The hidden flesh of Turkey, part 1: the invisible warriors
Editor’s note: Over the past few years, Istanbul’s boulevard press has been awash with sensational reports about the illegal activities of Turkmen “guest workers”. They have been associated with prostitution, pimping, the illegal drug trade, theft, and even murder. But who are the members of this faceless horde really? neweurasia’s Annasoltan investigates.
Recently the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, implied that he may expel illegal Armenian immigrants from Turkey. The statement comes amid what are by now almost annual tensions over whether the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman authorities is a “genocide” or not:
There are 40,000 Armenian citizens staying illegally in my country. We keep them here and because they have no means to live in their own country. They ran away and we opened them our doors. If necessary, I will tell them, ‘come on, back to your country.’ I’m not obliged to keep them in my country.
Well, Armenians are not the only illegal immigrant workers. Approximately 400,000 citizens from ex-Soviet states enter Turkey on a tourist or student visa every year. Among them, the Turkic speaking people of the former Soviet Union compose the biggest group, and of these, the biggest seem to be those of my nation, Turkmenistan.
The causes for this slow flood of illegal Turkmen immigrants — the reasons why they stay once they arrive in Turkey — are complex. To begin with, in Turkmenistan they could only ever hope to earn an average annual salary barely exceeding $150, whereas in Turkey they can make several times that, ranging from $500 to $900 per month. Meanwhile, they offer a tax- and insurance-free form of labor for employers, who also take hostage their passports to ensure they do not attempt escape.
Today, Turkmen immigrants are a vital part of Turkish society but they live a shadow life. In the cosmopolitan mega-city Istanbul, for example, they easily mix into the regular population. They are out in the open yet fully invisible, doing dirty, exploitative, stigmatizing, and ultimately futureless jobs. This would be an existence that would be paradoxical and humiliating for anyone, but especially Turkmens, who have long enjoyed an historical reputation as heroic warriors, something they brought up repeatedly when I went to talk with them in the streets and alleys of Istanbul.
Discrimination and stigmatization are a fact of life for many Turkmen workers. Several feel that this is grossly unfair, not only because of the important service they are providing for Turkey, but also because their own government goes to great pains to curry Turkish favor with lucrative business arrangements. Turkmen students currently in Turkey feel especially angry. One remarked to me,
Turkmenistan has created conditions for many Turks to set up business companies inTurkmenistan when they were unable to get started in their own country. Through our generous government they have secured themselves a lot of extra rights in Turkmenistan making a lot of money and living a lavish life and some have exceeded over the border of what is acceptable. But our press does not mention a word about this.
But so far I have only been talking about Turkmen men in Turkey. Turkmen women in particular, along with Moldavian and Georgian women, have been stigmatized in the Turkish media as prostitutes or as unethical and cheap sex workers. In my next post, I will explore what life is life for my countrywomen.