The opportunity to study abroad is usually positioned as a life (and CV) enhancing experience. Among other benefits, studying abroad enables you to learn about different ways of teaching and learning, find out about new cultures, make new friends, and brush up on your language skills. Little wonder that the number of internationally mobile students is rapidly increasing – around five million currently and predicted to rise to eight million by 2025.
A recent series of meetings in Turkmenistan – a major sender of international students, primarily to Russia and Belarus – sought to put paid to any romantic ideas about studying abroad.
Parents of students currently studying abroad were summoned to attend meetings in which government officials informed them about the many dangers associated with these overseas stays.
Chief among the potential problems is religious (Islamic) radicalization – a concern shared by the Tajik government, which since 2010 has been clamping down on citizens with the temerity to study courses related to Islam abroad.
Other concerns raised by the officials included the prospect that Turkmen students would commit crimes while abroad, go to bars or visit brothels.
Despite ‘untrustworthy’ (outspoken?) parents not being invited to the meetings, Chronicles of Turkmenistan, an information resource run by the the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, nevertheless reported how frustrated some of the attendees became at one meeting:
One could overhear outraged exclamations from the audience:
– What bars are you talking about if they have no cash for food!?
– A student visa does not give the right to work and we are unable to transfer money to them. What is to be done?
– We hear that some students engage in thefts, robberies or drug trafficking but this should come as no surprise as they have no money!
There have been longstanding problems transferring money outside Turkmenistan and accessing funds from Turkmen banks in other countries, causing significant problems for students.
After these concerns were raised, the meeting was rapidly shut down after promises that the parents would get answers to their questions within 10 days.
Will they get their answers?
It doesn’t look promising. Chronicles of Turkmenistan goes on to note that parents at an earlier meeting had raised similar questions about the low money transfer limits in their province. They were told that:
…the restriction is related to the fact that “the region makes the smallest contribution to the country’s economy” and advised them to “resolve their problems on their own”.
The response to those parents who spoke up at the recent meeting may well be along the same lines.
Not content with demanding its nationals return home from studying abroad, reports are circulating [ru] that the government of Tajikistan is now regularly monitoring these former students.
Despite international borders opening for Tajiks since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Tajik government appears to be doing its best to close down opportunities for travel – for some citizens, at least. Since 2010, officials have been ‘encouraging’ students enrolled in courses related to Islam in other Islamic countries to abandon their studies and come back to Tajikistan.
Around 3,000 students have returned from Islamic universities and madrassahs in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen. No one really knows how many students remain abroad or how many have managed to get around the travel restrictions since they were introduced, but there were suggestions back in 2010 that there were around 4,000 Tajiks studying in Pakistan alone.
The government’s stated reason for returning these students home is the risk that they will be radicalized abroad. The directive is in line with other steps that have been taken to try and limit the growing popularity/resurgence of Islam in Tajikistan. Such measures have included restrictions on clothing and personal appearance (in short: hijab or beard – bad, suit and tie – good), age limits on mosque attendance and asserting control over who is permitted to provide Islamic education.
Yet the risk identified by the government appears to be unfounded: whilst there is evidence that a small number of Tajik nationals have joined ISIS and/or travelled to Syria and Iraq, Central Asian security expert Edward Lemon has cogently argued that the perceived threat should not be over-estimated.
Nevertheless, the state continues to pursue those who made the choice to follow instructions and return home from their study abroad. In January 2019, Radio Ozodi (Liberty) reported [ru] that these former religious studies students are now obliged to report to their local office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs twice a year for ‘registration and an interview’.
The purpose of these twice yearly meetings is to establish that the former student is still living in the same place i.e. has not gone back abroad. A number of former students explained that they are also being asked by local officials what the purpose of their study abroad was, what they are currently doing, and who they are friends with.
Human rights activists have pointed out that the rights of these former students are being violated [ru] on the presumption that they remain innocent until and if proven otherwise.
Yet all the evidence points to the government taking little heed of these warnings. Rather, it is likely to continue poking away at citizens’ ability to freely express themselves, to learn and to practice religion, to wear what they want and go where they want. And perhaps frustration and dissatisfaction with that is what might in the end cause people to take a path towards radicalization – not a handful of Islamic studies students.
