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Central Asians find new routes on their American journey as Turkey blocks them

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Saltanat and her husband had just purchased return tickets from Moscow to Dubai. But they don’t want to come back.

The couple, who hold both Tajik and Russian citizenship, view the UAE as a transit country at the start of a long journey that they hope will take them to the United States via Mexico.

“We originally wanted to fly to Mexico from Istanbul, but we read on Telegram that Turkish Airlines does not allow people from Russia and other former Soviet Union countries to board planes to Latin America, so we changed the plan,” said Saltanat, who asked that his last name not be published.

Dozens of passengers from Central Asia, Russia and the Caucasus were recently detained in Istanbul while boarding Turkish Airlines planes bound for Mexico and several other Latin American countries, popular transit countries for migrants trying to reach the US border.

Turkish Airlines announcement “additional checks” for passengers traveling to Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Colombia and Venezuela.

In addition to the visa, passengers must now provide return tickets, fully paid hotel reservations and proof of sufficient funds for their trip. Turkey itself does not require a travel visa for citizens of Russia and Central Asian countries, except Turkmenistan.

The restrictions are widely seen as part of multinational efforts to stop the flow of migrants to the United States, which has seen a record number of more than 2.5 million migrant encounters on its southwest borders in 2023 Many others have made it without being caught.

The number of migrants from Central Asian countries increased sharply last year, with more than 50,000 people from the region entering the United States illegally. Among them were some 17,000 from Uzbekistan, 7,000 from Kyrgyzstan, 3,000 from Tajikistan, 2,700 from Kazakhstan and some 2,000 from Turkmenistan.

And the massive influx of illegal migrants – particularly from Central Asia – has shown no signs of slowing so far this year, according to US statistics.

Through the U.S. border sector alone — San Diego, California — 140,000 illegal migrants, including some 2,500 Uzbek citizens, 500 Tajiks and about 400 Kyrgyz nationals, have entered the United States since the beginning of 2024, according to Customs and Protection borders of the United States. data.

Stranded in Istanbul

Passengers affected by the latest restrictions in Istanbul – the hub of Turkish Airlines – say some of them have lost several thousand dollars in plane tickets and other expenses.

Most passengers were unable to get refunds because they purchased the cheapest, non-refundable tickets. Some were stuck for days at the airport or elsewhere in the city, spending more money on hotels and food while still hoping to be allowed to fly.

“I know families who went to the airport or stayed in hotels and paid around $115 per night,” said a Russian citizen of Kyrgyz origin.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the man told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service that he had traveled to Cancun, Mexico, in February but was deported to Istanbul. The man did not specify the reason for his deportation, but admitted that he intended to use Mexico as a transit route to enter the United States.

Migrants wait to climb the concertina wire after crossing the Rio Grande and entering the United States from Mexico.  (archive photo)

Migrants wait to climb the concertina wire after crossing the Rio Grande and entering the United States from Mexico. (archive photo)

Back in Istanbul, he bought tickets to another Latin American country but was not allowed to board the plane. The man said he has spent $15,000 on the failed trip so far.

Some Russian passengers were reportedly barred from boarding, even if they had return tickets and hotel reservations, because they did not have a prior visa in their passport or only had hand luggage for their supposed long vacation in Cancun. The passengers allegedly raised suspicion that their intended destination was the US border.

“A small inconvenience”

For Saltanat and her husband, Turkish Airlines’ new regulations are just a “small inconvenience” that won’t stop them from pursuing their American dream.

“When we heard about it, we immediately started looking at the list of countries that do not require a visa from us and from which we can travel to Mexico,” Saltanat told RFE/RL. “We chose the United Arab Emirates. With our Russian passports we can travel visa-free to the United Arab Emirates and Mexico.

Saltanat did not say whether they had tickets for all legs of their trip or whether they would purchase the next tickets in Dubai.

Saltanat’s husband, who owns a successful construction company in Russia, wants to build a new, better life in the United States. The couple, both in their thirties, will be followed by their close friends and neighbors, a married couple from Kazakhstan.

With the Istanbul route no longer an option, Saltanat’s friends are also looking for alternative ways to get to Mexico, she said.

“They had to travel via Turkey to Brazil, and from there go to Mexico through some South American countries, possibly paying (smugglers),” Saltanat said. “We want to be neighbors in America again one day.”

Saltanat is aware of the arduous journey ahead of him, which involves the risk of being imprisoned, kidnapped or even killed before reaching the United States. Even if the family arrives in the United States, they could still be deported.

But she is undeterred by the risks, saying that “thousands of Russians and Central Asians have arrived in America, only a handful of them have been deported.”

Saltanat’s husband plans to seek asylum because he risks being drafted into the Russian army and sent to war in Ukraine.

The couple learned from their Central Asian migrant friends in the United States that even if their application was rejected, it would be years before their case was processed and could then be appealed again.

Under current U.S. law, most asylum seekers receive work permits while their cases are reviewed by underfunded immigration courts with large backlogs.

Saltanat and her husband believe they will eventually realize their dream of living and working in America.

RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.

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