Illegal Armenians hope to emerge from shadows with Turkey deal

8th October 2009, Comments 0 comments

In a major breakthrough, Turkey and Armenia announced in August a deal to establish diplomatic ties for the first time and open their border, sealed since 1993.

Istanbul -- Suzan, like many Armenians living clandestinely in Istanbul, came for the money. But the better life is also one of constant fear as an illegal alien living amongst the "enemy".

The 51-year-old Suzan's decision has proved quite profitable. As a teacher to children of other illegal Armenian immigrants, she multiplied her monthly wages by seven -- from 50 dollars to 350 dollars (34 to 240 euros).

But she also worries every day about getting caught by Turkish police.

In a basement serving as a makeshift school, she talked about the unease of thousands of Armenians like herself. Forced to leave their impoverished country to earn a living, they have settled in Turkey's biggest city, facing up to their historical fear of Turks and braving an illegal existence.

"My relatives who stayed in Armenia do not know Turkey. They have difficulty accepting what I do here and that adds to my sadness," she said.

Suzan is hoping all that may change soon with a rare chance of peace between the neighbours and foes, at odds over claims of a 1915-1917 Turkish genocide against Armenians.

Then she and others could emerge from the shadows and work freely in Turkey. Suzan said she could have an even "better life" and, maybe, set up a "small business" between the two countries.

In a major breakthrough, Turkey and Yerevan announced in August a deal to establish diplomatic ties for the first time and open their border, sealed since 1993.

The two countries are expected to ink the deal on Saturday in Switzerland before submitting it to their respective parliaments for ratification.

If the process succeeds, it would change the picture for the illegal Armenians already in Istanbul as well as the five to six busloads coming in every week from Yerevan after a gruelling 35-hour journey via Georgia.

They enter Turkey on a one-month tourist visa, but many are looking to set up a new life here.

Their existence is no secret for Turkish authorities: in April, President Abdullah Gul said there were more than 70,000 Armenian citizens working in Turkey.

And in May, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said about 40,000 of these were illegal and said his government was not sending them back out of humanitarian concerns.

One of those illegal Armenians tolerated by authorities is Sveta who arrived in Istanbul, a bustling metropolis of more than 12 million, seven years ago.

Armed with a huge smile that shows several golden teeth, the 55-year-old recalled how at first she dreaded the idea of living among Turks, only to discover that her fears were groundless.

"After I arrived, I started working in a shoe factory. I was the only woman among 40 men and the only Armenian among 40 Turks," she said. "But, in fact, they always treated me like a big sister. They never said anything bad to me."

Sveta lives with her two daughters, son-in-law and two grandchildren in a two-room flat with no heating and her visa expired long ago.

Despite the hardships, she does not regret her choice.

"Coming to Turkey is not expensive at all and there are no problems here... The police never ask any questions," she said, compared to Moscow, the main destination for Armenian immigrants, where life is expensive and the police relentless.

Fabio Salomoni, an Italian sociologist at Istanbul's Koc University who has published research on immigration from the Caucasus to Turkey, estimated the number of illegal Armenian immigrants in Istanbul at 20,000. He said most were women of over 40 employed as nannies or cleaning ladies as there is greater demand for them.

While most Turkish women in such jobs go home at the end of the workday, Armenian women often live with their employer and are available 24 hours a day, the academic said. And since they are in the country illegally, they tend to work for less money than Turkish women.

According to the Salomoni, the presence of a centuries-old local Armenian community in Istanbul, numbering around 70,000, plays a role in the flow of Armenian citizens to the city.

"The existence of the community and the fact that the city is full of concrete Armenian symbols reinforce the immigrants' feeling of security: they feel a bit at home," he said.

Despite hopes for peace, loyalty runs deep. Teacher Suzan, for one, stressed that she would never make concessions on the World War I massacres of Armenians under Turkey's predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, which Yerevan says constituted a genocide.

"This is not possible, this is our history and we will not be able to forget it," she added.

Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their kin were systematically killed between 1915 and 1917 as the Ottoman Empire was falling apart.

Turkey rejects the genocide label and argues that 300,000-500,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife when Armenians took up arms against their Ottoman rulers and sided with invading Russian troops.

In 1993, Turkey also closed its border with Armenia in a show of solidarity with close ally Azerbaijan over the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, dealing a serious blow to the impoverished former Soviet republic.

Nicolas Cheviron/AFP/Expatica

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