A far-right Turkish politician wants his government to expel tens of thousands of Armenian nationals residing in Turkey in retaliation against France for declaring a remembrance day for victims of the World War I-era genocide of Armenians.
President Emmanuel Macron said this week France would mark April 24 as a "national day of commemoration of the Armenian genocide.” Turkey’s government, which denies the killings amounted to a genocide, has vigorously condemned the decision.
Researchers estimate between 10,000 and 30,000 Armenian nationals are in Turkey, many of whom have overstayed tourist visas after finding work there. They often face greater scrutiny when foreign governments pressure Turkey to formally recognize the genocide.
“There are 100,000 Armenians here who came from Armenia and are illegally filling their stomachs. I’m saying we should expel them. Why are we letting them stay? While they lobby against Turkey, we continue to feed them,” Mustafa Destici, who leads the small Great Unity Party (BBP), said at a campaign rally on February 7.
It was not clear where Destici came up with a figure of 100,000 nor what “lobbying” efforts Armenian labor migrants living in Turkey could have conducted to persuade Macron. It is not the first time Destici has used the number, or threatened to expel Armenian citizens from Turkey; he made a similar demand in 2015. In 2017, he called on Russia to abandon its military alliance with Armenia.
Destici’s hardline party only receives a few hundred thousand votes in Turkish elections but retains an outsized influence at a time of heightened nationalism in Turkey. In June, the BBP joined President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s electoral alliance, along with a larger right-wing group, in parliamentary and presidential polls, earning one seat in parliament.
Erdogan has in the past suggested kicking out undocumented Armenian nationals in response to moves by other nations to recognize the genocide. In 2015, he said Turkey could “deport” them if it wished, evoking the Ottoman Empire’s deportation of hundreds of thousands of Armenians to the Syrian desert during World War I.
But Erdogan has also taken unprecedented steps toward acknowledging the pain of the descendants of the killings. Each April 24, he offers his condolences to the 60,000 or so Turkish citizens of Armenian descent who remain in Turkey.
The day after his original statement, Destici issued another statement clarifying that he had no quibble with Turkey’s Armenian citizens, for whom he had “endless respect,” he said.
Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s spokesman, said in a statement this week he “violently condemned” France’s decision to commemorate April 24, saying the allegations of genocide lack a legal basis. France legally recognized the killings as genocide in 2001, and another two dozen nations have done so as well.
Turkey argues that both Turks and Armenians died during internecine warfare amid the chaos of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. However, most Western scholars agree that around 1.5 million Armenians perished in a systematic genocide that began in 1915.
Destici’s remarks were unlikely to spur any concrete action, but illustrate rising nationalist sentiment during a severe economic downturn in Turkey, which also hosts four million Syrian and Iraqi refugees, as well as hundreds of thousands of migrants from Africa, the Middle East and beyond.
Armenians make up a tiny proportion of migrants in Turkey. Many are low-skilled workers and female, forced to look for work outside of Armenia, where the per-capita income is $4,200 compared to $10,500 across the border in Turkey.
Turkey has no diplomatic relations with Armenia, cutting ties in 1993 in protest of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.
Ayla Jean Yackley is a journalist based in Istanbul. Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.