MOSCOW  - Seventeen Central Asian migrant workers died Tuesday when a night-time fire engulfed a Moscow market warehouse that had been stocked to the ceiling with cots and turned into a makeshift home. “According to preliminary information, they were migrant workers. Their identities and ages are being verified,” the Russian emergencies ministry said in a statement. Rescue officials said the migrants came from the impoverished nation of Tajikistan and possibly a few of the other neighbouring ex-Soviet states. The deadly accident struck only hours after spectacular flames flared from the top floors of an under-construction skyscraper.
No one was injured in Monday night’s Federation Tower blaze. But officials warned after battling the fire for more than three hours that the city was becoming dangerously lax about its safety standards.
Tuesday’s fire broke out at the Kachalovsky market on the southern outskirts of the city where many Muscovites shop for housing supplies.
Emergency workers described nightmarish living conditions with workers sleeping on hard cots that were stacked on top of each other in rows of four without any direct access to the outside.
The workers “lived in a metal annex that was equipped with a space heater,” an unnamed law enforcement official told the Interfax news agency.
“They slept in frighteningly tight conditions, on hard bunk cots that were then stacked on top of each other,” he said.
Another official said the workers probably left the space heater on all night to stay warm during the frigid Moscow spring. Overnight temperatures plunged below freezing and much of central Russia has been hit by snow.
Russia’s Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu demanded an immediate account of how the workers ended up living in a space the market had reserved for storing hardware supplies.
“This is turning into common practice — people living in markets,” a visibly angry Shoigu said in televised remarks.
The migration service estimates that there are 700,000 Tajiks living officially in the country — a tenth of their home country’s population of just under seven million.
Tajikistan was wracked by a brutal civil war in the early 1990s and then experienced nearly two decades of ethnic tensions and endemic drugs trafficking that hampered sustainable growth.
Its economy remains in tatters and some analysts estimate that up to half of Tajikistan’s young male population is currently trying to make a living in Moscow and other major Russian cities.
The overwhelming majority of the migrants who arrive in Moscow do so without acquiring the official city worker permits that the Russian capital has required since Soviet times.
Seven migrants were killed in January 2009 when a fire swept through an underground Moscow garage they were building and had also used as a temporary living shelter.
Another seven died in May 2011 when a fire engulfed an old abandoned building in central Moscow.
The presence of Central Asian nationals and workers from the predominantly Muslim Caucasus region has also stirred racial tensions in the Russian capital and resulted in repeated deadly attacks.
President-elect Vladimir Putin had vowed to reinforce migration controls while serving as prime minister for the past four years and won a strong following from Russian nationalists while heading the Kremlin in 2000-2008.