Not much is written about higher education in Turkmenistan. Its education system, like much else in the country, is generally closed off to the outside world. The only news that tends to get out is when some high cost project is launched (see e.g. British tabloid The Express on the opening of a new airport in the capital Ashgabat or the Majlis podcast on the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games).
Sadly, the rare story that has surfaced from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Turkmen Service about higher education in Turkmenistan is not a positive one. There’s no new glitzy university building or major scholarship programme in the works. On the contrary, the story tells of how many Turkmen students pursuing studies abroad are being cut off from finances in their home banks and the negative consequences this is having not only on their studies but their physical and mental health.
This seems to me to epitomize the clash between contemporary globalization and the persistence (persisting importance) of nation states. So, for example, the international finance system is unable to control the machinations of national banks employing global services (in this case, VISA cards). And whilst students have many more opportunities to study outside their home country than in the past, they are still curtailed by the legislative framework of the host countries (in this case, the rules of their host universities about debts and the visa regime that doesn’t allow them to work).
I’ve reposted the story below, which is (c) RFE/RL’s Turkmen service and available on their website at https://www.rferl.org/a/turkmenistan-debit-cards-financial-cutoff-students-hunger-eviction/29252238.html.
Hunger And Eviction: Money Woes Send Turkmen Students Abroad Scrambling
A Russian ATM machine’s repeated rejection of his efforts to withdraw cash from his Turkmen bank led one student to cut up his bank card and try to cook it for a meal.
Video of the culinary first (he did add salt) that was sent to RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service was a humorous attempt to express the utter frustration felt by many of the thousands of Turkmen students studying around the world who are unable to get money from their bank accounts back home.
But the problem is no laughing matter. It’s left many students unable to pay rent or tuition, and some of those who spoke to RFE/RL this month said they were often even going hungry because they had no money.
“In December I was still pretty well fed, but then the [bank] cards stopped working and, as a result, I’ve lost 15 kilograms,” said Merdan, a Turkmen studying in Ukraine who asked that we not publish his surname.
“Very often we do not have money — I have to borrow from friends and acquaintances,” he added. “We all understand each other’s situations. Sometimes I ask for a slice of bread — but they also need to eat. And besides, a hungry person will not be satisfied with a couple of slices of bread.”
WATCH: Student ‘Cooks’ His Bank Card (in Turkmen, no subtitles)
Turkmen debit-cardholders living abroad were previously limited to taking out the equivalent of $15 per day, but that amount became insignificant once virtually any attempt to extract money — whether at ATMs in Turkey, Belarus, Ukraine, or Russia, among others — ended in failure.
“When I went abroad, I could not use my bank card, even though I had about 4,000 manats in my account,” said a student named Gulrukh, citing the equivalent of around $1,143 at the official exchange rate. “When I went to Vnesheconombank, they told me that my card was blocked.”
Many students in a number of countries told RFE/RL that occasionally their card would inexplicably work and they could retrieve $15 but those were unreliable exceptions.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service has received dozens of messages and phone calls each day in recent months from Turkmen abroad complaining about the debit-card problem.
No Official Announcements
The cards, issued by various state-owned Turkmen banks, are most often embossed with the VISA logo, the complainants said, but others that have failed are MasterCard.
VISA told RFE/RL in a March statement that it had not cut off any services to owners of its cards in Turkmenistan.
“In the Republic of Turkmenistan, VISA continues to process and provide services to all partner banks as usual, we have not suspended the provision of services to banks in Turkmenistan and are working closely with banks with partners, trade and service companies and other market participants to ensure the stable operation of the payment system as a whole,” Galym Tabyldiev, VISA’s general manager for Central Asia, wrote.
VISA said anyone experiencing difficulty using the cards should “contact the issuing bank.”
Banks in Turkmenistan have made no official announcements on the reason for the failure of the debit cards to work reliably, although some bank representatives, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that VISA cards used abroad were being “completely suspended.” The officials — from Bank Senagat and the Vnesheconombank — added that they did not know how long any purported suspension might last.
The dire situation has forced some parents with children studying abroad to rely on MoneyGram and Western Union to wire money to their loved ones.
But such transfers from Turkmenistan were limited to $300 and unusual conditions were placed on senders that included visiting certain central-bank offices to get a “service coupon.”
