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Turkey: Erdogan Threat Alarms Armenian Migrants

Turkish fury over US Congress recognition of Armenian genocide raises concerns over their future. By Gayane Mkrtchyan in Yerevan and Aline Ozinian in Istanbul
By Gayane Mkrtchyan
  • A street in Istanbul’s “Little Armenia”. Photo by Aline Ozinian.
    A street in Istanbul’s “Little Armenia”. Photo by Aline Ozinian.

Armenia and Turkey are edging towards better relations after decades of enmity but a recent setback in the process has given many Armenians working in Turkey cause to worry.

The two countries last year agreed to start a peace process and both parliaments are due to ratify “protocols” that would open their border and establish diplomatic relations after two decades of bitterness since the fall of the Soviet Union.

But the process may have been jeopardised by a resolution in the United States Congress’s Foreign Affairs Committee in March that declared the killing of thousands of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in World War One as genocide.  Turkey denies the killings were genocide and disputes the figure of 1.5 million dead that is often cited.

Many Armenians opt for menial jobs and poor living conditionsin Turkey to escape worse at home and because it is a nearby country where the language is familiar.

Now, a tough statement against the presence of illegal Armenian immigrants in his country by the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has worried the minority community.

Erdogan, at a meeting last month with British prime minister Gordon Brown, made clear his frustration with foreign countries that pass resolutions like that in the US Congress by threatening to expel all Armenian illegal immigrants.

"Look, there are 170,000 Armenians in my country. Seventy thousand of them are my citizens, but we are tolerating 100,000 of them in our country. Many of them have been living here for ten years, and we are not going to solve this problem in a hurry, but if things go on like this, we will have to reconsider the situation and take measures. If it is necessary, they will be deported from the country,” he said.

Armenian foreign minister Edward Nalbandyan did nothing to calm the atmosphere in his response, comparing the words to explosive political statements made before anti-Armenian campaigns in the Ottoman Empire and in neighbouring Azerbaijan.

“Such statements started the events of 1915, connected to the Armenian genocide. Sadly, they spoke about expelling Armenians in a different country too. We cannot forget that such statements were made before the mass killings in Azerbaijan – in Sumgait, in Baku and elsewhere,” he said.


Christine Arakelyan, who lives in Armenia, said her mother, an immigrant worker in Turkey, was very concerned by the atmosphere caused by Erdogan’s remarks.

“Mum was scared [when I spoke to her on the phone], I could sense it. She said she does not often go outside, because she’s scared they could deport her,” she said.

Another immigrant, Gayane Petrosyan, who works as a babysitter in Istanbul, says that at first she was so worried by Erdogan’s threat that she even started to think about going back to Armenia.

“My employer says there is no need to worry. He is very nice to me. But I started to feel some tension. After all, I’m in a foreign land, in Turkey, and you never know what can happen,” she said.

“But I am not going to go back yet. I will be working as much as possible. What can I do when I go back to Armenia? Where can I work?”

She says her relatives from Armenia often call her to ask about the situation and the number of calls has increased lately because of the family’s concerns.

“My family is worried, but I try to calm them down all the time,” she said.

Back in Armenia, Christine, daughter of Zoya Petrosyan, who left Echmiatsin to work in Turkey, says her mother had refused to talk on the phone because she was so fearful.

“Mum is looking after a sick young man and lives in his house. She contacts me from that house. She does not often go outside, and says she doesn’t like taking the risk of talking from there,” Christine said.

She says her mother and aunt work together in Turkey. Zoya told her daughter that after Erdogan’s remarks they go out only in an emergency, fearing they could be arrested and deported. They even avoid speaking Armenian in the street so as not to draw attention to themselves.

“Mum is scared. I can sense it every time we talk. She may come back soon,” she said.

Amid the concerns, a prominent member of Istanbul’s Armenian community has sought to try to reassure the illegal immigrants and their relatives back home.

On March 26, Petros Shirinoghlu, a leading Armenian businessman in the Turkish capital, sought to play down Erdogan’s comments. “I do not believe that these words come from the heart of our prime minister. As a citizen of the Republic of Turkey, I am not worried about this, as I trust our prime minister, I trust his heart,” he told journalists.

Meanwhile, Gagik Yeganyan, the head of Armenia’s migration service, said Erdogan’s numbers for Armenian immigrants were exaggerated. He said the figure was only 6,000, while the Eurasia Partnership Foundation, which has conducted a major survey of Armenians in Turkey, has an estimate of 15,000.

According to Armenia’s migration service, since 2000, 294,000 Armenians have gone to Turkey, despite the lack of diplomatic relations and the tense atmosphere between the two countries, of whom 288,000 have returned.

Those figures disguise, however, the number of Armenians who stay in Turkey for a few months or years to work.

According to a survey of illegal immigrants in Turkey, almost half the Armenians are from the Shirak region of Armenia, which has still not recovered from the devastating effects of an earthquake in 1988. Only four per cent of them are men, reflecting the fact that women find it easier to find jobs as cleaners, carers, shop assistants, earning 500 to 1,000 US dollars a month. Men, meanwhile, make shoes or sell jewellery.

