IS ramps up recruitment of Turkmen in Turkey as coronavirus saps jobs

By Dzhumaguly Annayev

This picture taken on April 12 shows a deserted street in Istanbul. Many Turkmen migrant workers have lost their jobs in Turkey because of the coronavirus outbreak. [Ozan Kose/AFP]

This picture taken on April 12 shows a deserted street in Istanbul. Many Turkmen migrant workers have lost their jobs in Turkey because of the coronavirus outbreak. [Ozan Kose/AFP]

ASHGABAT -- Recruiters from "Islamic State" (IS) in Turkey are seeking to take advantage of the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic to target migrant workers there from Turkmenistan, labourers say.

Erkin, a migrant worker from Turkmenistan living in Istanbul, said he was approached on April 9 in the Aksaray neighbourhood of Istanbul by a stranger.

The man struck up a conversation with Erkin about how hard life had become for migrant workers from Central Asia.

"He knew specifically that because of the coronavirus and the closing of restaurants, cafés and bars, migrants have lost their income and means of support," Erkin said in a video call on April 10.

"Then he subtly shifted the conversation and said that if someone wants to leave, they can find a job in the country next door [Syria] that pays $1,000 [3,510 TMT] per month," he added.

Erkin immediately suspected that the man had not approached him by chance and was a professional recruiter for a terrorist group.

The man made lofty promises, said Erkin. For example, he stated that anyone agreed to go to Syria to work would receive $1,000 on the spot and then $1,000 upon arrival.

The man repeatedly assured Erkin that the work being offered in Syria was not related to the war or killing but rather was a peaceful opportunity to build houses or to work in a factory or in the service sector.

"But I realised right away that no one is about to offer so much money for that kind of 'peaceful work'," he said.

He then told friends and acquaintances about the encounter and discovered that others had encountered strangers who engaged them in similar conversations.

Pandemic erases work

For Turkmen migrant workers, Turkey is attractive as they may stay for 90 days without a visa.

Before authorities everywhere enacted quarantines and cancelled flights to halt the global spread of the virus, about 20,000 Turkmens were arriving in Turkey every month.

In March 2019 alone, 22,672 citizens of Turkmenistan arrived in the country, according to the Turkish government.

"Now, no one is flying anywhere. The borders are closed, and all flights have been cancelled," said a spokesman for Turkmenistan Airlines in Istanbul on the condition on anonymity.

Resul, a 23-year-old Turkmen who was working as a waiter in a restaurant in the Beyoğlu neighbourhood of Istanbul, said that his restaurant closed because of the Turkish quarantine. He and other migrants working as waiters in that restaurant were laid off and are now in a precarious financial situation.

Many migrants are living in Turkey illegally --- meaning that their visas have expired and they are not authorised to work or that they have expired Turkmen passports.

"I don't know what I’ll do. It's really hard. I can't afford an apartment, so I'll need to live with 10 people in a single room and skimp on meals," said Resul.

If the situation worsens for another two or three months, some of his compatriots probably will be tempted by IS recruiters, he said.

"People who have landed in a desperate situation might ... be ensnared by recruiters," Resul said.

Turkmens will not join terrorist groups for ideology, he said.

"We all came here to work. But now there's no work, and there's no money either," he said. "So it will be hard for migrants who have ended up in dire straits to resist the appeal of large amounts of money offered by IS recruiters."

The situation is worsening because "the path home is closed", said Erkin.

"First of all, planes aren't flying, and second, once you get home, you can expect harsh punishment like fines and a five-year ban on leaving the country for being abroad illegally and violating visa regulations," Erkin said.

The offer of large sums of money and other promises made by IS recruiters thus have ever greater appeal to the desperate.

Recruiting efforts intensify

The deteriorating situation for migrant workers in Turkey is taking its toll.

On April 9, reported on the deaths and funerals of more than 50 Turkmen citizens in Istanbul who had died from consuming cheap home-brewed alcohol.

"If there are people who craved cheap fake vodka, what guarantee is there that someone wouldn't respond to $1,000 offered by IS recruiters?" Erkin said.

Efforts to recruit Turkmen citizens as insurgents have intensified, said Maksat Saparmuradov, a former employee of Turkmenistan's National Security Committee.

In an interview with the emigre publication Chronicles of Turkmenistan on April 9, he cited the "arrival in Turkey of recruiters for terrorist organisations".

The recruiters had in hand "$2 million [7 million TMT] ... for recruiting new fighters", he said.

"In the past, [recruiters] looked for potential followers in the mosques, but now that the mosques are closed, they're using social networks to seek out those who lost their jobs," Saparmuradov told Chronicles of Turkmenistan.

Turkmen migrant workers and students who have ended up in a difficult situation in Turkey and find themselves tempted to become mercenaries are counting on help from the Turkmen government.

"There's a slogan ... in Turkmenistan: 'The state is for the people'. We're really hoping that these aren't empty words," said Resul.

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