ASHGABAT -- Turkmen students set to study abroad are being barred from leaving the country at Ashgabat International Airport, parents and eyewitnesses say.
It’s not clear how many students have been affected by the action, which began in September, but one eyewitness told RFE/RL that students were being removed by migration officials from foreign-bound flights “en masse.”
Some Turkmen think authorities are reluctant to let citizens leave the country ahead of a December census that comes amid an unprecedented population decline in Turkmenistan of millions of people.
The authoritarian government in Ashgabat hasn’t publicly announced any "ban" or explained why students are not allowed to fly abroad. But eyewitnesses say migration officials said they’re only stopping students who study -- or have enrolled -- in universities whose diplomas are not recognized in Turkmenistan.
In April 2019, Turkmenistan published a list of foreign universities whose degrees are accepted by its Education Ministry. The list includes dozens of universities in Russia, China, India, and Turkey, as well as a handful of schools in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia.
But it never said Turkmen are not allowed to study in foreign schools whose diplomas it does not recognize.
The latest ban comes ahead of a planned census in December. At least two preliminary government surveys in recent years have reportedly indicated a severe demographic crisis in Turkmenistan.
In 2020, the government put the country’s population at 6.2 million. But a poll in 2021 found that the number of people living in Turkmenistan was some 2.8 million, three officials close to the survey told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity at the time.
The results of the survey have not been made public.
In May 2019, multiple sources close to the government told RFE/RL that nearly 1.9 million people left Turkmenistan between 2008 and 2018 either for permanent residency abroad or for permanent work outside the country. The figures didn't include Turkmen labor migrants working abroad.
The officials said this exodus from the poverty-stricken secretive state, a falling birth rate, and rising mortality figures were among the main reasons behind the crisis.
Many more people have left Turkmenistan as international flights resumed recently after being suspended for more than two years because of the coronavirus pandemic. RFE/RL correspondents in Ashgabat reported long lines at the consular section of the Russian Embassy last month waiting for Russian visas.
Several people waiting in line said they wanted to move to Russia despite the economic and political implications of its brutal war in Ukraine.
Most Turkmen face hardship at home as the country has been grappling with a major economic crisis that includes food shortages, chronic unemployment, and skyrocketing inflation for many years. The repressive government in Ashgabat also deprives people of their rights and freedoms as it seeks to control all aspects of society.
Turkmen officials have in the past routinely removed people from international flights without giving any valid reason. It led to widespread corruption, with some people allegedly paying between $2,000-$5,000 bribes to migration officials at airports to be able to leave the country.
Families of some of the students affected by the latest unannounced ban say they had to pay a steep bribe so that their children could leave.
One family from Ashgabat told RFE/RL that they had paid a “certain amount of money” to migration officials, who then allowed their daughter to board a plane a few days ago to continue her studies in Russia. The parents -- who spoke on condition of anonymity -- said their daughter’s university isn’t included on Ashgabat's list of approved foreign schools.
Many others, however, “are in a desperate situation” as the action has left their children facing an uncertain future, an Ashgabat parent said. It’s unknown if the families get a refund for the tuition at the universities or for their unused plane tickets.
Turkmen authorities did not respond to RFE/RL’s request for comment.