STUDY SHEDS LIGHT ON ARMENIAN MIGRANTS IN TURKEY
Feb 22nd, 2010
ANKARA (RFE/RL)-They are a thorn in the side of Armenia’s government
and the favorite target of Turkish politicians furious with Armenian
genocide bills put before foreign parliaments. Hidden away from
the public eye, the thousands of Armenian nationals believed to be
illegally working in Turkey form the most low-key and obscure Armenian
migrant community abroad.
Successive Turkish governments have for years tolerated their existence
to embarrass Yerevan in the international arena and showcase Ankara’s
declared good will towards Armenians. Turkish leaders have at various
times spoken of between 30,000 and 100,000 citizens of Armenia
allegedly residing in their country.
The findings of a newly publicized study conducted by an
Istanbul-born Armenian researcher, Alin Ozinian, and commissioned
by the Yerevan-based Eurasia Partnership Foundation are a further
indication that these figures are wide off the mark. They also give
valuable insights into the plight of the mainly female workers scraping
a living with housekeeping and other menial jobs.
The 130-page research, the first of its kind, is based on Ozinian’s
interviews with 150 Armenians conducted in the course of last year. It
essentially bears out the widely held belief that the vast majority
of the Armenian immigrants (over 90 percent) are women from areas
outside Yerevan who are aged between 40 and 60 and work in Istanbul
without Turkish residency and employment permits.
"Generally, they introduce themselves as widowed or divorced," says
the study. "Some of the married women have had no contact with their
husbands since they came to Turkey."
When asked about their occupation, nine in ten interviewees said they
clean houses or look after elderly persons or children. Most of them
claimed to work for and live with affluent Turkish-Armenian families.
Many of those lacking such free accommodation rent rooms
in Istanbul’s blue-collar Kumkapi district, which is home to the
Istanbul Patriarchate of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The study,
mostly funded by the Norwegian government, describes their living
conditions as "very bad."
The migrant workers’ relationship with their ethnic Armenian employers
seems less cordial than one might think. "They look down on us,"
one 46-year-old woman, identified as A.B., told Ozinian. "In their
opinion, we are ignorant villagers."
Three-quarters of the respondents said they earn between $500 and
$600 a month. The sum, although about twice higher than the current
official average wage in Armenia, is significantly below the monthly
income of hundreds of thousands of Armenian migrants working in Russia,
Europe and the United States. Many of the interviewed women said that
they would not agree to work as housecleaners, maids or baby-sitters
in Armenia because of what they claimed is a stigma attached to these
jobs there. "I have kids and I don’t want them to hear words like
‘their mother is a cleaner, she is cleaning toilets,’" said A.B.
Some of the irregular workers have had children, including out of
wedlock, in Turkey. Ozinian estimated their number at between 600
and 800 as she presented her report at the Global Political Trends
Center (GPOT) of Istanbul’s Kultur University last week. The illegal
status of their mothers and the latter’s fear of exposing themselves
to any Turkish state authority mean that those children are growing
up uneducated after reaching school age. The best they can hope for
is to get some primary education at an underground school reportedly
operated by local Armenians.
Ozinian’s research also tries to answer the politically touchy question
of just how many Armenians have taken up residence in Turkey since
the early 1990s. Unable to receive any concrete information from
government bodies in Ankara, Ozinian relied on government data on
foreign tourists that entered and left Turkey from 2000-2007. It
shows that the number of Armenian citizens arriving in the country
(virtually all of them with 30-day tourist visas) exceeded those
returning home during this period by just over 5,800. (By comparison,
the arrival-departure difference for neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan
stands at around 53,800 and 99,300 respectively.)
Gagik Yeganian, head of Armenia’s State Migration Agency, came up with
a similar figure at a news conference held in Yerevan last December.
"We can speak about roughly 5,200 migrants that are citizens of Armenia
and work in Turkey," he said, accusing the Turks of grossly inflating
"I personally think that the real number does not exceed 10,000,"
Ozinian said, for her part. Aris Nalci, a journalist from the
Turkish-Armenian newspaper "Agos" present at the discussion, gave a
slightly higher estimate: between 12,000 and 14,000.
These estimates pale in comparison with the ever growing number of
illegal Armenian migrants cited by Turkish government officials and
politicians. They spoke of 30,000 such workers as the issue first
came under spotlight in late 2000, when the U.S. Congress was close
to adopting a resolution describing the 1915 massacres of Armenians
in the Ottoman Empire as genocide.
Hrant Dink, the prominent "Agos" editor assassinated in 2007, claimed
responsibility for that figure in a 2004 article cited in Ozinian’s
report. Dink said the figure gained currency in Turkish political
circles after he had sarcastically advised a Turkish journalist that
"30,000 would be a better number if you want to exaggerate things."
The journalist, he said, wondered if the number of those immigrants
exceeds 10,000 and took the answer seriously. "The number of Armenian
citizens [in Turkey] has never reached 30,000; in fact, it has never
surpassed 3,000-5,000," wrote Dink.
Still, Turkish policy-makers claimed by 2006 that there are as many as
70,000 illegal immigrants from Armenia. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan put their number at a whopping 100,000 in televised remarks
aired late last month. The Turkish government does not deport them
because "we do not want any tension," Erdogan said, complaining
that the Armenian government has not appreciated that stance with
"reciprocal steps" on the genocide issue and the Nagorno-Karabakh
"The figure is apparently inflated for political purposes. I don’t
think it’s that high," Ozinian told RFE/RL after a panel discussion
on her study hosted by another, Ankara-based think-tank, the Economic
Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) last week. She argued
that Turkish officials, including those interviewed by her, have
never specified the sources of their information.
Speaking at the discussion, Tugrul Biltekin, a senior Turkish Foreign
Ministry official, dismissed Ozinian’s estimates and insisted that a
"serious state" like Turkey can not manipulate immigration data. "You
can be sure that the figures cited by the Turkish government are
based on a study," he said without elaboration.
Both Ozinian and representatives of the Eurasia Partnership Foundation
(EPF), which has for years been sponsoring direct contacts between
Armenian and Turkish civil societies, stress that the study pursued no
political goals. "As Alin pointed out, the main purpose of the study
was not to clarify the number of irregular workers but to identify
the main problems facing Armenians illegally working in Turkey,"
said Vazgen Karapetian, a senior cross-border programs manager at
the EPF office in Yerevan.
Karapetian suggested that the governments of the two neighboring
states might use the first-hand information contained in the research
should they decide to jointly deal with those problems. The Armenian
government has already shown strong interest in its findings, he
With a key committee of the U.S. House of Representatives planning to
vote on yet another Armenian genocide bill on March 4, the matter may
again be in the Turkish political spotlight in the coming weeks. The
committee has repeatedly approved such bills in the past, prompting
calls in Turkey for the mass expulsion of the Armenian workers. The
Turkish government has ignored those calls until now.
For the immigrants themselves, deportation is not necessarily a
nightmare scenario. Ninety-six percent of those interviewed by
Ozinian said they plan to eventually return home. As one of them,
a 36-year-old woman, put it, "In my spare time … I dream. I dream
of the day when I’ll go back to Armenia."