Drug addiction is on the rise in Turkmenistan fuelled by the government's neglect of socioeconomic issues, a Turkmen rights group charged on Tuesday.
"Drug addiction is on the rise based on our recent informal survey of residents in the capital and other parts of the country," Tajigul Begmedova, head of the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation (THF), said from the Bulgarian resort city of Varna where the rights NGO is based.
Official statistics on the number of drug addicts were not accessible and moreover they could not reflect the real situation, the rights activist maintained.
But James Callahan, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Central Asia regional office, told IRIN earlier that within Central Asia the rate of drug addiction was about one percent of the population.
"I wouldn't have any reason to think that it's much different for Turkmenistan," Callahan said. If that were the case, the estimated number of drug addicts in the former Soviet republic would be some 64,000.
"For example, respondents in the Khitrovka neighbourhood of the capital Ashgabat said that there were now more drug addicts there," Begmedova added. According to THF's survey, in Khitrovka alone there were now around 600 drug addicts, with the number of addicts, particularly young males, increasing in some streets of the area, including Prokofyev, Glinka, Chaykovski, Mendeleev and others.
Khitrovka is known as the major illegal drug trade area in the Turkmen capital, where one can buy a dose of heroin for less than a couple of dollars - cheaper than a bottle of vodka or beer.
But the situation with regard to drugs outside the cities was no different. "The situation is of great concern in rural areas. Where the local population used to use opium for healing in the past, now it has become a tradition amongst the well to do in rural areas to treat guests with drugs. At weddings, anniversaries and birthdays there is a special room for guests where they can smoke opium, while the youth mainly prefer heroin," THF said.
"Many residents in rural areas do not know how to fight against this problem and we have received a lot of reports saying that some parents had no other choice than to keep their drug addicted children chained in an effort to keep them away from narcotics," Begmedova added.
However, efforts to mitigate the problem in Central Asia's most reclusive state will prove difficult. Drugs trafficked from neighbouring Afghanistan, the world's top opium producer, are one of the root causes of the problem, observers say. Turkmenistan's 700 km long Afghan border is poorly guarded and corruption amongst border officials is rampant, some reports claimed. Others, however, cite socio-economic problems as contributory factors.
Meanwhile, official indifference and alleged complicity in the drugs trade is also fuelling the problem. "One of the main causes of the increasing drug addiction is the negligence of the authorities of socioeconomic problems, which is now bringing negative results. The other issue is that there is no strong political will to change the things on the ground," Begmedova complained.
Although some drug traffickers had previously been arrested, they were mainly minor newcomers in the market, while big sharks remained untouched, according to the THF. "These measures do not tackle the very essence of the problem. These are just steps to whitewash and show the international community that Ashgabat is fighting against drug trafficking," Begmedova said.
"The international community should address the regime in Turkmenistan as not just a weird one, which is banning gold teeth and beards. This approach is very superficial, the international community should find mechanisms to put pressure on Ashgabat," she emphasised.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions