TURKMENISTAN: Focus on Armenian migrants

UN Regional Information Asia, Asia
May 6 2004

TURKMENISTAN: Focus on Armenian migrants

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United

ASHGABAT, 6 May 2004 (IRIN) – Thousands of Armenians from Armenia and
Azerbaijan fled to Turkmenistan in the 1990s, following the war in
the Caucasus and the economic crisis in Armenia. After the
authorities in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat introduced a visa regime
with all the former Soviet republics in 1999, many of these Armenians
found themselves in Turkmenistan with no legal status, many have
sought to return home.


Armenians living in Turkmenistan fall into three groups: ethnic
Armenians who are Turkmen citizens, Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan
and the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh, and Armenian citizens from
Armenia itself.

According to Aram Grigoryan, the Armenian ambassador to Turkmenistan,
those in the first category constitute the majority of Armenians in
the country. According to some estimates, they number more than
30,000. The total population of Turkmenistan is some 6.5 million.

As for the second and third categories, Grigoryan explained to IRIN
that a well-established Armenian diaspora in the country dating back
to Soviet times prompted their relatives in Armenia and Azerbaijan to
come to Turkmenistan more recently.

Given their illegal status, there are no official statistics on the
number of Armenian irregular migrants in Turkmenistan. According to
the Armenian embassy, they could number between 2,000 and 4,000.


Although the embassy is dealing with these irregular Armenian
migrants, and had sent several hundred Armenians back to Armenia
before Ashgabat’s June 1999 announcement of a visa regime with all
former Soviet republics, the situation became more complicated after

“This [visa regime] made these people victims of the situation. Most
of them never knew what a visa regime meant… They thought they
would continue to live as they had been doing and that it [the
trouble] would pass,” Grigoryan said.

It turned out that thousands of Armenian nationals were living in
Turkmenistan without an entry visa, thus staying illegally and
breaking the visa regime. “These people are formally speaking without
proper documents at this point, but many of them told us they were
actually afraid to register. They were afraid that they wouldn’t get
the [required] status and as foreigners would be obliged to leave the
country. So this is a very specific migration issue,” Zoran Milovic,
head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in
Ashgabat, told IRIN.

Upon the establishment of the visa regime, these migrants had a
chance to leave the country without a visa. This was done for those
who were not ready to pay for a visa to stay. Such visas cost US $41
for each month of stay in the country.

“And you can imagine what a huge burden $41 would be for anybody here
in Turkmenistan, except for Westerners who come on business,” Milovic
said. The average monthly salary in the energy rich country is no
more than $65.

Some migrants left, but most remained. “From a technical point of
view, everyone who didn’t have a place of residence and Turkmen
citizenship and failed to register after 1999 became an irregular
migrant,” Milovic explained.

According to the IOM, in some cases Armenian migrants had documents
issued by the old Soviet government or issued by the Armenian
government, while others had lost their papers. But it proved
virtually impossible for them to get new documents, because in order
to get a new passport they had to have the original papers from
Armenia. “You cannot get them unless you travel there and you cannot
travel because you don’t have travel documents. It was a catch-22
situation,” the IOM official noted.

In an effort to organise the voluntary return of those willing to go
home, the IOM has assisted the return of more than 200 Armenian
nationals over the past two years, supported by the Norwegian, Dutch
and British governments, coupled with the cooperation of Turkmen

“When it came to the issue of logistics, of organising their
transport, we indeed had excellent cooperation from both the
Ministries of Interior and of Foreign Affairs, and with the customs
and border guard service.” Milovic said.


One of the most problematic aspects related to the issue of Armenian
irregular migrants is that of mixed marriages between them and local
ethnic Armenians who are Turkmen nationals.

Turkmenistan adopted a law defining the conditions for the
registration of marriages between Turkmen nationals and foreigners in
2001. According to the law, every foreigner who wants to marry a
Turkmen national is supposed to pay US $50,000 to a state fund, which
is supposed to take care of abandoned wives and orphans.

But very few people from the former Soviet Union have $50,000 to pay
for registering the marriage. “Then you have the situation when the
marriage exists in reality, children exist in reality. But in terms
of formally recognising this marriage union and then registering the
place of residence and approving certain rights that come with that,
it is not possible and this becomes a huge problem,” Milovic

“We had many cases in which one of the spouses was an Armenian
national while the other was a Turkmen national. They usually
encounter problems with visas, registration, residency permits and so
on,” Ambassador Grigoryan said.

Although they cannot register their marriage officially, they usually
marry in church. “But when they have children, they cannot register
them, they can’t be issued with IDs, which creates big problems for
their education,” a local analyst told IRIN in Ashgabat.

The issue of mixed marriages was quite problematic for the recent
group of repatriates who flew to Armenia in late January. Many of the
repatriates left behind children or wives in Turkmenistan, the
Armenian media outlet ArmeniaNow.com reported, quoting some

Nune came to Armenia with her daughter, leaving behind in
Turkmenistan her husband and son – both Turkmen nationals. “Since I
have a Soviet passport I hope to get myself a new Armenian passport
here and then to return to my family by invitation,” she said.

