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Thousands Of Turkmen Leave Turkey Amid Renewed Pressure As Some Eye Move To Russia

Poverty is widespread in Turkmenistan despite the country's massive energy resources. (file photo)
Poverty is widespread in Turkmenistan despite the country's massive energy resources. (file photo)

Thousands of Turkmen have been forced to leave Turkey -- a key destination for migrants from Turkmenistan -- amid Ankara's renewed pressure on undocumented workers in recent months.

Turkish police conduct raids in workplaces that are known to employ undocumented migrants, according to Turkmen citizens living in Turkey.

"The campaign against migrants is increasing in Turkey. Since September 25, the police began entering factories and restaurant kitchens to detain migrant workers," an RFE/RL source in Istanbul said, adding, "Police immediately transfer the detainees to deportation centers."

"There is no point of staying in Turkey anymore, it's impossible to get an official work permit there," one Turkmen said. "You can work illegally, but the [police] will eventually track you down and deport you."

About 2,500 Turkmen in Turkish deportation facilities were flown home in August and September, according to sources in Ashgabat.

Ashgabat initially provided free plane tickets for its citizens stuck in the deportation centers. But the sources in the Turkmen capital claim the government now demands that deportees pay for them.

RFE/RL did not receive any comments from Turkmen officials, who usually refuse to speak to the independent media.

Ashgabat International Airport
Ashgabat International Airport

Turkey's Migration Agency said there were some 198,000 Turkmen citizens living in Turkey legally as of mid-September.

That is a steep decline from September of last year, when more than 230,000 Turkmen had valid Turkish resident permits or visas, according to migration officials.

The real number of Turkmen citizens living in Turkey and other countries is thought to be much higher than official figures as many stay abroad with expired visas and other documents.

Turkmen embassies don't renew or replace their citizens' expired or lost passports, insisting they return to Turkmenistan for such services. But Turkmen are reluctant to go home, fearing the authorities could prevent them from leaving the country -- a common practice by officials in recent years as Turkmenistan's population continues a steady decline.

The latest wave of Turkey's clampdown on illegal migrants came in July. But migration problems for Turkmen citizens began much earlier -- in September 2022, when Turkey ended visa-free travel for Turkmen at Ashgabat's request.

The authoritarian government, which is infamous for restricting its citizens' freedom of movement and other basic civil rights, had asked Ankara to cancel the rule that allowed Turkmen to stay in Turkey without a visa for up to 30 days.

The visa-free regime allowed Turkmen to apply for visa extensions and residency permits or seek political asylum.

New Destination Russia?

Those who return home face dire unemployment, widespread poverty, and endemic corruption. Despite having great mineral wealth, revenue from the country's abundant natural gas resources hasn't trickled down to ordinary Turkmen.

Many of the deportees from Turkey are contemplating going to Russia, which is home to millions of migrants from neighboring Central Asian countries.

People wait outside the Russian Embassy in Ashgabat to apply for travel or work documents. (file photo)
People wait outside the Russian Embassy in Ashgabat to apply for travel or work documents. (file photo)

Some people are borrowing money at high interest rates to pay for a Russian visa and plane tickets, hoping they will be able to find work in Russia and repay their debts, several Turkmen told RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondents.

One resident from the city of Mary told RFE/RL on October 9 that many women from that southeastern province have left for Russia in search of work.

"Most women migrants from Mary have gone to the [Russian resort city of] Sochi, where they work in restaurants and hotels," the local said.

With little economic opportunity at home, remittances from relatives abroad are the only source of income for many Turkmen.

The harsh reality of a weak economy in Turkmenistan has also led to many Turkmen staying in Turkey and working there illegally -- under the constant risk of being caught in a police raid or exploited by their employer.

People line up at the Ashgabat airport ticket office. (file photo)
People line up at the Ashgabat airport ticket office. (file photo)

Earlier this year, a 31-year-old Turkmen migrant in Turkey told RFE/RL's Central Asian Migrant Unit that he decided to remain in Turkey despite having no valid documents.

The man, who only gave his first name, Merdan, said he works for a moving company.

"It is illegal work. Since I don't have a work permit, I can't get medical insurance," he said. "In case of a work accident in which I would break an arm or a leg, I would be on my own."

The Mary Province native said he once had an accident when he "fell down some stairs" while he was carrying a fridge on his back.

Undocumented, Merdan knows he has no legal protection and is vulnerable to exploitation.

But like many Turkmen workers abroad, Merdan endures the hardship because he knows his family in Turkmenistan depends on the money he sends from Turkey.

Written by Farangis Najibullah in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

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