Europe’s forgotten refugees: 100 years of crossing the Aegean
At the end of the war, refugees accounted for 40 per cent of Athens’s population. In addition to those who had already fled, in 1923 Greece and Turkey agreed to a population exchange of their Muslim and Orthodox communities respectively, contributing to the evolving refugee crisis. In total, an estimated 1.2 million refugees arrived in Greece by 1923 and were living in camps on the Aegean islands and in Greece’s main ports and cities
Professor Roderick Beaton at King’s College London’s Centre for HellenicStudies, notes the parallels between the refugee crisis of today and 1922:“For one thing, it was a mass influx, mostly destitute, mostly desperate;they’re coming from the same place; they’re landing on the same shores,that is the eastern Aegean Islands.”
Among those helping in Greece today are the Panthers, many of whom likeMogridge are descendants of Asia Minor refugees. The fan club collectclothes, food and blankets to donate to refugee camps and are known fordisplaying banners with slogans of support during games.
Despite existing in Athens for 100 years and Izmir only 30, the club’sidentity as a refugee team remains strong. Refugee narratives from the warhave persisted throughout the past century in Greek culture, literature andpublic discourse.
Dr Anastasia Lemos, a visiting research fellow at King’s College London’sCentre for Hellenic Studies, says: “Out of all the turmoil and violence ofthe Greco-Turkish War, the only thing that has remained in theconsciousness of the average Greek is the disaster of 1922.”
While the 1922 refugee crisis has contributed to the evolution of the Greek national identity, not all Greeks are willing to see its resonance in the present day. Ergas says that the discourse surrounding the current refugee
Recognising the similarities between the way refugees are treated today and how they were treated in the past compromises the narrative built around the war, he says. “People are still celebrating their Asia Minor heritage but they’re trying to cut it off completely from the modern refugee issue.”
A 2016 article published by the independent media platform the Pulitzer Centre says that over 60 per cent of the population of Lesvos (86,000) are the descendants of refugees from 1922. Today, the island hosts around3,500 refugees and is known for being home to Europe’s biggest and most notorious refugee camp, Moria, which burnt down in September 2020.
“The greatest part of the population on Lesvos has created an image of1922 as it wishes it to be: a glorious image and an image free of every harm,” Ergas says.
Beaton says: “It took decades for the refugee communities to become properly assimilated within Greece.” Over time, the camps transformed to permanent settlements. Wood and mud became bricks and cement. Children and grandchildren of refugees still live there today.
For George Mavropoulos, growing up as the child of Asia Minor refugees was not easy. “We were strangers that ended up in their area, in their home, in their land,” he says.
The 83-year-old was born in a village in northern Greece, after his parents fled Turkey in 1923. They came from a small village near Samsun in the Pontos region of northern Turkey. His father had a bad experience trapped in a refugee camp in Istanbul, before travelling by boat to mainland Greece.
Growing up in Greece, Mavropoulos was picked on for speaking a Pontian dialect. “We were not one of them, we were different. People did not know much, and they suffered and they were looking for a scapegoat. They thought that we will take over their homes.”
Mavropoulos migrated to Chicago in 1958 to study, and is the founder of the Asia Minor and Pontos Hellenic Research Centre. The centre sent money to support refugees in Greece at the beginning of the 2015 crisis. Pontian Greeks “relate to their tragedy”, he says.
To Ergas, drawing a connection between the two experiences is vital. “It points out one universal and transcendent historical fact that locals always treat refugees like shit, no matter where they come from, and will always be hostile to the weakest, to the poorest, to the inferior.”
A year after Moria burnt down on Lesvos, the Greek government has not yet started building new accommodation for the island’s asylum seekers, leaving refugees in a makeshift camp, coined “Moria 2” for its similarly sub-standard conditions. With no new permanent structure and rumours of migrants being returned to Turkey, residents of “Moria 2” are waiting to hear their fate. Hope is running out.
