The hidden flesh of Turkey, part 1: the invisible warriors

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.

Photograph of Istanbul by Robino Robokow (CC-usage).

Photograph of Istanbul by Flickr user robokow (CC-usage).

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.

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  • I may be too cynical, but it almost seems that Erdogan is saying, “my economy needs these foreign workers for now, but if one day it doesn’t need them then I will happily show them the door”. It sounds all too familiar.

    I’ll read your next post with interest, Annasoltan.

  • Hi Toaf,
    No, we Turks do not need those illegal workers, unlike the US does (which I am guessing that u r from). Big part of the unemployment in Turkey is the illegal immigrants in Turkey (mostly from Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria).
    So it is quite natural for our PM to say that. We Turks do not want illegal immigrants.

    • @Hakan, I’m in Australia, not the US. And yes, there is certainly a public attitude here that “we don’t want illegal migrants”, too. I don’t hold that view.

      • I’d better clarify that. Many in Australia are opposed to high levels of migration, legal or otherwise. That’s a view I don’t share. Compared to other nations, though, Australia has a very small number of illegal workers.

  • Well, in order for this post to have any value at all, I think you must compare the treatment Turkmens face when they travel to Russia, or other “stans” in Central Asia.

    There is a central flaw in the post, and that stems from the inability to distinguish between how people treat those working the “dirty jobs” and how people treat members of a specific ethnic group living at the edge of their society.

    Let us first look at the issue from the “demand” side. As long as there is a “market” for prostitutes, drug dealers, mafia thugs, human traffickers, etc, it does not matter if the Turkmens, Armenians, Sudanese, or Chinese do that kind of work. Before 1990, when Turkey was a very closed country, Kurds, Laz, Abhaz, Alevis etc, that is, Turkey’s own ethnic groups did those. OK, maybe ethnicity has no role in this question, because “Turks” (whatever that might mean) from certain localities could well establish solidarity with their folk and build “hemsehri” networks.

    Things do not look much different on the “supply” side. Let’s assume, for some reason, Turkmens stop working in these dirty jobs in Turkey. It could happen due to the police taking stricter measures to crack down on organized crime, it could happen after stricter immigration and visa controls, or it could happen after a highly publicized incident, for example, a bloody street fight between some Turkmen youth and some Turkish youth, making it very difficult for Turkmen to continue working in these jobs. What will happen to those Turkmen? They still need money. If returning to Turkmenistan would have been an option, they would have done it already. Then, these Turkmen will go to another country, perhaps Russia, Dubai, or Poland, I don’t know, and keep doing what they were doing in Turkey. They simply have to.

    Let me give another example. Suppose, the Turkish government becomes worried about the plight of illegal Turkmen workers, and wants to do something to make their condition better. It passes a law that bans employing Turkmens below minimum wage. Would such an act improve these Turkmen’s lot? No! Because, then, employing a Turkmen will lose all its attractiveness. Why should someone prefer Turkmen over Turks, when they will both have to be paid the full amount of the minimum wage. So, it is easy to see that if such a law is passed, the end result will be that Turkmens’ place in these dirty jobs will simply be taken by other illegal immigrants.

    I highly recommend the following article from the Atlantic magazine, on illegal Vietnamese immigrants on Vermont’s dairy farms:

    My conclusion is that there is never an easy solution to social problems. Back in 1980s, there were many Turkish workers in Saudi Arabia or Libya, working in construction jobs. At that time, these workers could earn more than they could in Turkey, hence they did not mind the difficult working conditions. They had to, there was no other choice. But today, Turkey’s economy has improved, and the country is much more wealthy than it was 20 years ago. Hence, jobs in Saudi Arabia or Dubai has lost all its luster for the Turks. They can earn more money if they stay in Turkey. Have the poor working conditions and low wages ended in the Arab countries? No! The Turkish workers have simply been replaced with workers from India, Indonesia, and Philippines!

  • i hope you are not mixing up the Turkmen from Iraq and Syria with those Turkmen from Turkmenistan. Although a lot of prostitutes do indeed come from Turkmenistan, there are a lot of Turkmen from Iraq who work in the entertainment business. i dunno whether one makes the other work, but certainly there might be some link.
    also, i dont think that foreigners can make as much as 900 dollars by doing dirty work like construction, cleaning and etc. it is much less.

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