ASHGABAT -- Turkmen authorities are investigating their citizens who went abroad for work.
Migrant work abroad is a fact for life for Central Asians, but authorities want to make sure that Turkmen citizens are not joining the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL).
A third of Turkmen migrant workers in Turkey overstay their visas, a Turkmen State Migration Service official who identified himself only as Azat, told Central Asia Online.
Presumably, most who overstay their visas in Turkey are busy working and earning wages they could not match in Turkmenistan. However, the potential for them to cross into Syria to join militants is a matter of official concern.
The Turkmen government does not disclose the estimated number of citizens fighting in Syria and Iraq, but the Soufan Group, a foreign consultancy, last December cited an estimate of 360.
Turkey is a magnet
The Turkmen government does not publicise the exact number of citizens who are living permanently abroad, Azat said. However, "almost a half-million Turkmens are living in Turkey illegally or semi-legally", he said.
"Turkey is one of only a few countries where Turkmens may go without a visa, or where they may obtain a visa on arrival," he said, noting that Kazakhstan and European countries require Turkmen visitors to obtain a visa in advance.
Turkmen youths who go abroad are generally going to college, while older citizens are seeking work, he said.
Turkmenistan needs more work opportunities
The Turkmen government is busy encouraging the launch of factories to provide jobs.
However, the country needs to triple -- at least -- its rate of building factories to provide jobs for the entire able-bodied population, Amanbagt Durdyyeva, a spokeswoman for the Economic Development Ministry, told Central Asia Online.
Dashoguz and Lebap are the provinces with the worst employment problem and the largest exodus to foreign countries, she said.
"Every year, about 107,000 to 111,000 Turkmens finish compulsory education," she said. "Two thirds do not qualify for college or trade school."
Worries about militancy
Turkmens living abroad who either become desperate or radicalised are vulnerable to recruitment by the likes of ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda affiliate), the National Security Ministry (MNB) fears.
"We have heard of our compatriots being threatened or blackmailed, or sometimes promised good wages ... to wage 'jihad' in Iraq or Syria," Ashgabat-based MNB official Serdar, who withheld his last name, told Central Asia Online.
Extremist recruiters can offer fearful Turkmens a harsh choice in Turkey, he said: either we will inform Turkish authorities of your illegal status and you will be deported to Turkmenistan, which won't let you go abroad again for five years, or you can join our movement in Syria.
"In Dashoguz and Lebap provinces, my colleagues are interviewing the relatives of Turkmens who went abroad and haven't come back," he said.
Authorities have begun preparing files on migrant workers who have not come back, Alternative News of Turkmenistan reported May 24, quoting Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Turkmen service.
Turkmens are not good 'jihadist' material
However, most Turkmens by nature are not likely to join extremist movements, Ashgabat journalist Annaberdy Orazdurdyyev told Central Asia Online.
Turkmens grow up embracing tolerance and love of peace, he said, adding that the MNB is merely being cautious.
"Their mission is to ... prevent an even greater exodus of labour migrants," he said. "Everyone worries that Turkmen militants in Syria could return home and destabilise peaceful Turkmenistan."
The best remedy is have enough jobs in Turkmenistan for its own people, Durdyyeva said.
"Nobody will travel abroad to work if they can find well-paid work at home," she said.