Historical story

Greece and the refugees 1821-1922

The refugee phenomenon, as well as the protection of those who, in danger where they live, flee to another place, did not appear in the modern era. For centuries, moreover, many empires had engaged in forced population movements aimed at increasing arable land and revenue, and consolidating their dominance over newly conquered areas whose defense was problematic. However, the processes of nation-state formation since the end of the 18th century greatly changed the data of refugee movements in Europe as they led to the redefinition of the relations between territory, sovereignty, citizenship and mobility.

With the gradual consolidation of the distinction between citizens and foreigners, population movements became the subject of intensified political control as the ways of defining the demographic boundaries of the dominant people became a major political stake. With the prevalence of nationalist ideas and the Western European nation-state ideology, the coexistence of religiously and ethnically heterogeneous groups in the same territory was considered unnatural and harmful.

National and popular sovereignty entailed the right of states to shape the composition of their population by directing and limiting population movements. The territorial and social enclosure that secures citizenship status and the regulation of human mobility have entered the realm of state policies. By regulating movements, states aimed to strengthen homogeneity by changing the national and ethnic composition of their population, while at the same time attempting to control their flows and composition for economic and other reasons. However, administrative and other weaknesses, unforeseen events, and above all the conflicting interests, changing power relations and divergent strategies of the various actors and subjects involved in any movement of people, whether forced or voluntary, constantly undermined the decisions and practices of states. . In the new place of settlement, the inferior institutional, economic and social position of refugees, especially the weaker groups among them, namely the poor, the non-religious or non-linguistic, the illiterate, women and children, often made their voice comparatively weak.

In the Greek area, the issue of refugees itself, the people involved in it and certain terms of its management were formed before the Greek state was even recognized internationally and its jurisdictions and obligations were established.

Nevertheless, the degrees of autonomy, even of those who had been forced to move, gradually expanded even if they were often again limited in relation to the natives. In any case, the presence of refugees, however, prompted societies and political forces to question the foreigner who is at risk and their responsibility for his protection, calling them to face issues of care, belonging, citizenship, democracy.

In the Greek space, the issue of refugees itself, the people involved in it and certain terms of its management were formed before the Greek state was even recognized internationally and its jurisdictions and obligations were established. The fact that the Greek Revolution prevailed in a limited region brought the leading groups of the struggle face to face with the question of the care, settlement - and eventual utilization for the needs of the war against the Ottomans - of the refugees from the areas where the rebellion had been suppressed . The revolutionary authorities, regardless of their inability most of the time to implement the measures they took, initiated practices that would be followed by the governments of the newly established Greek state.

Kapodistrias, anticipating the increase of the country's rural population and agricultural production, wanted to rehabilitate refugee populations by granting them land. At the same time, of course, he tried to limit the number of people who received help from the fragile and financially weak state.

They included many refugees in the category of Greek citizens, they tried from time to time to register them and separate them into groups according to their usefulness for the struggle or the urgency of their needs, they granted some accommodation, defects and land, they decided to disperse them but and control their movements and attempted to determine their place of settlement and take measures to reduce their conflicts with the locals. Soon the refugees themselves demanded "the rights of the Greek citizen", they demanded to acquire their own settlements and land, to nominate their own proxies in the national assemblies and not to be considered foreigners, highlighting with their very demands the often hostile attitude of the locals against them as well as the stake of conflicts with them.

Kapodistrias, anticipating the increase of the country's rural population and agricultural production, wanted to rehabilitate refugee populations by granting them land. At the same time, of course, he tried to limit the number of people who received help from the fragile and financially weak state by distinguishing those who "the miseries of the homeland forced to take refuge" in the free country from those who came of their own free will.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the failure or suppression of rebellions in areas of the Ottoman Empire as well as persecutions and conflicts in the Balkans led to the influx of refugees into Greek territory and the adoption of measures for their reception and rehabilitation. In the context of the national ideology, the rehabilitation of those of the refugees who were considered to be of the same nationality was largely treated as an obligation of the state, which in this way would expand the body of its citizens, taxpayers and soldiers. At the beginning of the 20th century, in 1907, the first state institution, the Thessalian Agricultural Fund, was created to rehabilitate refugees from the Balkans as well as dispossessed natives by distributing land in Thessaly. This organization secured land and allocated funds for the lending of their housing. The refugees to be resettled were categorized according to their origin in order to settle them all together and in an environment similar to their place of origin.

Towards the end of the 19th century, there were more voices calling for the resolution of the Macedonian Question by purchasing land in this Ottoman province and by settling Greek citizens or expatriate populations there. After the Balkan Wars, experts on the situation in the New Countries proposed the distribution of estates in order to cultivate the Greek consciousness of the local peasants as well as the settlement of the newly occupied territories with expatriate refugees.

Thus, immediately after the Balkan Wars, the settlement of the New Countries with refugees began, with the aim of increasing the population of the areas abandoned due to the long-term conflicts, to ensure the settlement of populations devoted to Greece in its border areas and to change their ethnic composition – and in particular that of Macedonia. Initially, refugees from the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans were rehabilitated, but after the October Revolution and the failure of the allied campaign in Ukraine, a rescue operation was organized for approximately 50,000 Greeks in Russia by transferring them to Greek territory. And they were placed by the Greek authorities in Macedonia in the border areas.

In 1914, the "Central Committee for the Care and Settlement of Homogeneous Settlers in Macedonia" was established in Thessaloniki. In 1917, the Refugee Treatment Act defined for the first time who was considered a refugee seeking, among other things, to again limit the number of people eligible for relief, this time based on criteria other than persecution by hostile states and origin them, but also their financial situation. It also established the procedures for the attestation of refugee status by recognized refugee associations or by the testimony of third parties. In the same year, in a period of sharpening of the Schism, Venizelos initiated an agrarian reform with the aim of introducing a new land ownership system in the New Countries, to strengthen the body of smallholders, to modernize the agricultural production sector and to ensure Greek sovereignty in these new areas by persuading the ethnically heterogeneous peasants who lived there to adopt a positive attitude towards the Greek state. The Treaty of Neigi, signed in 1919, also included a voluntary population exchange agreement between Greece and Bulgaria.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, therefore, earlier policies for the care and rehabilitation of refugees were supplemented and largely assumed the form they would take after 1922:a premium on the settlement of refugees in areas newly incorporated into the territory or in border areas and/or where it was considered necessary to change the ethnic composition locally, rural rehabilitation of some refugees as well as natives on national or expropriated lands and utilization of land distribution to strengthen the loyalty of heterogeneous rural populations, separation of refugees into useful or not for the national case, to those who were entitled to state aid and to those who were excluded from it, defining procedures for registration, certification of refugee status and acquisition of citizenship, etc.

The policy of population exchange had also already been discussed and instituted. The Greek administrative system had accumulated a century of experience in the field of refugee relief and rehabilitation and was familiar with the alternatives in managing the issue. This know-how was utilized after 1922, when the country received over a million refugees from Asia Minor, Eastern Thrace and Pontus. Throughout this time, the control of population inflows and outflows and the categorization of the inhabitants of Greece into citizens and foreigners, indigenous and non-native, homogenous and alien, those entitled to aid and those excluded from it, were used as tools to increase of the population and formation of its composition.

*Lina Ventura is Professor of Modern History in the Department of Political Science and History with the subject "Immigration and Diaspora:Contemporary and Chronological Approaches".