The migration to money-wiring services led to chaotic scenes at some of the few MoneyGram and Western Union outlets in Turkmenistan, with crushes as lines sometimes ballooned into the hundreds, as in the Lebap region in February.
It’s not clear why the banks might be blocking such withdrawal requests from abroad.
Some analysts speculate that it might be connected to the gap between the official exchange rate (3.5 manats to the dollar) and the black-market rate (22 manats to the dollar). They say paying out money at the official rate could expose banks to significant losses.
Others point to Turkmenistan’s dire economic situation, which has caused shortages of many staple and consumer goods, including bread and sugar.
Those woes appear to extend to the government’s coffers as well, as the state has reportedly fallen behind on some workers’ salaries and pensions.
There have also been government efforts to encourage the return of Turkmen migrant workers and students abroad by pressuring parents and other relatives. In such circumstances, cutting access to money for Turkmen abroad could make the decision to return home much easier.
Regardless of the reason for the cash cutoffs, they continue to cause big problems for Turkmen abroad.
“I would like to make a big request of officials in Turkmenistan,” wrote one student to RFE/RL. “Unlock our cards. We are in a foreign country, we do not have our own housing, we live in a hostel, we cannot even pay for it. We soon will be evicted. We cannot leave for Turkmenistan because we will not be released if we do not pay debts for the hostel.”
Expulsions, Manual Labor
There have already been cases of Turkmen students being expelled from their university over unpaid tuition.
“We paid for our studies on February 20 by transferring money from banks in Turkmenistan, but the Turkmen banks have not yet transferred money to the university account in Belarus, and the university demanded that the money be transferred by April 1,” one university student told RFE/RL in April.
He claimed that 42 students from Turkmenistan who had similar problems with their home banks had already been expelled for nonpayment of their tuition.
Other students have taken to doing manual labor to pay the bills, potentially risking legal problems.
An RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent in Russia’s Astrakhan region reportedon May 15 that hundreds of Turkmen students were working on farms in their spare time harvesting fruits and vegetables.
He reported that some were working eight hours a day for 600 rubles (about $10) planting crops on the weekends.
“Students are forced to agree [to the low wage] because they have no choice,” he said.
The activity is technically illegal because in Russia workers need to have a work permit, which costs 3,200 rubles per month (about $50), and most students do not have one.
“Because of the crisis in Turkmenistan, we are trying not to disturb our parents and relatives, we try to take care of ourselves somehow, pay at least part of our expenses,” said one student in Astrakhan. “We do not know when the situation in [Turkmenistan] will stabilize, because we still cannot withdraw money from our VISA cards because of the blockage.”
He added: “Many of us are in despair.”
And the debit-card problem has hit more than just Turkmen students.
A Turkmen official who requested anonymity told RFE/RL that, while part of a high-level government delegation in Europe earlier this year for a meeting with a prominent international organization, he was unable to withdraw the money he needed from an ATM machine to pay his hotel bill.
Written by Pete Baumgartner based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service
Earlier this week, Central Asia had a rare but inglorious moment in the news headlines after an Uzbek born man was found to be behind an attempt at a “terror” attack in New York City.
For those unfamiliar with the region or with the complexities of global religious extremism, this event was quickly reduced to a narrative along the lines of “Central Asia is a hotbed for terrorism”.
This is far from what life really looks like on the ground in Central Asia, as anyone who lives there can tell you.
In light of this week’s tragedy in the US, some excellent articles and news stories from journalists and researchers of the region have also attempted to combat this myth. Links to my must-read/watch reports in English can be found below.
We must also remember that what happened this week arose from the choices made by this one man who, as far as we know, acted alone and was drawn to extreme religion only after moving to the US. This could not possibly be representative of the 70 million people who live in Uzbekistan and the other countries of Central Asia.
The “terrorism” and “religious extremism” discourses are not confined to US domestic politics.
Back in Central Asia, the Tajik government issued a ruling on November 3 that will ban imams who studied religion overseas from preaching in Tajikistan’s mosques [ru].
Ostensibly, this is because some of these imams not only studied at “illegal” foreign universities and institutions, but they did so in order to “use the platform of the mosque to commit crime”.
Over the past two years, a number of foreign educated imams have already been identified and prosecuted for following the ideas of the Egypt-born Islamic group the Muslim Brotherhood [en], which is seen by some states as a “terrorist organization”.
