ZHANAOZEN, Kazakhstan -- More than 250 ethnic Kazakhs have left Turkmenistan this month to resettle permanently in their ancestral homeland, Kazakhstan.
One train carrying ethnic Kazakh emigrants was cheered by a large crowd of relatives already in Kazakhstan as it arrived at the railway station in the southwestern city of Zhanaozen late in the evening of May 13.
“I’m excited that I've returned to my homeland for good and am reunited with my children,” said Zeinesh, an elderly woman who was greeted by her family on the railway station platform.
Zeinesh says that on the other side of the border, she was sent off by a group of relatives and friends she left behind in Turkmenistan.
Azhargul, another recent émigré, says she has “mixed” feelings about relocating.
Azhargul says she is happy to start a new life in Kazakhstan, but disappointed that several of her relatives were not able to leave Turkmenistan with her.
“Because of them, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to emigrate,” she said. “Otherwise, I’ve been waiting for this day for more than a year.”
More than 400 ethnic Kazakhs were meant to relocate in Kazakhstan by early 2020, after their resettlement documents were approved by both countries. But their travels -- set to take place in two groups -- were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The first group of about 200 people finally arrived in Kazakhstan in February 2021. They were followed by the second group, which arrived by train on May 13.
Kazakhstan offers citizenship to ethnic Kazakhs who emigrate to their ancestral homeland from abroad. About 1 million ethnic Kazakhs from Uzbekistan, China, and other neighboring countries have moved to the oil-rich Central Asian country since the 1990s.
Several people among the latest group arriving from Turkmenistan said that poverty, low wages, and a lack of freedoms in the country they left behind had played an important role in their decision to move to Kazakhstan.
But they say the key factor has always been a desire to reunite with family members who’ve already settled in Kazakhstan.
Azhargul said she plans to stay in the Caspian Sea town of Zhanaozen in Kazakhstan’s oil-producing Manghystau region. That’s because there are many members of her extended family who’ve been living there for several years.
Staying In Manghystau
Like Azhargul, many ethnic Kazakhs who emigrate from Turkmenistan have chosen Manghystau for permanent settlement -- despite a high unemployment rate in the province.
“They don’t want to go to other regions because they have many relatives in Mangystau who have already settled here, bought land, and built houses,” says Raikhan Daribaeva, an activist who helps resettle the émigrés, who are known as Qandas in Kazakhstan.
The Kazakh government offers financial incentives, subsidized housing, and other benefits for them. However, those state benefits come with a precondition. They must move to sparsely populated northern regions of Kazakhstan, where there is a shortage of workers.
Not everyone wants to move to the north, which is notorious for its harsh winters. Those who stay elsewhere in Kazakhstan do not receive support from the government. Most of them depend on their relatives in Kazakhstan for support until they are able to stand on their own feet there, Daribaeva explains.
“They are required to register upon their arrival at the home address where they’re going to live,” Daribaeva says. “It’s their relatives who offer them a place to live.
“These relatives also help them with their paperwork -- getting new documents, registering with local doctors, applying for pensions and social benefits, or looking for jobs,” she says.
Daribaeva emigrated from Turkmenistan in the early 2000s. She has since set up a nongovernmental group called the Munaily District Civic Initiative. It advises ethnic Kazakhs in other countries about emigration and resettlement issues.
Ethnic Kazakhs from Turkmenistan have been emigrating to Kazakhstan for more than 20 years, selling their homes and property and using the money to begin their new lives. However, many of the latest group that arrived from Turkmenistan described their financial situations as dire.
Several who spoke to RFE/RL said they had quit their jobs and sold their homes as soon as their resettlement paperwork was finalized in 2019. They had hoped they would move to Kazakhstan within months. But pandemic delays forced them to live off the money they received for selling their belongings.
“I spent all my savings, and toward the end I had to borrow money for food,” one woman told RFE/RL.
Still Worried For Those Left Behind
The fresh arrivals also spoke about the hardships people in Turkmenistan experience in daily life.
“Jobs are very hard to come by in Turkmenistan,” one young woman said. “Many people have no work and no income. Wages are very low. Many people I know make about $20 a month. You can’t get a job without paying a bribe.”
The woman said a lot of people in Turkmenistan -- not only ethnic minorities -- want to leave the country “if they can." And Turkmen students who study abroad don’t want to return to Turkmenistan, she said.
Despite Turkmenistan’s vast energy resources, poverty is widespread because income from the country’s natural gas exports doesn’t trickle down to ordinary people.
New arrivals also say they hope to enjoy relative freedom in Kazakhstan, which -- despite not being a model democracy – is considered less restrictive than Turkmenistan. Often compared to North Korea, Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive countries in the world. The government controls all aspects of people’s daily lives.
One woman who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity says she still fears for the security of her relatives in Turkmenistan. That sentiment is shared by many others.
An ethnic Kazakh family that just resettled in the Munaily district of Manghystau said they were summoned by the Turkmen security services before they made their trip to Kazakhstan. The family said officials check people’s mobile phones to see if they have been using proxy services to gain access to websites, applications, and social media that are blocked in Turkmenistan.
Despite being in a different country, many of the new arrivals refused to speak on the record about the situation in Turkmenistan. They said they fear that any criticism would lead Turkmen authorities to retaliate against their relatives still in Turkmenistan.