Gagik, who worked in Ashgabat, said his wife and his child were still
in the country. “My wife has Turkmen citizenship, so if I bring her
to Armenia she will have the same status here as I do there,” he
said, adding that he didn’t know what to do.

No statistics or estimates are available on the number of mixed
marriages. “People are afraid to contact either the Armenian embassy
or anybody else, including Turkmen government institutions. So, it is
very hard to estimate their number,” Milovic said.

The IOM official urged the Turkmen and Armenian governments to
address this very specific issue. “Although we can say that they are
irregular migrants, this is an example of a very specific migration
issue that I hope the Turkmen and Armenian governments might be able
to resolve in a different way so that we do not have the cases of
divided families,” he said.

Turkmen law stipulates that those foreign nationals who violated
migration and registration requirements are banned from entering the
country for five years, making it very hard if not impossible for the
Armenian spouses to return to Turkmenistan legally.


Although some Armenians left the country with assistance from IOM,
the Armenian embassy in Ashgabat or on their own account, the
majority remain in the country, most of whom are said to be seeking
repatriation as they have no jobs, social protection or other rights.

According to some analysts, given their illegal status, most of the
Armenian migrants live in constant fear of being discovered,
questioned by the police, detained and possibly deported. There have
been unconfirmed reports of migrants being harassed by the police,
suffering extortion for money or evicted from their homes.

“Many people are detained and kept at detention facilities for
violating the visa regime. Unfortunately, in Turkmenistan the law on
deportation hasn’t been worked out and we’ve developed a middle-way
solution in cooperation with the Turkmen authorities. We send these
detained people back home. It means that the Turkmen side stamps
visas, we find money for an air ticket, and we look for relatives or
sponsor money. Dozens of people have been sent back home in such a
way,” Ambassador Grigoryan said.

Between 1996 and 1999 when the visa regime was introduced the
Armenian embassy repatriated some 700 Armenians.

“I am sure there are still people who want to go home and many of
them have heard about [such repatriation efforts] it, but we cannot
announce them via radio or television. Should that happen there
wouldn’t be a spare space on this street as many will come,” the
Armenian envoy explained.


Another group of ethnic Armenians living in Turkmenistan, namely
refugees from Azerbaijan, is in a more difficult situation. “As for
the [Azerbaijani] refugees, the situation is more complicated.
Unfortunately the office of the UNHCR provides little helps to them
although it is their direct responsibility,” Grigoryan complained to

We spoke to the UNHCR mission in Turkmenistan, and they said that
donor countries that fund humanitarian assistance to refugees put
some conditions, namely that in a given country, for example
Turkmenistan, only those people who directly came from their former
homeland, that is Azerbaijan, could be considered refugees, he

“These people are deprived of many rights. But it is not the fault of
Turkmenistan, which accepted all of them. It is the fault of
circumstances that made them leave their countries and homelands. But
they cannot return there because there are now big problems between
Armenia and Azerbaijan. Nobody will accept them there,” Grigoryan

According to the Armenian embassy, the estimated number of
Azerbaijani refugees of Armenian origin living in Turkmenistan is
between 1,000 and 3,000.

Those refugees who came from Azerbaijan directly and can prove that
with documentary evidence are receiving assistance from the UNHCR.
They get a special document which gives them the opportunity to work
and some other rights.

“But those who before coming to Turkmenistan were in other countries
– for example in Armenia and got their refugee status there, but got
into that difficult situation of the early 90s and came here – they
are deprived of assistance. I think it’s nonsense,” Grigoryan said

As of April 2004, there were 100 Azerbaijani refugees registered with
the UNHCR office in Ashgabat who are receiving assistance from the UN
refugee agency. “But there are probably others who didn’t register.
We don’t know about them,” Narasimha Rao, a protection officer for
UNHCR, told IRIN in the capital.

“We believe that the majority of them who have refugee claims, which
means those who fled because of the conflict have already approached
us and registered with us. Those who came for migratory reasons don’t
fall under our mandate and as a result we cannot assist them,” Rao


When looking at possible solutions for the Armenian migrants,
officials talk about getting Turkmen citizenship for those who
qualify and assisted voluntary repatriation for others.

“I do hope we will have the chance to discuss with the Turkmen
government the situation of those who are still here. Especially
those who are indeed cases of mixed marriages or those who have been
in the country for more than seven years and thus, according to
Turkmen legislation, would have the right to apply for Turkmen
citizenship. I hope that the Turkmen government might be willing to
consider some of these cases, some of these issues in a way that
might enable people to have a choice,” Milovic said.

Meanwhile, those who are happy to return but do not have necessary
resources are awaiting further organised repatriation efforts by the
IOM, provided that donors release the funds needed for a more
comprehensive repatriation programme. The programme is expected to
include some elements necessary for sustainable return as many of the
people in the first group of returnees who were repatriated in late
2002 later went abroad, either to Russia or the US, as they couldn’t
support themselves in Armenia.

The Armenian ambassador urged donors to continue their help in
repatriating Armenians. “There is nothing more noble than to help
people to return home,” he said.