New legislation giving more powers to immigration officials in Turkmenistan is likely to place further curbs on freedom of movement, NBCentral Asia observers say.
A law signed by President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov on December 2 gives the Migration Service several powers previously held by the border guards as the task of checking passports and control over a specialised paramilitary force.
The law also gives the migration service the authority to conduct quasi-judicial investigations, which in the words of an Ashgabat-based lawyer, should more properly rest with Turkmenistan’s law enforcement and security services.
“Does this mean a new security agency has been established?” asked the lawyer.
Until now, immigration and emigration have been governed by a 2005 law.
Commentators in Turkmenistan say the migration service is already flexing its muscles, imposing residence restrictions on foreign nationals and limiting the movement of Turkmen citizens.
“The migration service has unlimited power over people through the black-lists it compiles. Anyone’s name can go down on the list,” said an Ashgabat resident who has found himself unable to travel abroad after being blacklisted. “You never find out why they’ve done it. They don’t explain”.
Tajigul Begmedova, who heads Turkmenistan’s Helsinki Human Rights Foundation based in Bulgaria, notes that the new legislation gives people – at least on paper – the right to know why the migration service has taken a particular decision.
“The law says the migration service should act in a transparent manner, whereas in reality it isn’t like that,” she said. “Another clause says that ‘citizens detained and held in custody on suspicion of committing migration offenses are entitled to be informed by migration service staff why their rights and freedoms are being curtailed’. However, the reality is that when citizens face problems trying to leave the country, they do not get any information at all about why they’re barred from leaving.”
Independent estimates by human rights activists suggest that about 17,000 people – journalists, civil society activists, NGO members, the relatives of opposition members, and others deemed to have suspect loyalties are included on the blacklist.
Anyone on the list trying to leave Turkmenistan for personal or business reasons is stopped at the airport border post and taken off the flight.
This summer, many students attending foreign universities, for instance the American University in Central Asia, located in Kyrgyzstan, found themselves unable to leave Turkmenistan after the summer vacation. It is unclear why the authorities decided to clamp down on students.
NBCentral Asia observers say families are often divided because of such arbitrary and unexplained curbs on freedom of movement.
“Very often, the migration service does not return a passport [submitted with an application for an exit permit] or holds it until the deadline has past, when it returns it saying the holder failed to claim it on time,” said an observer in Ashgabat.
This is what happened to a family in Ashgabat, where the husband was deported to Armenia – his place of origin – when his Turkmen passport expired. His wife has written repeatedly various government institutions, so far without success.
“He is not allowed to come here; the migration service and presidential council [Presidential Commission for Public Complaints against Law Enforcement Agencies] do not respond to my letters; and the courts will not let me lodge a complaints,” said the woman.
Commentators doubt the new law will improve migration procedures.
“There are often good laws adopted in our country, but who observes them?” said a media-watcher in the country. “This law will give them more rights to demean us.”