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Media: Russia’s Shahed drone production uses underage student forced labor, recruits Africans via dating scams

The Shahed drones Russia uses to attack Ukrainian cities are being domestically produced by virtually enslaved students; in racist innuendo, African girls are effectively recruited for janitorial roles through dating scams, an investigation reveals
Sudents of Alabuga college were forced to queue for five hours so Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov could take a photo with them. Photo: Protokol, RZVRT
Media: Russia’s Shahed drone production uses underage student forced labor, recruits Africans via dating scams

A new investigation by Russian outlets has revealed that students at a college near Alabuga are forced to assemble Shahed kamikaze drones, while African girls were recruited for the effort via fake dating online profiles.

The probe by Proyekt and Rzvrt, summarized by Istories, examined how Russian students work long hours producing drones for Russia’s war against Ukraine in the Alabuga, a special economic zone where Russia is unraveling the production of Iranian Shahed kamikaze drones. 

Russia used such domestically produced drones to strike Ukraine for the first time on 26 July; earlier, all the Shahed kamikaze drones that Russia launched at Ukrainian cities were produced in Iran.

Citing a source, the outlets said managers first assigned teenagers aged 15 and older to make the drones before transferring many students from other majors into intensive drone manufacturing roles.

One student questioned when they are supposed to receive instruction, given the continual work schedule. However, skipping drone shifts risks expulsion and financial consequences, creating a restrictive setting.

The investigation noted that coercive enrollment contracts make it difficult for reluctant students to exit drone roles, with $1,800-$4,600 repayment fees if expelled impacting families. These debts discourage most students from leaving despite any struggles.

Students work at the assembly of UAVs from morning till night and do not have time to study, the publication says. At the same time, skipping 300 hours of classes is also fraught with expulsion.

Students described demanding conditions requiring them to work to exhaustion without rest or meals. The college provides minimal transportation, even requiring taxis for medical visits. Housing is crowded, and officials tightly control access to food or healthcare.

In one example highlighting the school’s rigid culture, students reportedly had to stand for hours in formation when officials visited for photos, even denied breaks. “Some felt unwell. They were not let go,” the investigation recounted.

Additionally, the report highlighted security and monitoring practices apparently aimed at shielding drone activities from disclosure. Security officers supposedly closely inspect phones and messages, immediately taking devices to examine private data and communications. This level of scrutiny has allegedly already led to removals over basic criticism in messages.

The investigation also covered the recruitment of dozens of African female students through online dating profiles, then pressuring them to enroll in the college’s programs.

Sources said managers directed the creation of profiles on apps to contact and draw in teenagers from countries like Uganda, Ethiopia, and Tanzania under the guise of fostering relationships. After making connections, the girls would allegedly face encouragement to travel to Russia and receive links to apply as foreign students.

The report described this systematic outreach as questionable practices targeting African youth with possibly misleading promises. Once in Russia, the girls were apparently separated from other students in distinct housing areas. Boys were not recruited, because, in the opinion of Alabuga’s director, they “may be too aggressive and dangerous”.

Additionally, documents reviewed by reporters designated the African students with labels like “mulattos” by officials. The investigation found the girls may be intended for eventual placement in janitorial and cleaning roles on college premises and in the economic zone’s facilities.

Assembly of Shahed drones in Alabuga

An earlier investigation by Proyekt and Razvorot explained that the project to launch Shahed drone production in Alabuga was initiated in late 2022, during a vice premier’s visit, because the facility failed to arrange domestic drone output. 

Proyekt and Razvorot estimate Alabuga’s covert Iran contract at $ 1.28-1.45 bn initially sought in gold. Officials planned to allocate $870 million, but only provided $325 mn so far, the outlets wrote.

The report says drone components now arrive in Nizhnekamsk airport before assembly in Alabuga. Internal documents reportedly refer to the Shahed drones as “boats” from “Belarus” for cover.

Currently, the Shahed workshop spans nearly 40,000 sq m (six football fields). Expansion to over 100,000 sq m is planned. 

Alabuga bought Shahed production rights; the cluster plans to first stop importing hulls from Iran, and then electronics. GPS modules and processors will be bought on Aliexpress. Iran will continue to supply the warhead for the time being. In 2-3 years Alabuga plans to build its own workshop for the production of the warheads. Investigators suggest that this may be done by companies associated with the cluster.

Over 200 staff will reportedly train in Iran, including managers down to cluster college students. 

Defense Express reported, citing leaked documents about the project, that Russia’s attempt to produce Iranian Shahed kamikaze drones in Alabuga spotlights systemic flaws and mismanagement in its defense industry.

Russia’s attempt to produce Shahed drones off to a rough start – Defense Express

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