OFFICE TO MONITOR AND COMBAT TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS
Turkmenistan: Tier 3
The Government of Turkmenistan does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so, even considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Turkmenistan remained on Tier 3. Despite the lack of significant efforts, the government took some steps to address trafficking, including by continuing to participate in anti-trafficking awareness campaigns and continuing to purchase equipment for mechanization of the cotton harvest to reduce the vulnerability to forced labor generated by dependence on handpicking. However, during the reporting period, there was a government policy or pattern of forced labor; the government continued to direct policies that perpetuated the mobilization of adults and children for forced labor in the annual cotton harvest, in public works projects, and in other sectors in some areas of the country. The government’s denial of access to independent monitoring missions—coupled with pandemic-related limitations—prevented robust observation of the cotton harvest. Despite these trends, the government did not hold any officials accountable for their complicity in forced labor crimes. The government did not report any information on investigations, prosecutions, or convictions; identified no victims; did not implement legal provisions on victim protection; and did not fund any victim assistance programs.
- Take further action to end government policies or actions that compel or create pressure for the mobilization of forced labor, to include eliminating the cotton and silk production quotas and mandatory participation in public works.
- Grant independent observers full access to monitor cotton cultivation and cease the harassment, detention, and abuse of individuals for documenting labor conditions.
- While respecting due process, investigate and prosecute suspected sex and labor trafficking offenses under Article 129/1 of the criminal code and convict, sentence, and incarcerate traffickers, including government officials complicit in the mobilization of forced labor.
- Eliminate the practice of requiring fees for replacement pickers or contributions from businesses and entrepreneurs to support the harvest.
- Provide victim care services directly or by otherwise funding organizations to do so, including for male victims, in accordance with provisions of the 2016 anti-trafficking law.
- Finalize, implement, and train police, migration officers, and other relevant stakeholders on standard operating procedures to identify and refer victims to protection services.
- Allocate direct financial resources for implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP).
- Establish, train relevant personnel on, and implement labor inspection and recruitment oversight protocols to improve forced labor identification and prevention.
- Train police to detect and investigate sex and labor trafficking crimes.
- Establish a trafficking-specific hotline and publicize it among vulnerable communities.
- Expand training for relevant government authorities on implementation of the provisions of the 2016 anti-trafficking law and article 129, as amended in 2016.
- Increase awareness of trafficking among the general public through government-run campaigns or financial and in-kind support for NGO-run campaigns.
The government decreased anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. Article 129/1 of the criminal code criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of four to 10 years’ imprisonment for offenses involving adult victims, and eight to 15 years’ imprisonment for offenses involving child victims; these penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Unlike the previous year, authorities did not report initiating any criminal investigations related to trafficking (compared to one investigation in 2019) and, for the second consecutive year, they did not report any prosecutions or convictions (compared with one prosecution in 2019 and three each in 2017, 2016, and 2015; one conviction in 2017, three in 2016, and nine in 2015). Authorities reported training law enforcement on trafficking prevention and victim identification, but they did not provide information on participating agencies or number of personnel trained. The government did not provide in-kind support to an international organization for law enforcement training, as it had in prior years. Despite continued reports of widespread corruption, the government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses, nor did it report any efforts to end officials’ mobilization of persons for forced labor in the cotton harvest, public works projects, or domestic service. Under direct orders from the provincial government, police officers in Mary reportedly began detaining dozens of homeless persons and others suspected of being homeless and forcing them to work on farms, in domestic service—including in the residences of their relatives and friends—and in other capacities. Authorities reportedly threatened family members who attempted to locate relatives detained under this campaign. Corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns, inhibiting law enforcement action during the year. The government did not report any international investigations or extraditions of suspected traffickers. State-imposed restrictions on the access of independent observers to the cotton harvest likely impeded the detection and referral to law enforcement of forced labor crimes.
The government maintained negligible protection efforts. For the second consecutive year, authorities did not identify any trafficking victims, compared with eight victims in 2018, one in 2017, and 11 in 2016. An international organization that works closely with the government reported assisting 18 Turkmen victims identified overseas, including 13 female victims and five male victims (compared with 12 female victims and 12 male victims in 2019); it was unclear how many of these if any, were children, and there was no information available on the types of exploitation they experienced. It is possible the total number of victims was significantly higher, considering the 7,748 calls to the foreign-funded, international organization-run trafficking hotlines in Ashgabat and Turkmenabat; however, no victims were formally identified through these calls during the reporting period. Neither the government nor the foreign donors publicized these hotlines as avenues for trafficking victims seeking to report their abuses. Despite international organizations utilizing thorough victim identification protocols accepted by the wider international community, the prosecutor general’s office continued to baselessly assert most trafficking claims were fraudulent. Authorities reported conducting regular training for law enforcement personnel on victim identification; however, the government again failed to adopt and implement standard operating procedures for victim identification and referral developed in partnership with an international organization in 2018, leaving authorities without formal written procedures to effectively conduct this work. Observers ascribed the delay in part to redirection of resources and attention to the pandemic. Migration authorities reportedly continued to interview and refer to law enforcement traveling women and minors they deemed to be at higher risk of trafficking; in the absence of standardized guidance, it is likely that some victims, including adult men, passed unidentified through these channels. In previous years, law enforcement agencies only designated individuals as trafficking victims if their cases led to trafficking convictions.
