Seven years ago, like thousands of other Armenians, 58-year-old Anahit opted to overlook the age-old hostility between Armenia and Turkey and move to Istanbul from her hometown of Gyumri. One simple factor guided her decision -- she needed a job, and Turkey offered the best place to find one.
The $600-$700 that Anahit (not her real name) earned each month as a cleaner and caregiver for Turkish families was enough to support a family of four back in Armenia. But, now, with the February 1 imposition of new tourist visa regulations that limit the stay of non-residents to no longer than 90 days within a 180-day period, she says that she may consider returning home.
In the past, illegal labor migrants regularly used the three-month tourist visas, easily renewable, to live in Turkey for years.
“We are in absolute uncertainty. Every day we wait, unaware of what situation we might face in case the new regulations are applied,” Anahit said of the Armenian migrant community in Istanbul. “Nobody knows what will happen to us.”
In theory, the new regulations make it plain what will happen to Anahit and others: if they are found to be in Turkey illegally, they risk deportation with no ability to return for five years, as well as the imposition of fines. According to a report distributed by RFE/RL’s Armenian-language service, financial penalties range as high as $4,000 for employers and $400 for employees.
Active enforcement of the regulation is not known to have begun. In the meantime, the scarcity of work in Armenia encourages many illegal Armenian migrants to stay in Turkey after the expiration of the 90-day visas. Although Armenia’s official unemployment rate (6 percent) is lower than Turkey’s (9 percent), estimates put the actual Armenian jobless rate in the double digits. Some 35.8 percent of Armenia’s population of 2.97 million people lives in poverty, according to official data.
The Turkish government in the past has threatened to expel the tens of thousands of illegal migrants estimated to be working in the country. While some Turkish observers attribute that stance to Turkey’s own employment problems, or a desire to conform to European Union norms, many in Armenia see it as an extension of diplomatic enmity between Yerevan and Ankara.
In 1993, Turkey severed diplomatic relations and closed its border with Armenia in retaliation for Armenia’s war with Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally, over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. In more recent years, after a brief attempt at reconciliation, the two countries have tangled over Yerevan’s continuing campaign to secure international recognition of the Ottoman Empire’s World War I-era slaughter of ethnic Armenians as genocide; most notably, in France.
Many Armenians prefer to keep quiet about relatives working in Turkey. The government apparently shares that reticence; officials at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs declined to comment about what Turkey’s new visa regulations might mean for illegal Armenian migrants.
For some migrants who already have made the move, Turkey no longer is the enemy. Twelve years ago, the four-member Hovakimian family headed to Istanbul from the northern Armenian city of Vanadzor, Armenia’s third-largest city with an estimated population of 105,000. The mother, who has worked as a cleaning lady for a Turkish family, said that her relations with her employers are “wonderful.” The family initially offered to register her as an official resident at their address so that she could continue to work there. After they balked, though, at payment of the necessary fees, Mrs. Hovakimian is on the lookout for a new job.
Although her future prospects are unclear, she has no thought of returning to Armenia, she claims. At 10 percent, the official unemployment rate in Lori, the region for which Vanadzor is the principal town, ranks as Armenia’s highest. “What are we supposed to do in Vanadzor? Nothing. We had to leave all our property and come here. Our kids were raised here,” she said.
The new Turkish visa regulations have made other Armenian women reconsider their plans. Roughly a dozen women interviewed by EurasiaNet.org in Vanadzor, Gyumri and Etchmiadzin, a small town not far from Yerevan, said that uncertainty about the visa situation had prompted them to stay put. “If we decide to leave, we do not know yet what difficulties we will face in Turkey; so people are mostly waiting for further developments,” said 49-year-old Armine, one such prospective migrant from Vanadzor.
Apparently, some privately run bus services are waiting, too. Buses from Vanadzor to Istanbul have not run for the past month, Armine said. The Ministry of Transportation said it could not confirm the report since it keeps no record of modes of transportation to Turkey.
Uncertainty is not limited to illegal Armenian migrants. Ara Gochunian, editor-in-chief of the Istanbul-based Armenian-language newspaper Zhamanak, says that affluent Turks who employ domestic help or caregivers also are taking a “wait-and-see” stance. “This is a period of questions,” said Gochunian.
This is part two of a two-part series. You can read part one here: http://www.eurasianet.org/node/65086.