When we speak of Armenians in Istanbul, the first thing that might come to mind are the remnants of a once large community; today, estimates of ethnic Armenians in Turkey range up to 70,000. We might think of the emptying or shuttered Armenian churches dotted around Istanbul, or of the journalist Hrant Dink who was shot down on the streets of his city twelve years ago this month by a young Turkish nationalist. But now, “Armenians of Istanbul” might refer to another community; Armenian is heard again on Istanbul’s streets — but now, that also means the eastern dialect spoken by migrants from the Republic of Armenia.
There is no exact data on how many Armenian citizens, rather than Turkish citizens of Armenian descent, live in Turkey today. In 2010, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (now president) stated that about 100,000 Armenian citizens were living in the country undocumented (the number was strongly contested by officials in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, and independent researchers.) More recent research, according to research from the Eurasia Partnership Foundation in 2009, estimates that the actual number of undocumented Armenian migrants in Istanbul is closer to 15,000.
This lack of concise data is partly due to the strained diplomatic relationship between Armenia and Turkey. It’s a dispute with historical roots: for decades, the Armenian government and the Armenian Diaspora worldwide have called on Turkey to recognize the mass murders of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 as a genocide. While Armenia and 30 other UN member states have done so, the Turkish government considers these killings to be one of several “costs of the First World War.”
Turkey officially recognized the independence of the Republic of Armenia in 1991, and subsequently opened its airspace in 1995, under pressure from the international community. However, Armenia’s 311 kilometer long border with Turkey has remained closed since 1993, which was Ankara’s gesture of solidarity with Azerbaijan during the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. As a result, migrants from Armenia take a long detour and enter Turkey from Georgia, which adds a further complication when trying to establish their exact number.
Despite the tense relationship between the two countries, Armenian citizens still go to Turkish cities, particularly Istanbul, to find work. Meri Khachatryan, a lawyer and legal adviser at the A.D Sakharov Armenian Human Rights Protection Center, the Yerevan-based branch of the prominent human rights NGO, says that she has received several Armenian migrants living in Turkey have appealed to her for help. They mainly ask for assistance in renewing passports or obtaining their Armenian birth certificates, she says.
“I was faced with the necessity of studying Turkish legislation, since many of the children of these migrants were born in Turkey. It was interesting to find out how these issues are regulated [there], which is why I applied for a Hrant Dink scholarship program,” explains Khachatryan.
From 2017 to 2018, Khachatryan worked on her research at Bilgi University in Istanbul. The researcher says that one of the major difficulties for Armenian migrants is a lack of clear information.
“At first Armenian citizens leave in order to trade, but they are then impressed by Istanbul, as an international crossroads, where many cultures are mixed, and decide to stay. It’s hard to say that this city reflects all of Turkey, but Armenians are very interested in Istanbul,” says Khachatryan.
However, life in this ancient city quickly becomes much more challenging for Armenian migrants, and their unawareness of Turkish migration law does not make it any easier. Migrants’ stays in the country are regulated by the country’s Law on Foreigners and International Protection, adopted by the Turkish government in 2014. Khachatryan notes that Turkish legislation is much stricter than Armenia’s when it comes to issuing residency permits; Turkish bureaucracy demands a large number of documents, including proof of medical insurance.
As many migrants choose to avoid it, they are staying in the country illegally. It’s a costly move; in Turkey, migrants often have to pay fines mandated by laws which adopted after the alleged violation took place. As these fines mount over the years, some migrants lose hope of ever paying them off.
For example, Khachatryan says she has even met Armenian migrants who have been living in Turkey without documents, and therefore illegally, since the 1990s. Their fine could now amount to several tens of thousands of Turkish lira (10,000 lira is worth $1,900.)
“If a migrant at the border cannot pay, he or she will be denied entry to Turkey for five years. If a migrant has violated Turkish criminal law [i.e. unrelated to migration], they can in some cases be barred entry for 10 years. Since many people already have families in Turkey, it is difficult for them to accept deportation,” explains Khachatryan.
Irena Grigoryan is a freelance researcher on migration and intercultural relations who previously worked with Istanbul’s Koç University. She says that, in the words of one migrant she interviewed, Armenian migrants in Istanbul are “familiar strangers.”
“They do not stand out, they are familiar with many features of the local culture. And despite the absence of any official structures [to provide Armenian migrants with information and legal support], ethnic relations are very strong here. Armenians help each other with legal and other problems,” says Grigoryan.
In 2017 Grigoryan visited Turkey for the first time, as a Hrant Dink program fellow. She took a particular interest in the dynamically developing community of Armenian migrants in Istanbul. Initially she planned to write a single article, but her six months’ work in Istanbul resulted in an entire report, concluding with recommendations and ideas for future research, as well as policy and program proposals addressed to stakeholders from both countries.
“Sometimes the meetings [with Armenian migrants] were impressive, sometimes – funny and lighthearted, sometimes – sad and clueless… The process was difficult both physically and emotionally, I recall being totally devastated after some encounters with people who appeared trapped by unjust and harsh situations,” reflects Grigoryan.
Grigoryan also tried to identify gaps in research on Armenian migrants in Turkey. First of all, she says, the problem of child labor remains understudied. Furthermore, many migrants’ health has deteriorated due to poor working conditions or low quality housing, issues which she proposes to solve with the help of international organizations.
“It’s wrong to blame people for going to Turkey, and then to blame them for their deteriorated health once they get there. If a person goes to another country to earn money, they have good reasons. We must do what we can help them live a decent life,” concludes Grigoryan.
Turkey-Armenia fellowship Scheme, in 2017 - 2019, is implemented by the Hrant Dink Foundation in partnership with Gyumri Youth Initiative Centre with the support of the UK Government's Conflict, Stability and Security Fund.