Turkmen emigres at risk of falling under extremist influence

By Dzhumaguly Annayev

The airport in Istanbul is shown in April. More than 20,000 Turkmens are living in that city illegally, according to various estimates. [Dzhumaguly Annayev]

The airport in Istanbul is shown in April. More than 20,000 Turkmens are living in that city illegally, according to various estimates. [Dzhumaguly Annayev]

ASHGABAT -- As young Turkmens continue to seek work abroad, authorities worry about their potential for radicalisation.

Turkmen authorities never discuss the issue, but a popular working destination, Turkey, has been a gateway country for thousands of militants from all over the world trying to join the war in Syria. Some of those militants are said to be Turkmen citizens.

Other destinations for Turkmens seeking work abroad include Cyprus and the Arab states.

3 categories live abroad

Observers have picked out three categories of migrants -- permanent residents abroad, as well as migrant workers and students.

"Imagine that someone has gone abroad to work," Ashgabat journalist Annaberdy Orazdurdyyev suggested to Caravanserai. "[Terrorist] recruiters offer him big money to participate in acts that ... look noble at first glance but represent a terrorist attack."

"Not everyone can resist that temptation," he said.

Radicalised migrants and students are far from the majority of such Turkmens, he said. "But anything can happen in life," he said.

Foreign media have periodically reported the arrests of Turkmen nationals who were trying to join the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) or other terrorist groups.

Last December, the Turkish newspaper Radikal reported the arrest of 63 Turkmens who were trying to go to Syria, citing its sources in the Turkish military. Their fate is unknown.

In the same month, the Soufan Group, an international security think tank, gave an estimate of 360 Turkmens fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Yet another estimated number, about 500, comes from the International Crisis Group, another think tank.

Turkmen officials refuse to comment on such estimates.

Labour migration a concern

However, they do acknowledge the potential for migrant workers, living in distant isolation, to go astray.

"Only a few people at the top of the Migration Service, Interior Ministry, National Security Ministry and the government ... know exactly how many [migrant workers] there are," Aganiyaz, a State Migration Service officer who spoke with Cararavanserai on condition of anonymity, said.

One estimate circulating inside his agency is that more than 110,000 Turkmens are living abroad without proper paperwork, he said.

"I've been here for many years," Rozybai, a Turkmen migrant worker in Turkey, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Turkmen service in a May interview.

Turkmen security personnel have inquired in his native Lebap Province about citizens who have gone abroad, he said, citing what he had heard from family in Turkmenistan. The province sends perhaps up as many as 34,000 citizens per year abroad, observers say.

Proud patriots

However, many Turkmens reject the idea of ever joining militants.

"I'll never let myself be drawn into the networks of radical Islamists," Umid Jumayev, 30, a Turkmen who works as a security guard in Istanbul, told Caravanserai by phone. "But I'm not going home for now."

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