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Escape From Turkmenistan: Almost 2 Million Have Fled, But The President Looks The Other Way

"When the latest figures were presented to [President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov], he was hysterical," a source tells RFE/RL.

When confronted with dispiriting population statistics, the president of Turkmenistan apparently took action: He ordered up a new census.

But according to multiple sources familiar with the situation who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, the new study did nothing to mask the fact that the Central Asian country is in the midst of a demographic crisis.

Instead, one Ashgabat source said, the most recent figures "revealed an acute decline of population, with nearly 2 million people having left the country in 10 years."

The results of the survey, said to cover the period of 2008-18, have not been released publicly. But if the accounts of the figures are accurate, they would indicate that the country is suffering the consequences of offering few economic opportunities, increased financial hardships, and a lack of personal freedoms.

Based on widely accepted estimates, the population of Turkmenistan stood at 5.4 million people in 2018. But the reported population losses would lower that number significantly, by nearly one-third.

"According to the classified information gathered by the state statistics committee, 1,879,413 people left between 2008 and 2018 either for permanent residency abroad or for permanent work outside the country," the source told RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service.

The figures don’t include Turkmen labor migrants working abroad, the source explained.

The statistics issue apparently stems from a nationwide census conducted in 2012, the results of which have never been made public and were not well-received by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, according to the Ashgabat source.

In 2017, migration officials reportedly started removing dozens of Turkmen citizens from outbound international flights. (illustrative photo)
In 2017, migration officials reportedly started removing dozens of Turkmen citizens from outbound international flights. (illustrative photo)

"Officials gave the census results to the president, but he didn’t like it," a second source familiar with the situation said. In response, the president "ordered officials to conduct a new, thorough study using other criteria," such as housing and school records.

But the new results -- which came six years later -- were not welcomed either.

"When the latest figures were presented to the president, he was hysterical. Nothing could possibly discredit his rule more than [one-third of the population leaving,]" the second source said.

Preventing People From Leaving

In the absence of transparency, freedom of information, and independent media, it's virtually impossible to get an accurate picture of the situation in Turkmenistan.

However, there have been signs in recent years that the authorities have tried to slow the tide of citizens leaving the country.

In 2017, migration officials reportedly started removing dozens of Turkmen citizens from outbound international flights.

Some were given reimbursements for the money they had spent on tickets, but no official explanation was provided for their removals.

Long lines outside the Russian Consulate in Ashgabat in December
Long lines outside the Russian Consulate in Ashgabat in December

In 2018, there were reports of widespread complaints that Turkmen below the age of 40 were not being allowed to go abroad.

Eyewitnesses and some of those affected told RFE/RL at the time that migration service officers were stopping people at passport-control desks at airports and at land-border crossings.

"Migration officers said they have instructions not to allow anyone below 40 to leave," a 36-year-old man from the Dashoguz region said.

"When asked about the reason, they told us that no one is left in the region to work. They said: 'If you all leave, who will stay and work?'" the man added.

Despite the obstacles, however, many Turkmen try to go abroad, with Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey among the most popular destinations.

Images sent by an RFE/RL correspondent in December 2018 show long lines of Turkmen outside the consular department of the Russian Embassy in Ashgabat.

According to the correspondent, most of them were ethnic Turkmen willing to move permanently to Russia.

The correspondent said Turkmen authorities even targeted people outside the consulate and tried to convince them to change their minds about moving to Russia.

"A large bus drove up to the consulate building and some 20 people were told to board the bus. They returned several hours later," the correspondent said.

"They said that officials told them not to leave Turkmenistan and that the situation would improve very soon," the correspondent said.

Despite the country’s vast natural resources, many ordinary Turkmen face tough times owing to widespread unemployment and rising prices for foodstuffs.

There have been reports of people standing in lines outside state-run shops waiting for bread and other staples sold under a strict rationing system.

The Central Asian country also suffers from a poor reputation when it comes to human rights.

Government critics often end up in prisons or psychiatric hospitals, an independent press is nonexistent, and the country has never held an election deemed free and fair by Western observers.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service is the only international Turkmen-language media reporting independently on political, economic, cultural, and security issues from inside one of the the world’s most reclusive countries.