Alin Ozinian on Monday presented the results of research titled “State of Armenian Irregular Migrants in Turkey” at the İstanbul-based Kültür University’s Global Political Trends Center, in which she concluded that illegal Armenian immigrants worry about fluctuations in Turkish-Armenian relations because any turn for the worse thrusts them into an unwanted spotlight.
Ozinian’s research was conducted in İstanbul, Antalya, Trabzon and Ankara through focus groups and in-depth interviews as part of the Eurasia Partnership Foundation’s Identifying the State of Armenian Migrants in Turkey project.
Ozinian, a Turkish-Armenian herself, said that in addition to numerous problems faced by illegal Armenian immigrants who came to Turkey to work, they are adversely affected by being put under the spotlight whenever tensions rise in Armenian-Turkish relations.
“Although there are many illegal workers in Turkey from various countries, only those who come from Armenia have come to the agenda of politicians,” Ozinian said, adding that whenever political tension escalates between Armenia and Turkey, Turkish politicians bring up the topic of illegal Armenian workers and hint that despite strained relations, the Turkish side tolerates the illegal workers and does not deport them. “The politicians and media usually focus on the number of illegal workers, but there should also be a humanitarian aspect to the issue,” Ozinian added.
The exact number of Armenian immigrants in Turkey is unknown, but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in January 2009 that the number is around 50,000. Other politicians have suggested different figures, with some reaching as high as 70,000.
Explaining the purpose of the research, Ozinian said it aims to provide a better picture of the Armenian workers and detail the problems they face. The researcher highlighted that illegal Armenian workers have encountered various problems since 1991, when they first started coming to Turkey in search of work.
According to the research, the wages of illegal Armenians working in Turkey varied between $550 and $1,000 per month. Furthermore, 96 percent of the workers are women. The results also show that many Armenian immigrant men do not work but come to Turkey to stay with their wives and to keep them safe. The research also indicates that a large number of the migrants live in İstanbul and work in the Laleli and Osmanbey neighborhoods because they can easily communicate with Russian-speaking customers, who come to stores in the area to purchase leather goods for resale in Russia.
The researcher says that although the illegal immigrants are generally employed by members of the Turkish-Armenian community, various problems exist between the two groups, largely stemming from cultural and social differences.
“Nevertheless, they choose to work for Turkish-Armenians because they fear Turks will report them to the police should any problems arise,” she said.
Ozinian also highlighted that most of the illegal workers try to avoid discussing Armenian claims that Ottoman Turkey orchestrated a campaign of genocide against its Armenian population during World War I and that many of them do not disclose their nationality if they are not asked.
“They generally plan on returning to Armenia. Only a few want to go to Europe after coming to Turkey, but no one plans to stay in Turkey,” Ozinian said and noted that after the assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007, the illegal immigrants have increasingly been concerned about their safety. A Turkish ultranationalist is currently standing trial for the murder.
When asked whether the number of illegal Armenian workers coming to Turkey will increase if ties between Turkey and Armenia are normalized, Ozinian said she does not expect a drastic increase in the numbers and added that the conditions of Armenians already in Turkey may improve.
Speaking about the motives driving Armenian immigrants to come to Turkey, she said that despite the political hostility between the two countries, Turkey is still economically attractive when compared to Armenia, which has a badly functioning economy and whose borders are closed with both Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Ozinian also touched upon the situation of the children of these immigrants, saying that since the children are neither Armenian nor Turkish citizens, they cannot be enrolled in private or state-owned schools. “The families and their children come together in Kumkapı, where the Armenian Church is located. Some of the older girls from the Turkish-Armenian community lead courses teaching these children how to read and write,” she said.