The anti-trafficking law required the government to provide a wide range of services to trafficking victims; however, for the fifth consecutive year, the government did not provide comprehensive services to all trafficking victims, nor did it fund international organizations or NGOs to provide such services. An NGO operated a foreign donor-funded shelter for female and child trafficking victims. The shelter could provide psychological counseling and local reintegration services, including housing, food, personal hygiene products, medical examinations, vocational training and job placement, and small grants to support livelihood generation, legal services, education, and transportation. Although the shelter was in operation during the pandemic, no information was available on the number of victims who benefitted from its services (compared with five female victims in 2019 and seven in 2018). Victims were eligible to apply for physical protection and assistance in obtaining free medical care; however, officials did not report details on specific cases in which such assistance was provided during the year, and NGOs indicated in prior years that some victims were required to pay for their own medical treatment.
By law, victims—including those participating in criminal proceedings—were exempt from administrative or criminal liability for unlawful acts their traffickers compelled them to commit. The legal code guaranteed victims the option to seek employment; required law enforcement agencies to respect their confidentiality; and provided free legal assistance for those who apply for official victim status, as well as the option to request temporary residency in Turkmenistan for the duration of relevant criminal proceedings. As in the previous year, the government did not report providing any of these forms of assistance. There were no reports of victims seeking or obtaining damages in civil suits. The government made no attempts to identify sex trafficking victims among women arrested for engaging in commercial sex; consequently, officials may have penalized sex trafficking victims for prostitution offenses. In prior years, some Turkmen trafficking victims were deported to Turkmenistan from other countries after local authorities had failed to screen them for trafficking indicators, and Turkmenistan’s migration service subsequently blocked them from exiting Turkmenistan for a period of up to five years. Civil society groups believed this punitive response may have dissuaded some Turkmen nationals exploited in trafficking abroad from coming forward with their abuses during the reporting period.
The government decreased efforts to prevent human trafficking, and reports of state-sponsored forced labor continued. The government maintained a 2020-2022 NAP developed in conjunction with an international organization and approved in 2019; authorities did not allocate financial resources or provide in-kind contributions to implement the plan, nor did they promulgate key action items required for its implementation. In the absence of formal access approval for independent monitoring missions, it was difficult to ascertain the extent to which the authorities took steps to eliminate state policies that perpetuated government-compelled forced labor during the cotton harvest or in public works projects.
According to international media reports, quasi-state agricultural associations exploited some farmers in forced labor at local levels to meet Turkmenistan’s national cotton production quota. Some local government officials continued to mobilize students, teachers, medical professionals, and other civil servants for compulsory labor in the cotton harvest and in public works, including community cleaning and beautification projects. The government continued to purchase and receive cotton picking and planting machinery from international industry partners as part of ongoing efforts to mechanize the harvest and reduce dependency on human labor. However, authorities did not provide data on use of the machinery and, due to a lack of independent observation, no information regarding the impact of these mechanization efforts on forced labor was available. According to some reports, tenant farmers often had to pay unregulated, bribe-like fees at various parts of the cultivation process to access the necessary mechanical equipment, at times compounding their financial hardships and disincentivizing its use altogether. International media and civil society groups continued to report some local government officials required public sector workers unwilling or unable to participate in the harvest to pay for replacement pickers, thereby establishing an informal penalty system through which corrupt officials profited from coercion. Despite the absence of formal observation by international organizations, informal observers continued to note a discernible decline in recent years of forced labor in cotton harvesting and sowing, possibly attributable to mechanization and the availability of low-wage labor, among other factors. There were reports that some schoolteachers who were required by local government mandates to participate in the cotton harvest instead compelled their students to serve as replacement pickers in the fields.
The 2016 anti-trafficking law outlined roles and responsibilities for key stakeholder agencies and placed the cabinet of ministers in charge of planning, funding, and implementing anti-trafficking policy. It also called for the creation of an interagency anti-trafficking committee under the authority of the cabinet of ministers to coordinate, plan, monitor, and report on the government’s anti-trafficking efforts and analyze trends, improve victim protection measures, raise awareness, and monitor implementation of the NAP. The government convened its national working group on NAP implementation in June 2020; authorities did not provide information on the results of this meeting. The law required the Ministry of Internal Affairs to record data on trafficking crimes; however, for the fifth consecutive year, the government did not report any systematic efforts to monitor its anti-trafficking efforts and did not make publicly available any government data on trafficking crimes or relevant judicial processes. The government cooperated with NGOs and an international organization to conduct awareness campaigns in rural areas and airports targeting vulnerable populations, although fewer of these activities took place in public than in previous years due to pandemic-related restrictions. The government reported conducting eight virtual seminars on safe migration in conjunction with an international organization, along with more than 300 law enforcement information campaigns on combating trafficking; the government did not provide information on participation or specific campaign content. Authorities also noted the number of Turkmen citizens departing the country decreased by more than 99 percent following enhanced exit bans and border closures ostensibly instituted as pandemic-related public health measures; according to one international organization, these restrictions may have further incentivized migration through unregulated channels commonly associated with trafficking vulnerabilities. As in prior years, the government charged NGOs fees to place anti-trafficking awareness material in a government-owned public space.
