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 its dependence on handpicking. However, 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 prevented robust observation of the cotton harvest. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions; did not hold any officials accountable for their complicity in forced labor crimes; identified no victims; and did not fund any victim assistance programs.
PRIORITIZED RECOMMENDATIONS: 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, mandatory participation in public works, and the practice of requiring fees for replacement pickers or contributions from businesses and entrepreneurs to support the harvest.
- Grant independent observers full access to freely and independently monitor cotton cultivation and deliver an unfiltered report of the annual cotton harvest, and cease the harassment, detention, and abuse of individuals for documenting labor conditions.
- Amend the provision, under Article 8 of the Labor Code, that allows for the mobilization of civilians into public works, which would include cotton harvesting.
- While respecting due process, investigate and prosecute suspected sex and labor trafficking offenses under Article 129/1 of the criminal code; convict, sentence, and incarcerate traffickers, including government officials complicit in the mobilization of forced labor.
- 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 (SOPs) 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 and the labor rights of individuals among the general public through government-run campaigns or financial and in-kind support for NGO-run campaigns.
The government maintained negligible 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. Article 8 of the Labor Code separately defined “forced or obligatory labor” to exclude work “which is part of regular civil obligations of citizens.”
The Prosecutor General’s Office coordinates anti-trafficking efforts among law enforcement agencies. For the second consecutive year, authorities did not report initiating any criminal investigations (compared to one investigation in 2019) and, for the third consecutive year, they did not report any prosecutions or convictions (compared with one investigation and one prosecution in 2019). Authorities, in collaboration with an international organization, supported trainings for local government representatives based in Ashgabat and the five provinces on anti-trafficking policies and prevention of forced labor. Authorities also trained officials from the State Migration Service on anti-trafficking enforcement and laws. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking crimes; however, corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns, inhibiting law enforcement action during the year. Authorities did not report any efforts to end officials’ mobilization of persons for forced labor in the cotton harvest, public works projects, or domestic service. According to one media report, the government sent to work in the cotton fields citizens who had utility or alimony debts or were detained in public places without masks, in violation of pandemic protocols; the police allegedly beat them with rubber truncheons if they refused. The government did not report efforts to investigate reports from the previous year where, under direct orders from the provincial government, police officers in Mary 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. It was previously reported that authorities threatened family members who attempted to locate relatives detained under this campaign. 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; however, the government reported it has begun coordination with an international organization to arrange a monitoring mission of the cotton harvest for the first time in 2022.
The government maintained negligible protection efforts. For the third 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 reported assisting 15 victims, including one female sex trafficking victim, eight female forced labor victims, and six male forced labor victims (compared with 13 female victims and five male victims in 2020); all victims of forced labor were Turkmen, but the organization did not report the nationality of the sex trafficking victim. The Government of Turkey repatriated two of the 15 victims from Turkey to Turkmenistan. The government reported 2,691 calls to the foreign-funded, international organization-run trafficking hotlines in Ashgabat and Turkmenabat since May 2020; nine victims were identified and referred to services, and all were migrants who returned to Turkmenistan before the government stopped commercial flights in response to the pandemic. The hotline in Turkmenabat ceased operations during the reporting period due to a lack of funding. The Ministry of the Interior also runs a general hotline for crimes, including trafficking in persons, but did not report any victims identified. The government did not publicize these hotlines as avenues for trafficking victims seeking to report their exploitation; NGOs published advertisements on government owned newspapers to raise awareness. An international organization reported that, due to the pandemic, almost all international travel throughout 2021 was suspended, drastically reducing the number of Turkmen citizens traveling abroad, which likely reduced the identification of potential victims of trafficking. Despite international organizations utilizing thorough victim identification protocols accepted by the wider international community, it was previously reported that the prosecutor general’s office baselessly asserted that most trafficking claims were fraudulent. For the fourth consecutive year, the government failed to adopt and implement SOPs for victim identification and referral developed in partnership with an international organization in 2018. 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, including shelter, food, medical care, and financial support; however, for the sixth consecutive year, the government did not provide comprehensive services to any trafficking victims, nor did it fund international organizations or NGOs to provide such services. Additionally, the government passed and enacted the Law on Social Services, effective January 2022, which requires that victims of crime, including trafficking victims, are provided a tailored aid package, which could include medical, financial, legal, educational, and employment support. NGOs indicated in prior years that some victims were required to pay for their own medical treatment. The law on the Legal Status of Foreign Citizens in Turkmenistan (Foreign Citizens Law), adopted in November 2021, entitled foreign victims to the same benefits as citizens. Currently, assistance to victims is only provided by international organizations in conjunction with local civil society. 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.
