Turkmenistan is a landlocked state in Central Asia with a population of 5,439,000 people. Turkmenistan was a constituent republic within the Soviet Union until 1991 when it gained independence. The following year, Turkmenistan joined the United Nations. Like most nations, Turkmenistan hosts a refugee population. Here are 10 critical facts about refugees in Turkmenistan:
- According to the World Bank, 26 refugees officially registered in Turkmenistan in 2015. This puts the number of refugees in Turkmenistan substantially lower than neighboring countries such as Afghanistan (257,554), Iran (979,437), Kazakhstan (708) and Uzbekistan (107) when it comes to official accounts of stateless persons.
- For a number of reasons, no one really knows how many refugees in Turkmenistan there are. However, it is likely greater than the official count of 26. The U.N. once estimated that there are at least 40,000 Afghan and Tajik refugees in Turkmenistan.
- International organizations criticize Turkmenistan for its many human rights abuses, with the Human Rights Watch characterizing Turkmenistan as “among the world’s most repressive and closed countries, where the president and his associates have total control over all aspects of public life.” Reports of torture, suppressed speech and forcefully disappeared persons makes Turkmenistan an undesired destination for refugees. Still, war and political violence in countries like Afghanistan and Tajikistan render Turkmenistan preferable–albeit less than ideal.
- One such human rights abuse–and a barrier to estimating the number of refugees in Turkmenistan–is Turkmenistan’s policies regarding nongovernmental organizations and human rights organizations. Nongovernmental organizations are illegal in Turkmenistan, and organizations such as the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are not allowed entry.
- The government of Turkmenistan has strategically driven refugees in Turkmenistan from neighboring countries such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan back across borders. Many Russians have endured deportation as well.
- A pretext for deporting refugees in Turkmenistan is marriage; if a non-Turkmen refugee marries an ethnically Turkmen person, they will likely not receive citizenship in Turkmenistan and face deportation.
- Though refugees in Turkmenistan often can’t marry someone with Turkmen heritage, the nation still expects them to adopt a traditional Turkmen way of life. Ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs and others must speak the Turkmen language and dress in traditional Turkmen clothing. Even the children of refugees must abide by these standards or face punishment like expulsion from school.
- Despite being an ethnically diverse nation, ethnic Turkmen people receive favor and hold virtually all public offices in the country. The purging of non-Turkmen government employees, unofficial banning of inter-ethnic marriage and mandating that refugees in Turkmenistan adopt the Turkmen way of life are all part of Turkmenistan’s strategy of “Turkmenization,” a set of official government policies started by former President Saparmyrat Niyazov in 1992 to emphasize Turkmen heritage over that of other ethnic groups. All stateless people and refugees in Turkmenistan must conform to “Turkmenization” if they wish to remain in the country. This is to the point that Uzbeks in Turkmenistan sustain punishment for non-Turkmen religious practices.
- In 1995, Turkmenistan allowed the U.N. Refugee Agency to open an office in Ashgabat–an unusual move, considering Turkmenistan’s policies on nongovernmental human rights organizations. Since then, the U.N. has invested millions of dollars in improving conditions in refugee-hosting areas, giving the refugees access to medicine and even helping to register them as Turkmen citizens.
- The government has done some good when it comes to helping refugees in Turkmenistan. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, while upholding most of Niyazov’s “Turkmenization” policies, has granted more than 3,000 refugees Turkmen citizenship since 2007. Previously, President Niyazov granted about 10,000 refugees in Turkmen citizenship. However, the criteria for granting citizenship was suspected as ethnically based; refugees fleeing the Tajikistan civil war gained citizenship, but the government often denied citizenship to Afghan and Azerbaijani refugees. Now holding Turkmen citizenship, these former refugees in Turkmenistan can take part in civil society and vote. The U.N. protection officer in Ashgabat, Batyr Sapbiyev, called Berdimuhamedov’s decree an “outstanding humanitarian act.”
While Turkmenistan has long been an ethnically diverse country, it has been considerably hostile towards non-Turkmen people living in the country, including refugees. Proponents of “Turkmenization,” an ideological set of public practices and laws, claim that they are preserving Turkmenistan’s cultural heritage. The cost is the shunning of the Tajik, Uzbek and other cultures existing in close proximity to Turkmenistan. Refugees in Turkmenistan do have some reasons to be optimistic, as more and more are granted citizenship. They are expected, however, to conform to the Turkmen way of living if they expect to stay in Turkmenistan.
– David Mclellan