Freedom of movement for citizens of Turkmenistan

Näme sebäpden gidip barýaň?

What is your reason for travel?

The law on paper entitles a citizen of Turkmenistan to freedom of movement:

Law on Migration, Article 24: Every citizen of Turkmenistan has the right to leave Turkmenistan and enter Turkmenistan. A citizen of Turkmenistan cannot be deprived of the right to leave Turkmenistan and enter Turkmenistan.

Migrasiýa hakynda kanun, 24-nji madda: Türkmenistanyň her bir raýatynyň Türkmenistandan gitmäge we Türkmenistana gelmäge hukugy bardyr. Türkmenistanyň raýaty Türkmenistandan gitmek we Türkmenistana gelmek hukugyndan mahrum edilip bilinmez.

Закон о миграции, Статья 24: Каждый гражданин Туркменистана имеет право на выезд из Туркменистана и въезд в Туркменистан. Гражданин Туркменистана не может быть лишён права на выезд из Туркменистана и въезд в Туркменистан.

Näme sebäpden gidip barýaň? Öň daşyna çykdyňmy? Niräk gidip barýaň?

What is the reason for travel? Have you been outside of the country before? Where are you heading to?

These are the questions a border control officer at the airport in Ashgabat asks a traveler with ticket and valid travel passport in Turkmenistan because to travel, to leave and enter Turkmenistan has become a privilege for citizens of Turkmenistan and not a right. As a citizen of Turkmenistan, your aspirations, plans to study, work or do business or get an urgent medical treatment abroad are subject to arbitrary travel rules and guidelines.

What are the restrictions?

Although the government continues refusing to admit to the presence of COVID-19 in the country, it imposed severe limitations on movement for citizens in response to COVID-19 in March 2020. All foreign travel whether for work, trade, or educational opportunities is strictly controlled by the government.

The current travel restrictions in Turkmenistan are not explained and not communicated to the public in open and truthful manner by the government. Whatever scarce information comes out in the state media concerning the international travel, information is contradictory and implementation of rules is arbitrary and not consistent.

These restrictions divide families and severely curtail freedom of movement. Many Turkmens are cut off from the jobs and educational opportunities. Families that were separated since the pandemic are still not able to reunite because of the never-ending, poorly communicated travel restrictions.

International flights: From March 2020 to July 2022 there were no scheduled flights to and from outside of the country. In July 2022 the government opened up scheduled flights to Dubai and two destinations in Russia by state-owned Turkmenistan Airlines. One still has to apply for a permit to exit the country and get on these flights. The government does not publish the requirements, application procedures to get a permission for travel. It is not clear who, how, why and on which basis one gets to travel or does not get to travel. The arbitrary and selective rules and procedures open up opportunities for grand corruption and abuse. This has devastating economic, social and psychological impact on lives and future of people in Turkmenistan.

Charter flights: Every month, the government allows a few charter flights (meaning these are not scheduled and regular flights) to Turkey for selected group of passengers, employees of international organizations and government officials and delegations to travel for work. A few lucky and privileged Turkmens get on a flight.

Impacts of restrictions on people: The travel ban had caused many families considerable hardship for some resulting in deaths of loved ones with cancer diagnosis and other hard to treat diseases when they were not allowed to travel to other countries (India, Turkey) to receive lifesaving medical treatments. The mortality rate from cancer stays high in Turkmenistan.

There are also reports that people under 40 get questioned, harassed at higher levels although the exact reason is not communicated by the government, it is assumed by the public that this is due to high levels of brain drain, high unemployment and lack of opportunities in the country.

There are regular reports of violent clashes at Istanbul Airport, Turkey where citizens of Turkmenistan line up every day hoping to get on a flight to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Turkey is one of the major destinations for economic migrants from Turkmenistan.

Due to pervasive culture of fear of the reprisals by the government, even entertaining thoughts of traveling, migrating or emigrating makes it sound like an illegal activity in Turkmenistan now. The government refuses to hear and respond to public’s concerns which the public continues articulating on social media.

Rumors, conflicting information as public administration tool

The Extraordinary commission on combatting the spread of diseases was established in January 2020. The commission gets mentioned in the state media but no one knows how this commission works exactly. Its business is conducted in secrecy. Bribery reportedly plays a role in the permit process.

There is a huge gap between what it takes for citizens to travel and what is being communicated to the public by the government. There is no streamlined communication between the government agencies. It looks like several government agencies (Migration Services, above mentioned commissions) have been tasked to deal with these restrictions that ultimately no one has full information and therefore, citizens have to spend time, money and energy finding out the rules.

There are reports that bribes and system of tanyşlyk (сonnections, крыша) are involved in obtaining the permits both from the commission and the Migration Services. Tanyş also is needed to buy a tiсket (available only offline) and make sure to safely pass the border control at the airport. Anyone can be subjected to manipulation, harassment and abuse.

Action needed urgently

We are calling on the government of Turkmenistan to hear the public’s concerns and lift international travel bans and bureaucratic procedures so families can see each other. This inaction contributes to growing aggression among the public, deteriorating mental health in Turkmenistan resulting in high incidences of depression and suicides.

We are calling on international community present in Turkmenistan to raise the freedom of movement with the government of Turkmenistan highlighting its urgency and suffering the government’s mismanagement is inflicting on population of Turkmenistan.

We are asking our fellow citizens to keep sharing their stories with us on how these never-ending, confusing travel restrictions impact their dreams, aspirations and their present and future. Stories do make a difference.

Sources for learning more:
Human Rights Watch Turkmenistan
Freedom House
BTI Transformation Index
HSM Habar

Hepdelik täzeliklere: / Weekly newsletters: