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

Unemployment Drives Turkmen to Turkey

In a country where jobs are scarce, the possibility of well-paid work is tempting many Turkmen abroad.
By IWPR staff
Turkmen workers are flocking to Turkey to escape chronic unemployment and poverty at home.



Some say the long and expensive trip is worthwhile, while others complain of abuse and slave-like treatment at the hands of their Turkish employers.



Gulnara Batyrova, who comes from Makhtumkuli in the country’s western Balkan region. was one of the lucky ones. She worked for over a year as a private nurse for a family in Istanbul, getting paid 800 US dollars per month.



Batyrova is now back home, but plans to return to Turkey and find work as a nanny. “How can I earn so much money in my home country?” she asked.



Many Turkmen live on little more than two dollars per day in a country where unemployment has been estimated at 50-70 per cent, though no official statistics exist.



Other migrant workers from Central Asia, mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks, head to Russia and Kazakstan. For the Turkmen, however, Turkey is the top choice as a visa is easier to obtain, there are more direct flights, and jobs there are better paid.



It is hardly surprising, then, that people are flocking to illegal travel agencies that organise tourist visas for would-be economic migrants. Many are willing to sell everything they own in order to make the trip to Turkey.



“We sold our car, carpets and crockery. We spent all our money to send my husband to Istanbul. My three children and I stayed home in Turkmenistan to wait for his salary,” said Jennet Muradova, an unemployed mother of three small children from the eastern Lebap region.



Galima Narbaeva tells similar story. When her husband was fired from his job as a caretaker, the family decided Turkey was the best option. “We have a very large family, and everyone pitched in and gathered the money for him to go to Istanbul,” she said.



Most of the migrants are working in Turkey illegally, which exposes them to numerous risks including mistreatment at the hands of employers, and possible deportation.



Narbaeva’s husband Juma, a driver by profession, got a job on a factory building site in Istanbul alongside other workers from around the world. Juma said he was fed poorly and his passport was taken away. He managed to steal it back because his boss was absent-minded, but after a month-long stint of hard physical labour left without any pay.



“There are hundreds of thousands of people like me,” said Juma, who had a return ticket so was at least able to come home. “It’s real slavery. I can’t appeal for a compensation or protect my interests, because I went there illegally. There’s nowhere for us to appeal here either, because the law does not protect our rights in these cases.”



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



But that seems unlikely. A support programme for labour migrants proposed two years ago by the International Organisation for Migration's Ashgabat office was rejected by the government.



In the eyes of the authorities, illegal migrants like Juma simply do not exist. At a roundtable meeting to discuss the issue, a representative from the interior ministry said there was no need to protect illegal migrants because they were all prostitutes or pimps and should instead be prosecuted.



The government’s reluctance to acknowledge the problem is understandable. President Saparmurat Niazov has declared a Golden Age for his people, and the state-controlled media carry glowing reports of new factories opening, creating lots of jobs. Acknowledging the existence of illegal migrants would undermine this propaganda.



The reality is that work is thin on the ground. Factories stand idle for most of the year and workers go unpaid because of the lack of raw materials.



The capital provides most of the job opportunities, but there are only so many to go around.



“There is some sort of work in Ashgabat,” said Begli Gurbanov, from the Balkan region. “But what can you do in the regions? There is no work there at all.”



(All names in this article have been changed for safety reasons)