Raed, who prefers not to give his full name for safety, has been living on Lesvos since March 2019. He fled Syria in 2015 and came to Greece on a small boat from Turkey. “You can tell everybody that we are waiting to die,”he says. “We are human like you, so accept us, consider us. We didn’t come here to collect money, we didn’t come here to take the place, we didn’t come here to take anything. We came here for one reason. We are looking for a safe place to end our lives.”
Refugees and asylum seekers are facing increasingly hostile policy, making it harder to achieve refugee status and to integrate. The right-wing party New Democracy that came into power in 2019 introduced an asylum law that restricts asylum seekers’ access to legal assistance, facilitates arbitrary detention and expands the grounds for rejecting applications.
“Greece has traditionally a policy, it’s not an official one, no one talks about it, to push people to leave. That’s why we don’t do integration,” says Lefteris Papagiannakis, the head of advocacy at Solidarity Now, an NGO that supports vulnerable communities in Greece.
“It’s a vicious circle,” he says. “Creating conditions of instability, making them think twice if they want to stay in Greece or if it is better for them to go back home, and sending a message to the outside: ‘Look guys, in Greece it’s crazy. Don’t come in.’”
The government has also started to construct three-metre-high concrete walls around 24 major camps on the mainland, purportedly for the safety of the refugees, while the EU awarded Greece money to build five new camps on the most affected islands to replace sub-standard structures where poor conditions proliferate.
The first of the new camps opened in September on Lesvos and has been labelled “prison-like” by Médecins Sans Frontières for its military-gradefences and advanced surveillance systems. About 500 asylum seekers weretransferred from the old camp outside the town of Vathy, which during theheight of the crisis had 8,000 residents in a space meant for 650.
“It is a dire situation,” says Simone, a humanitarian aid worker on theisland, who prefers to be identified only by his first name to protect his organisation, about Vathy camp. “Not just in material terms like lack of running water or electricity, they live with the constant risk of being bitten by rats and snakes and pests or flooded because of rain.”
He recalls that during celebrations for the 19 May anniversary of the Pontic Greek genocide, when much of the Orthodox population in northern Turkey fled to Greece as refugees between 1913 and 1922, no connection was made to the present-day situation. “You couldn’t find one line written about it.”
In Chicago, Mavropoulos remembers the Pontian Greeks who visited his father’s tailor shop in Kozani, the town in northern Greece where his family eventually settled. They would talk about their homeland, ruminating on how some were able to return and others were not. “There’s a huge loss, something that is missing from your life, not being able to visit your home, where you were born, grew up,” Mavropoulos says.
He holds onto a sorrow and a sense of loss that, despite never being his own, has been passed down to him. He becomes emotional when I ask if he has ever wanted to visit the village his parents came from. “I could not psychologically, I could not stand – that would be a tough experience,” he says, tears coming to his eyes. When I speak to Raed later on, he also becomes emotional remembering his homeland.
The ancient Greek playwright Euripides is often quoted in discourse around migration for capturing this feeling: “There is no greater sorrow on Earth than the loss of one’s native land.”
Manos Moschopoulos, a senior programme officer at Open Society, recognises that migration is inherent in the Greek identity beyond the descendants of Asia Minor refugees. He points to the estimated 5 million people of Greek origin living outside of Greece today.
Moschopoulos’s own family is a prime example. Part of his family fled Asia Minor during the Greco-Turkish war, another escaped the Italian occupation of the islands during the Second World War. His father first migrated to Germany as a teenager in the 1960s and then to Australia in the 1970s. Moschopoulos, too, left Greece when the financial crisis struck in the mid 2000s and now lives in Germany.
“I think that, overall, the important thing is that as a nation, we are a nation of refugees, that half of the country, maybe, has some sort of experience of migration or forced displacement in their own families,” he says. “If we remember that, I think it would change a bit the way we see others that are coming to Greece.”
He notes the resistance to seeking resemblances between one’s own history and the displaced of today stems from a fear of finding out that one does not belong. It is a fear carried by a nation that, although dating back to antiquity, has only been independent in the modern world for 200 years.
“Every time a nation comes to life, be it the modern Greek state in the1830s or be it any other country, we scramble to find reasons for it to exist and reasons for it to be exceptional,” he says.