Civil society observers noted a slight increase in labor inspections conducted by government officials following their participation in training sessions provided by foreign donors; however, authorities did not provide information on these inspections or their outcomes. The government promulgated two orders purporting to improve labor inspections, including by establishing permission for unannounced visits to work sites, and to increase oversight of recruitment for public works during the reporting period. However, the content of the orders did not appear to feature language outlining specific inspection or remediation methodologies, nor did they contain provisions for detecting abuses or punishing those who violate recruitment regulations. Neither document featured any mention of forced labor indicators. The government did not report efforts to punish labor recruiters or brokers involved in the fraudulent recruitment of workers.
The government continued to grant citizenship to members of Turkmenistan’s stateless population, which consisted primarily of former Soviet citizens; in 2020, authorities granted citizenship to 2,580 of these individuals, compared with 863 citizenship conferrals in 2019 and 735 in 2018. A civil status law passed in 2019 and brought into effect in July 2020 newly allowed for the registration of, and access to public services for, all children born in the country regardless of the legal status of their parents. State migration officials continued to prevent Turkmen nationals from departing the country via airports; authorities did not provide information on how many of these interventions were related to perceived trafficking vulnerabilities. The government claimed it restricted the international travel of some young women in particular to prevent them from being subjected to trafficking abroad. The government did not report providing anti-trafficking training to its diplomatic personnel in 2020. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts.
As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic victims in Turkmenistan, and they exploit victims from Turkmenistan abroad. State policies continue to perpetuate government-compelled forced labor; in 2016 and again in 2020, the ILO Committee of Experts noted the continued practice of forced labor in the cotton sector. To meet central government-imposed production quotas for the cotton harvest, local government officials require some soldiers, employees at private-sector institutions, and public sector workers—including teachers, doctors, nurses, and others—to pick cotton without payment, using coerced statements of voluntary participation, and under the threat of such penalties as dismissal, reduced work hours, or salary deductions. Local officials reportedly impose informal fees on public sector workers as a tactic to coerce them into picking cotton or otherwise profit from their inability or unwillingness to participate in the harvest. Some local authorities reportedly also threaten farmers with land expropriation if they attempt to register complaints about payment discrepancies or if they do not meet government-imposed quotas. Absent government measures to prevent, monitor, or address supply chain contamination, some goods containing cotton harvested through the use of forced labor may have entered international supply chains. In addition, the government compulsorily mobilizes students, teachers, doctors, and other civil servants for public works and community cleaning and beautification projects, such as the planting of trees and the cleaning of streets and public spaces in advance of presidential visits. Authorities have also forced public servants and students to serve in uncompensated support roles during government-sponsored events, such as the 2018 World Weightlifting Championship; similarly, financial hardships stemming from land expropriation, forcible evictions, and home demolition in advance of high-profile sporting events may have made some communities vulnerable to trafficking. Police reportedly conduct sweeps to remove homeless persons and subsequently place them in agricultural work or domestic servitude at the residences of law enforcement-connected families. Families living in poverty often compel children to serve as porters in local marketplaces. Workers in the construction sector and at small-scale sericulture operations are vulnerable to forced labor. Turkmenistan’s small stateless population—primarily consisting of undocumented residents with expired Soviet nationality documentation—are vulnerable to trafficking. Criminalization of consensual sexual intercourse between men makes some members of Turkmenistan’s LGBTQI+ communities vulnerable to police abuse, extortion, and coercion into informant roles; widespread social stigma and discrimination against LGBTQI+ individuals also compound their vulnerability to family-brokered forced marriages that may feature corollary sex trafficking or forced labor indicators. Residents of rural areas in Turkmenistan are at highest risk of becoming trafficking victims, both within the country and abroad.
Turkmen men and women are subjected to forced labor after migrating abroad for employment in the textile, agricultural, construction, and domestic service sectors; Turkmen migrant men are also subjected to forced criminality in drug trafficking. Sex traffickers exploit Turkmen women abroad. Turkey, Russia, and India are the most frequent destinations of Turkmen victims, followed by other countries in the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Europe. Enduring government restrictions on freedom of movement preventing citizens from leaving the country incentivize some to pursue unofficial migration channels rife with trafficking vulnerabilities. Government austerity measures limiting certain foreign financial transactions, coupled with travel and entry restrictions, may increase the risk of sex or labor exploitation among Turkmen university students stranded abroad during the pandemic.