing countries. They have taken advantage of Russia's newfound generosity with scholarships to go and study there only to be met with hostility.

Members of the protection unit patrol the vicinity of the halls of residence housing foreign students six nights a week from 7pm to 10pm.

City authorities seem happy to let them take over what should be the duty of the law-enforcement services. So far, however, City Hall has done no more than to express "serious concerns" about racial tensions in Voronezh, while the mayor has set up a commission of inquiry.

The targets of skinhead violence, the African students, are less complacent.

Alberto Mendesh, chairman of the African student association at Voronezh, said that while the student association was grateful, 12 vigilantes were unable to protect all 1,000-plus foreign students in the city. Racial intolerance was a "developing threat" to Russia's security, he said.

It was "high time the authorities began thinking that those people who do it should be made answerable to the law", he added.

As a first step, the Voronezh local police could set up checkpoints closer to student halls of residence, he said.

The situation in Voronezh - although acute - is not unique in Russia. In September 2002, eight of the 33 foreign students at Orel University decided to quit after racially motivated attacks.

In April, Asian and African embassies in Moscow received emails threatening that - to celebrate Adolf Hitler's birthday - Russian fascists would kill any foreigners they could find.

As a result of the threats, the interior ministry announced special measures to protect foreign students in Moscow, and some provincial universities sent their foreign students home.

An increase in the number of scholarships - aimed particularly at African students - was announced by prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov at the Sustainable Development Summit in Johannesburg in September.

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