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Ashgabat Exodus: Turkmen Seek Passports To Leave Poverty-Stricken Country

A crowd of people wait in line outside the offices of Turkmenistan's Migration Service in the eastern city of Turkmenabat in Lebap Province.
A crowd of people wait in line outside the offices of Turkmenistan's Migration Service in the eastern city of Turkmenabat in Lebap Province.

TURKMENABAT, Turkmenistan -- With skyrocketing unemployment, runaway inflation, food shortages, corruption, and a government bent on controlling every facet of its citizens’ lives, it’s not surprising that people want to leave Turkmenistan.

But officials in Turkmenistan are struggling to cope with the flood of passport applicants as thousands of Turkmen seek a better country to live in.

In the second-largest city, Turkmenabat, appointments to submit documents for a new passport at the State Migration Agency are booked until mid-May, applicants say.

Thousands of Turkmen rushed to embassies and airports to get out of the country last year when Ashgabat finally lifted a ban on international flights imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.

But, despite having a valid passport, visa, and plane ticket, there is never a guarantee that a Turkmen citizen will be allowed to leave the country.

The authoritarian government in Ashgabat has been taking measures to prevent as many Turkmen as it can from leaving the isolated country, which has experienced a severe population decline over the past decade.

There have been numerous complaints and even video accounts of how public-sector workers were denied new passports, while many others were prevented by officials at the airport from boarding their flights -- despite having all the required documents.

Between September and November last year, migration officials at Ashgabat International Airport prevented many students from boarding their planes, according to parents and eyewitnesses.

It’s not known how many students were affected by the action, but one eyewitness told RFE/RL that students were being removed from foreign-bound flights “en masse.”

No official announcement or explanation was given about a ban on students studying abroad. According to eyewitnesses, the migration officials claimed they were stopping only those students attending universities not officially recognized by Turkmenistan’s Education Ministry.

But neither the ministry nor any other government agency said they had requested airport officials to stop students from studying at foreign universities not on the ministry’s “approved” list.

Those restrictive actions are viewed by many Turkmen as a pretext to simply prevent people from leaving the country.

In another unannounced measure in recent weeks, migration officials in the capital were reportedly stopping women below the age of 40 from boarding planes.

Passport Pressures

Meanwhile, many public-sector workers complain that they haven’t been able to renew their expired passports.

There have also been many reports in recent years that some state workers had their biometric passports taken away by their employers without explanation.

In Lebap Province, state agencies warned their employees not to apply for passports and to give up their existing passports if they have one.

Introduced in 2013, a biometric passport is the only type of document Turkmen can use to leave or reenter their country.

Turkmenistan has also banned its embassies from issuing passports for Turkmen nationals living abroad. Those Turkmen have no option but to return to Turkmenistan if they need to renew their old passports or replace a lost or damaged document.

In a rare move in September, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry requested that Turkey -- a key destination for Turkmen migrant workers -- “temporarily” cancel its visa-free regime for Turkmen citizens.

Turkey complied and scrapped a regulation that allowed Turkmen citizens to stay in Turkey without a visa for up to 30 days.

The Turkish State Migration Service said at the time that there were about 230,000 Turkmen citizens permanently residing in the country. The real number, however, is thought to be several times higher as there are many illegal Turkmen immigrants there with expired passports or visas.

Pay Bribes, Solve Your Problem

In Turkmenabat, some locals told RFE/RL that they have paid about $200 in bribes to jump the line and get new passports within weeks.

Similarly in Ashgabat, several parents said they bribed airport migration officials to allow their children to board their planes to Russia and other countries where they are studying.

Eyewitnesses at Ashgabat International Airport claimed there were certain people at the airport offering help to female passengers to avoid an apparent unannounced ban on women under 40 from leaving the country. It wasn’t clear how much of a bribe was necessary for that assistance.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service has contacted officials in Turkmenabat and Ashgabat asking for comment on the travel restrictions but did not receive any responses.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondents.

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