Artak Shakaryan, the Armenia-Turkey project manager for the Eurasia Partnership Foundation, which conducted the survey, said many of the Armenian women working in Turkey are educated and would probably be too ashamed to do such menial jobs at home.

Many of them had managed to take their children with them, while around 600-800 children had been born in Turkey, the research revealed. Turkey has special schools for national minorities, but the children have to be registered in the country, so official schools are closed to the children of illegal immigrants.

“These children are not citizens of Armenia or Turkey. They have no documents to establish their identity, therefore they can’t even go to school,” Shakaryan said.


More than three years have passed since Susanna Davtyan, an Armenian from Vanadzor in Armenia, saw her daughter-in-law, who left for Turkey to earn money.

Davtyan now looks after her grandchildren and waits for their parents’ return, since her son is working in Russia.

“This is what young families are like in our country. My son is in Russia, and my daughter-in-law in Turkey. There is no work here. It’s true that we miss them, especially the children, but we hang on,” she said.

Her daughter-in-law, Gayane, is a carer, looking after the ill and the elderly in Istanbul. She works there with her mother and aunt and earns 500 to 600 dollars a month.

Enna Mkhitaryan, a resident of Gyumri in Armenia, said her son and daughter-in-law have worked in Turkey for ten years. She said they took their five-year-old daughter with them, and have had one more girl in Turkey.

“The youngest daughter is six, and the oldest is now 15. Education is the big problem for them now. They live there without a clear status, practically illegally. The youngest daughter does not even have a birth certificate, and I don’t even know how they will be able to bring her to Armenia,” Mkhitaryan said.

The Istanbul region of Kumkapi, which before the World War One was a major centre of Armenian life, is once more full of immigrants speaking Armenian.

In the neighbourhood, which is home to the Armenian patriarch in the city, shop windows are full of posters advertising bus or plane tickets to Yerevan, or cheap rates for phone calls to Armenia.

After 1960, when Kumkapi became known as a dangerous area, the established Armenian community moved to other parts of the city. Their empty houses, some of them still belonging to the patriarchate, are now home to the new wave of immigrants, whose children play in the streets like their forebears 50 years ago.

Many of their parents came on 30-day tourist visas and stayed to work, but they suffer serious difficulties. Armenians who rent apartments there often share rooms with four or five people. Lacking an official presence in the country, their children cannot go to school and instead play in the streets while their mothers work as cleaners, babysitters or shop assistants.

Nara is originally from Spitak in Armenia but now sells goods from there in the Kumkapi market. She refused to be drawn on Erdogan remarks.

"We have no political arguments. We are only trying to earn money and send a little of that to our families,” she said, looking slightly ashamed by how she works.

“I would not have done this same job in Armenia. I would not want to do it. Believe me, I only use 50 dollars of my income and I send the rest to my son and daughter who are married. Sometimes, I think that it is better for my kids that I work here out of sight and support them. That is all I can do. I am working in a country which declares us to be enemies, and which is also an enemy for us. So what more can I do than this?"

In Laleli, a big market in Istanbul famous for goods from the former Soviet Union, Armenians frequently work as clerks in the wholesale shops because of their knowledge of Russian. Narine came to Istanbul ten years ago and now works in a jewellery shop in the market.

"I came to Istanbul in 2000. I sold my house in Gyumri, and I had to come because my husband was very sick. I worked hard, did any job I could find. I swept floors in restaurants. I washed dishes. Later I started to work for this shop,” she said.

Narine said she had not come to Turkey because she wanted to, simply because it was convenient.

“This is the nearest and cheapest country for those of us who want to work. It is easy to get a visa at the border for just ten dollars. Also transport is cheap; the bus ticket from Armenia to Turkey via Georgia only costs 100-140 dollars,” she said.

In a street near the Kumkapi fish restaurants is a house that looks like a normal residential building but inside it is like a camp, where rooms are divided by curtains and the residents cook on camping stoves.

Anahit came to Istanbul from Gyumri 15 years ago. She has two children, but only her 12-year-old daughter is still with her. The girl has no resident’s permit, so cannot attend any public or minority schools. She stays at home while her mother is out cleaning houses, and chats with her friends about Armenia, the homeland they have never seen.

“Four years after my daughter I had a son. When he was five, my mother, who was also here, married a Turk from [the Black Sea town of] Samsun. She asked me if she could take my son with her to Samsun and declare him as a son of her husband so he would have resident status and go to school,” Anahit said, through tears. 

“It was very difficult for me to keep two children so I accepted her suggestion. Now he is eight, and in the second grade. He does not speak Armenian and we speak Turkish on the phone. The last time he told me that Muzaffer Amca (Uncle Muzaffer), this is what he calls his step-father, was teaching him how to pray like a Muslim. I am not sure about the decision I made three years ago. Life is sometimes unbearable."

Aline Ozinian is a journalist and expert on Turkey.
Gayane Mkrtchyan is a correspondent from Armenianow.