According to the Tajik government, over 3,500 of its citizens have studied or are currently abroad studying for an illegal religious education (how it knows this and how it decides what makes the education “illegal” is not clear). The government claims that the majority have already been returned to Tajikistan, presumably to face either the same fate as those imams already behind bars or to be prevented from further dabbling in unaccepted forms of Islam.
This is far from the first time that Tajikistan has cracked down on religion.
In 2010, the government recalled all students who were studying in Egypt in a “bid to prevent radicalisation” [en].
Five years later, a new state-sanctioned Islamic university was established [en] in the capital Dushanbe – giving the state a sanctioned route to manage who receives religious education, what they learn, and so on.
Perhaps the state’s most well-known intervention in religious matters was the farcical (and ongoing) clampdown on men wearing beards, which even became the subject of a sadly ill-informed BBC “documentary” on Tajikistan earlier in 2017.
Whilst it is unlikely that a direct connection can be drawn between this week’s two news stories, the actions of one former Central Asian national in the US and the Tajik state’s decision to ban foreign educated mullahs, one thing is clear.
Terrorism and religious extremism – and here we are talking exclusively about Islamic religious extremism – have become firmly established in state discourses amongst the 21st century’s biggest threats to global peace.
The way that different states deal with and talk about terrorism and religious extremism of course varies, but the message is always the same: These people have somehow become radicalized, this is a Very Bad Thing, and we must put an end to terrorism before it overwhelms our society.
In the US this week, the government’s response to events in New York has been to seek to restrict the Green Card lottery and impose “extreme vetting” of immigrants to make it harder for some foreign nationals to get in to the US.
In Tajikistan, meanwhile, the state’s November 3 declaration aims to make it harder for people to get out of the country and be exposed to what are seen as illegitimate and extreme forms of religion elsewhere.
The perceived solution to the twin threats of terrorism and religious extremism is thus to control borders – but how can this work in a world where ideas, if not people, can be communicated in ways and at speeds that defy any physical border controls?
Until states start to address both the domestic conditions that lead to terrorism and radicalization and begin to work collectively to address the global conditions of today’s world, no amount of border controls or fiery proclamations about terrorism are going to make any difference at all.
My top four reports on Uzbekistan, migration and radicalization, New York and its aftermath:
- Abdujalil Abdurasulov, a BBC reporter originally from Central Asia, on why Uzbek migrants are being radicalized: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41834729
- Marlene Laruelle of George Washington University for Foreign Affairs making it quite clear that Uzbekistan does not export terrorists: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/uzbekistan/2017-11-01/paradox-uzbek-terror [registration required]
- Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch and Edward Lemon of Columbia University talking with online independent news show Democracy Now: https://www.democracynow.org/2017/11/2/experts_uzbekistan_hosted_cia_black_sites
- Bruce Pannier, an extremely knowledgeable and experienced journalist, on thirty years of putting his fate in the hands of Central Asians and becoming a better person because of it: https://www.rferl.org/a/qishloq-ovozi-burhan-beg-of-central-asia/28831820.html
These days, there’s a lot of literature out there – both in the academic and the policy worlds – on studying abroad. You can read about why students choose to go abroad for higher education, how studying abroad changes students, how states compete to recruit the best students from around the world, what this all means for the global inequality between nations … and much, much more.
Studies of students studying abroad from or in the former Soviet Union, my particular region of interest, are few and far between. Russia’s National Research University Higher School of Economics English-language publication Higher Education in Russia and Beyond collected a good array of new work on this growing area of interest earlier in 2017 (including my article on Tajikistan’s international students) and there’s a special edition of an academic journal on study abroad from Central Asia planned for later this year/early next year (watch this space).
Amongst a handful of researchers focussing on Central Asia, Nazgul Mingisheva of Kazakhstan’s Karaganda Medical State University presented really interesting empirical work on international students from South Asia who study at her university at the 2017 ESCAS-CESS Regional Conference. There are also a growing number of publications on the impact of the Kazakhstan government’s massive Bolashak scholarship scheme, which to date has funded over 10,000 students to complete Bachelor’s, Master’s, PhDs and vocational/short-term study abroad.
So that’s the state of the field: a vast amount available on study abroad in general, and really not very much (in English at least) on student mobility from the perspective of the former Soviet countries.
As such, the findings from a new study by Maia Chankseliani of the University of Oxford have been greeted with a great detail of interest. Firstly, her research on student mobility from the former Soviet states fills in broad gaps in our empirical understanding of trends and changes in study abroad from this large region.
More important, however, is her stunningly stark finding that there seems to be a link between where students from the former Soviet countries study and levels of democratic development in their home country. The basic hypothesis is that the more students who study in European Union countries as opposed to Russia, the greater the likelihood that their home country is more democratic. Just take a look at this:
Here you see that countries towards the top-right (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) have both much higher proportions of mobile students heading to European Union states AND higher rankings in the Economist’s democracy index.
Conversely, those countries that send fewer of their mobile students to the EU (bottom-left of the graph – mainly Central Asian states) also experience lower levels of democratic development.
Now, contrast those findings to the next graph, which plots the number of study abroad students going to Russia against levels of democratic development. The results are almost completely reversed:
Here you see the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania sending the fewest mobile students to Russia, placing them at the top-left of the graph. Although the Central Asian states are less grouped here, there is clearly a connection with the proportion of students going from Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to Russia vs the EU and their levels of democratic development.
Whilst abroad, students are exposed to the norms and rules of a democratic country and potentially undergo personal changes in their own views about politics, society and economics. On returning home, they may become facilitators for greater democratic development.
This thesis appears to be compellingly supported by her data (although Kyrgyzstan seems to be an unaccounted-for anomaly). If true, states wishing to transmit their own democratic norms and values have a clear rationale to start channeling their soft power resources into recruiting students from less democratic nations.
However, I think the data only tells us part of the story.
The graphs, clear and compelling as they are, do not explain how students who have studied abroad go back and make a difference in their home nation. Can you really induce a change in political system simply by having temporarily lived in a democracy? Or is it that the changes Chankseliani is indicating are on a much smaller scale – tiny individual actions that collectively may lead to a cultural shift at home?
Further, the actual number of mobile students from the former Soviet states is tiny compared to the overall number of people in those countries who go through higher education, and even less compared to the population as a whole. Put otherwise, there simply aren’t enough people studying abroad to come back and make such significant changes at home that democratize the country.
Finally (for now), the biggest issue I have with the data is that they disregard the history and context of the home setting. Take the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as an example.
Each of these countries has centuries-long histories of statehood, and each shares the same geographic neighbourhood as Europe. Indeed, the boundaries of contemporary Lithuania have changed so much over the last few hundred years between what is now Germany, Poland, Belarus and Lithuania that in some respects it’s a very artificial distinction to separate out the Baltics from Europe in the first place. As soon as these three states regained independence after the Soviet period, they threw themselves back towards Europe, gaining EU membership in 2004. It could be argued, then, that it is the structural conditions of these states – their history, geography, culture, and pre-Soviet political systems – that leads to students going to study more in the EU than in Russia and to their current democratic political systems than to the notion that it is the returning mobile students who lead to democratic change.
Chankseliani acknowledges this in her longer presentation on the subject, available on ResearchGate. This opens the way to some fantastically interesting future studies on what she terms the actor vs structure debate.
What do you think?
Are students who’ve studied abroad drivers of political change? Is this even possible in authoritarian states?
Or is the systems and structures that surround us that are responsible for political developments?
Who leaves Tajikistan to study abroad, and why?
Where do these students go, and what do they study?
What are their post-study destinations?
These are some of the questions I address in my new essay on Tajikistan’s international students, out today in Higher Education in Russia & Beyond (HERB).
As I conclude, studying abroad can be a profoundly transformational experience. Many of the people that participated in the research I am reporting on said they had changed greatly as a result of their experiences.
This feeling is neatly encapsulated by the words of one respondent:
“I am so much [a] different person now than I was back then. Education here has broadened my mind to the things that I had no idea of their existence and as I grow in possessing my knowledge I see the opportunities that I can get, and the things that I can do in my life and with my life. I am [a] much happier person now than I was before.”
This issue of HERB looks holistically at international students across the former Soviet space, and I encourage you to take a look at the other essays in this collection.
Higher Education in Russia & Beyond 2(12) – link to whole issue