Despite tensions between the two countries, tens of thousands of Armenians have come to Turkey illegally for work.
Istanbul – Children run and shout in the basement of a church in Istanbul – a school for Armenian immigrants living in Turkey.
Some have been in Turkey for many years, while others are new arrivals. Their exact numbers are unclear, as the bulk of them are undocumented.
Although Turkey and Armenia are frequently at loggerheads in the international arena, these tensions are not high on the agenda of the thousands of Armenians who come to Turkey for a better life. For many, the quest for better living standards prevails over politics and nationalism.
Tansu Ciller, a former Turkish prime minister, said there were 30,000 undocumented Armenian citizens living in Turkey in 2000. Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul put the number at 40,000 in 2005, while Yasar Yakis, who held the foreign affairs post the following year, estimated there were 70,000.
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Last Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey retained the right to deport the estimated 100,000 non-Turkish Armenian nationals working in Turkey. The statement came hours before a European Parliament vote on a resolution calling for Turkey to recognise the 1915 mass killings of Armenians as “genocide”.
This is not the first time the Turkish president has commented on undocumented Armenian immigrants following public disputes between the two countries. He made a similar statement in 2010 in reaction to the lobbying activities of the Armenian diaspora.
Tensions between Armenia and Turkey date back to the break-up of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, when Turkish authorities decided to expel Armenians from their homes in eastern Anatolia to Syria.
Ankara agrees that many Armenians died in the ethnic fighting and the deportation process that ensued between 1915 and 1917, putting its estimate at 300,000 casualties. Armenia says 1.5 million died in what it calls a genocide, an accusation denied by Turkey. The centenary of the mass killings will be commemorated on April 24.
Baruyr Kuyumciyan, the community editor of Agos newspaper published in Turkey, told Al Jazeera the number of Armenian immigrants in Turkey has been exaggerated.
“Turkey is a transition point. Some of the Armenians just pass by Turkey and continue to Europe,” he said. “Since they enter on a tourist visa and leave through illegal ways, only their entry is recorded. Thus, the data is misleading.”
The Turkish government allows citizens of its Asian neighbours to enter the country freely. As a result, citizens of neighbouring countries with lower standards of living, such as Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Armenia come to Turkey to make a better living, entering without visas or on tourist visas and then overstaying those visas.
Davit Khachatryan, the 26-year-old vice principal of Turkey’s de facto Armenian school, has been living in the country for two years and possesses a residency permit.
“I didn’t decide to come here overnight. My parents have been here for 14 years now. I am a law graduate with a master’s degree, but there were no jobs in Armenia,” he told Al Jazeera. “I earn $600 a month, which is more than twice the money I would earn in Armenia. Families living here would go back if they could earn the same money back in Armenia.”
To get a residency permit as Khachatryan did, immigrants must convince Turkish authorities that they have enough resources to live in Turkey by presenting high-value bank deposit slips, which immigrant families rarely have.
A 57-year-old teacher told Al Jazeera, on condition of anonymity, that she came to Turkey nine years ago and has been living in the country since then without a legal status. A mother of three daughters, she has not been back to Armenia since entering Turkey.
“My husband and I have come here because of financial difficulties. He is free to go back and forth to Armenia as he owns property back home. I can’t,” she said. “He was a military officer with the Soviet army and our life was good. Then he retired and the economic situation in Armenia worsened. Now, two of my daughters are married. One is married to a Russian and they live in France. The other one is here with a Turkish citizen. Things are better.”
A number of immigrants told Al Jazeera that they preferred Turkey as a destination because it is close to Armenia and life in Turkey is cheaper than in Europe. Since Ankara has kept its border with Armenia closed since 1993, in reaction to the territorial conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Armenians generally enter Turkey through Georgia.
“I came here with my wife 10 years ago and never left. My two kids were born in Istanbul at an Armenian hospital. I haven’t come across anything that wasn’t good here,” a 39-year-old leather worker told Al Jazeera.
A couple of community hospitals in Istanbul help illegal immigrants with their health issues, immigrants told Al Jazeera. Meanwhile, a vast majority of the immigrants are women who work as domestic workers, babysitting, cooking and cleaning. Five female Armenian immigrants told Al Jazeera they earn between $450 and $700 a month through such work. Men mostly find jobs at factories and workshops that pay less, they said.
While some immigrants told Al Jazeera they have no interest in politics or Turkish-Armenian relations, they get uncomfortable when Turkish authorities threaten to deport undocumented Armenians.
“I haven’t faced any problems in Turkey. Political issues do not interest me. I’m here to earn my [living],” a 30-year-old Armenian who works for a family told Al Jazeera.
Nano Madoian, a 31-year-old with a residency permit who also earns her living through house work, has been in Turkey since 2003. “At first, it was hard to live here, as we did not speak Turkish, but now all is well,” she told Al Jazeera. “When a leader says they are going to deport us, we get stressed out, but we go on with our lives. What else can we do?”
According to Kuyumciyan, Armenian citizens who came to Turkey and stayed were people with prior experience there, “or their relatives or friends have been to Turkey before”.
“They know what to expect and how much money they are going to earn. Most of them don’t start a brand new adventure. Turkey is not a mysterious place for Armenians,” he added. “Armenian immigrants live in a closed community without much interaction with the other parts of the society, including Turkish-Armenians. Female Armenians mostly work at Turkish-Armenian homes doing housework, but there is not much social connection.”
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The de facto Armenian school hidden under the church was set up in 2008 and grew as more immigrants came from Armenia over time. The diploma it provides is recognised in Armenia.
Students studying at this secondary school cannot officially enrol in minority schools in Turkey, as they have to be Turkish citizens with minority status to do so. They can only be guest students and receive an education without getting a diploma at the end of their studies. All teachers are immigrants from Armenia and the language of instruction is Armenian, since almost none of the children speak Turkish.
Turkish authorities know about the de facto school but tolerate it. Turkey’s Directorate General of Foundation recently even provided food supplies to the school, although the textbooks are brought from Armenia.
“The school is funded through donations from benefactors as well as contributions collected from the families of the students studying at the school,” Principal Heriknaz Avakyan told Al Jazeera. “The number of students increases every year and we have serious issues with the building, both in terms of its size and the conditions we have to work in.”
Avakyan told Al Jazeera that there are no windows in the school building and it gets quite stuffy: “We want to move to a regular building. Students do not see the sun studying here.”
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras