Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Turkey a Magnet for Migrant Workers

High unemployment in Turkmenistan is forcing thousands of people to work as illegal migrants in Turkey.
By IWPR
Unlike other Central Asian migrant workers - Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in particular – who mostly head for Russia and Kazakstan, many Turkmen chose Turkey because they do not need visas for short tourist trips, there are more direct flights and they are paid more money. But once they arrive, migrants face many of the problems wherever they go – the risk of deportation as illegals, and mistreatment by employers.



The trip, arranged by agencies that arrange tourist visas, is so expensive that it can cost a family its entire savings.



“We sold our car, carpets and crockery and spent all our money to send my husband to Istanbul, while my three children and I stayed home to wait for him to send his wages,” said Jenet Muradova, an unemployed mother in the eastern Lebap velayat.



Juma Narbaev recalled how he went to Turkey in hope of getting a job on a building site. When an old friend failed to meet him at the airport, he accepted a job offer from a man who approached him there.



Juma had to live on the building site together with other migrants from a variety of countries. They were fed poorly and given no wages, and it was impossible for Juma to leave as his employer confiscated his passport and refused to give it back. He only got away by stealing back his passport when his employer was not looking, and used his return ticket to go back to Turkmenistan, without receiving a penny for the hard physical labour he had done for a whole month.



Juma said likened his experience to slavery, since illegal workers cannot appeal for compensation or protection.



Despite such stories, the unemployed carry on travelling to Turkey, no doubt preferring to think of happier experiences such as that of Gulnara Batyrova from Makhtumkuli in Balkan region of western Turkmenistan.



“I worked for one Istanbul family for more than a year, nursing a sick person. I was paid 800 [US] dollars a month,” she said. “After this holiday I will be going back there to work as a nanny. Even though I’ll only be paid half what I was getting before, I could never make that kind of money at home.”



It is not surprising that people living on the two dollars a day are tempted by such cases.



Human rights activists say people should be made aware of the realities of working illegally, and help should be offered to those who end up in trouble.



But in the Turkmen government’s eyes, there are no illegal migrants. Attempts by the International Organisation for Migration, IOM, to address the problem have been ignored. The government rejected a programme to support labour migrants that the IOM proposed two years ago.



An interior ministry official told a recent round-table that there is no trafficking of illegal migrants in Turkmenistan. He said only prostitutes and their pimps travel abroad illegally, and this issue has been already dealt with since those involved are subject to prosecution.



The authorities are understandably reluctant to recognise that there is a problem, since the 21st century has been declared a “golden age”, and the state-run media are constantly reporting the opening of large factories and the creation of many new jobs. Admitting the existence of labour migration would tarnish this image.



According to some estimates, unemployment is over 50 per cent, although accurate official statistics are impossible to obtain. Many large factories stand idle for most of the year because there are no raw materials.



The capital Ashgabat provides a limited amount of job opportunities, but as Begli Gurmatov from the Balkan region said, “What can you do in the regions? There is no work there at all.”



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