(Daren Butler, Reuters) - Grey-haired Lia Khachatourian is determined to keep earning money in Istanbul for her family back in Armenia, undaunted by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's threat to deport illegal Armenian migrants. "I'm not scared. I have to work here as the situation in Armenia is very bad," said the 60-year-old care worker, dressed in black, as she popped into a call shop from where Armenians phone home.
Other Armenian migrants in the poor Kumkapi district voiced more worry at Erdogan's threatened retaliation following votes passed by U.S. and Swedish lawmakers branding World War One-era killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide.
Neighboring Armenia, which last year signed with Turkey a deal to overcome a century of hostility and reopen their border, on Thursday compared Erdogan's warning to the language that preceded the 1915 mass killings.
"A 100 years has passed and the subject has been opened up again and now it is us who are scared," said a 56-year-old Armenian housekeeper and mother of two, who declined to give her name for fear of jeopardizing her livelihood.
"The prime minister spoke very harshly. We want nothing to do with politics. We just came here to work. There is no economy in Armenia," she said after speaking to relatives back home.
Like many Armenian migrants in Istanbul, the former teacher came from the Armenian city of Gyumri, following an earthquake in 1988. She said relatives were now expressing concern about her situation after Erdogan's comments.
Erdogan told the BBC Turkish service there were 100,000 Armenians living illegally in Turkey alongside a 70,000-strong Turkish-Armenian community. "If necessary, I may have to tell these 100,000 to go back to their country because they are not my citizens. I don't have to keep them in my country." Erdogan went on to blame the Armenian Diaspora for causing problems between Western governments and Turkey, a NATO partner and candidate for EU membership.
The number of Armenian immigrants in Turkey is unknown. But Turkish-Armenian groups say Turkish politicians inflate numbers of illegal workers and threaten expulsions whenever tensions escalate between Ankara and Yerevan. According to research last year by the Yerevan-based Eurasia Partnership Foundation, some 94 percent of the irregular Armenian workers in Turkey are women working in housekeeping, nursing and childcare.
Omer Ercetin, 30, who runs one of many call shops in Kumkapi used by Armenians to phone home, said an Armenian colleague had refused to come to work fearing a police raid. "It has been empty here for the last couple of days but normally it is full. People are scared and don't go out," he said.
Two middle-aged Armenian women fled from the shop when told a journalist wanted to speak about Erdogan's warning.
Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian said on Thursday that statements like Erdogan's could "lead to absolutely negative consequences". Last year's deal between the two countries has yet to be ratified by their respective parliaments and the governments have accused each other of trying to rewrite the texts.
The deportation threats will be frowned upon by European governments that have voiced support for Turkey's EU bid, and have backed the peace accords with Armenia.
The issue of the Armenian massacres is deeply sensitive in Turkey, which accepts that many Armenians were killed by Ottoman forces but vehemently denies that up to 1.5 million died and that it amounted to genocide -- a term used by many Western historians and some foreign parliaments. But Armenians and Turks in the Kumkapi area said relations between the two communities were good.
"The Turks are good people and they like us. I have no problems or fights with anyone here. There is really nothing to worry about," said Arsen Barseghyan, 22, who travels between Turkey and Armenia working in the cargo business.