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.