By law, victims – including those participating in criminal proceedings – were exempt from administrative or criminal liability for crimes 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. The trafficking law does not require victim participation in investigations or prosecutions of alleged traffickers in order to access protection services. The law also gives victim witnesses the right to state protection, which includes social support. The government did not report providing any of these forms of assistance, and 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 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.
The government maintained negligible 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; however, authorities did not allocate financial resources or provide in-kind contributions to implement the NAP. The government reported expanding cooperation with international partners on awareness raising as part of its NAP implementation efforts. In April 2021, the government adopted the National Action Plan on Human Rights for 2021-2025, which included a section on measures aimed at preventing forced labor; however, authorities did not report allocating financial resources for or activities undertaken as part of its implementation. In the absence of formal access approval for independent monitoring missions, it was difficult to ascertain the extent to which authorities took steps to eliminate state policies that perpetuated government-compelled forced labor during the cotton harvest or in public works projects. In 2021, the government adopted a Plan of Cooperation with International Organizations for 2021-2023 to provide a basis for cooperation on issues of mutual interest, which may include future monitoring of the cotton industry.
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, soldiers of all military units, 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. As handpicked cotton reportedly attracts higher prices, some cotton fields are small for tractors, and farmers prefer manual labor due to high maintenance of the tractors, pressure for handpicking could remain. Authorities reported that the mechanization process has caused the percentage of manually harvested cotton to drop from 71 percent in 2015 to 28 percent in 2020. As reported in previous years, 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 teachers were required to pick cotton in addition to teaching classes and students were hired as replacement pickers.
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 task force 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 interagency anti-trafficking task force, which was formally approved in 2019, continued to meet regularly to implement the government’s anti-trafficking policies and reported conducting several trafficking prevention awareness sessions for various organizations and enterprises. The law required the Ministry of Internal Affairs to record data on trafficking crimes; however, for the sixth 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 online, in rural areas, and in airports targeting vulnerable populations, although fewer of these activities took place than in previous years due to pandemic-related restrictions. Authorities also noted the number of Turkmen citizens departing the country decreased 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 and made Turkmen migrants abroad more vulnerable due to an inability to return. Authorities have also imposed arbitrary travel bans on groups of people, preventing their freedom of movement and making them vulnerable. As in prior years, the government charged NGOs fees to place anti-trafficking awareness material in a government-owned public space.
According to the government, 15 labor inspections were carried out in 2021 by the National Center of Trade Unions; however, authorities did not provide information on these inspections or their outcomes. The government did not report efforts to hold accountable labor recruiters or brokers involved in the fraudulent recruitment of workers. International organizations conducted trainings on labor rights for members of the work force, including farmers.
The government continued to grant citizenship to members of Turkmenistan’s stateless population; in 2021, authorities granted citizenship to 2,657 of these individuals, compared with 2,580 in 2020, 863 in 2019, and 735 in 2018. The government also granted 406 foreign citizens residence permits. The Foreign Citizens Law allowed foreign citizens the same labor rights as the citizens of Turkmenistan. 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 reported it provided some anti-trafficking training to its diplomatic personnel and also regularly instructed diplomats to educate citizens on trafficking in persons. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts.
TRAFFICKING PROFILE: As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic victims in Turkmenistan, and traffickers exploit victims from Turkmenistan abroad. State policies continue to perpetuate government-compelled forced labor; in 2016, 2020, and again in 2022, the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations 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 and in unpaid support roles during government-sponsored parades and holiday celebrations. 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 and World Bicycle Day; 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 and to harvest carrots in the fields. Children are reportedly forced to work in cotton and potato fields during summer educational camps. 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 result in 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 citizens 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 citizens stranded abroad during the pandemic.