The European Union started deporting hundreds of refugees in early April. As of March 20, the EU will return to Turkey all new refugees who reach Greece illegally. This wave of deportations is the consequence of a new agreement between the EU and Turkey, the latest effort to stem the tide of refugees who have fled civil war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State. In exchange for every migrant transported back to Turkey, the EU has agreed to accept one Syrian from a refugee camp there, in a resettlement process designed to channel refugees away from hazardous and often fatal trips across the Aegean in irregular rafts, and toward more controlled, and theoretically safer, methods.
Despite being advertised as a humanitarian effort to protect refugee lives, the plan has been met with sharp protest from human rights organizations. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has raised questions about the mechanics of asylum requests and the exchange process, Amnesty International called it “a historic blow to human rights,” and Doctors Without Borders labeled it “inhumane.” Both the UNHCR and Doctors Without Borders have withdrawn their staff from refugee camps in Greece in protest, arguing that continued relief efforts would make them complicit in a process that “has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants” and may, in fact, be illegal under international law.
Yet the deal is an attractive one for both Europe and Turkey. For the EU, the agreement limits the number of refugees seeking political asylum—an attempted balm to populations fearful of recent homegrown terrorist attacks and the rapid influx of Muslim immigrants. It also promises to lessen the crushing pressure of the tens of thousands of immigrants already in the EU, many trapped at checkpoints in Greece after Balkan countries and others in Europe sealed their borders to incoming migrants. For Turkey, the country most affected by the wave of Syrian refugees, the deal provides financial support for dealing with the millions of refugees that have gathered there in camps. It has also given Turkey significant political leverage, allowing the government to extract concessions, including visa-free travel for Turks to EU countries and, most importantly, the revival and acceleration of talks regarding Turkey’s entrance to the EU. It is an agreement that, while wrapped in the rhetoric of humanitarian aid, appears to privilege geopolitics over people, and the interests of nations over those of refugees.
This is not the first time that Europe and Turkey have agreed to exchange a group of people considered “foreign” and “problematic” to the nation-state. At the end of World War I, the same thing happened with groups of Greek Orthodox Christians in Turkey and Muslims in Greece. In 1923, a peace treaty signed in Lausanne, Switzerland, ended conflict between Turkey and the Allied Powers and recognized Turkey as a sovereign state. In the turmoil that surrounded the Ottoman Empire’s defeat and collapse, European powers had seized vast tracts of Ottoman land, culminating in a Greek invasion of western Anatolia. A revolutionary Turkish movement, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, soon drove out the Greek army, but it left significant problems in its wake. Large populations of Greek Orthodox Christians had lived in western Anatolia for centuries as citizens of the Ottoman Empire. With the rise of nationalism, and the aid some Greek Orthodox residents gave to the invading Greek army, this population was thought to be suspect and disloyal, a “foreign” religious minority, not proper citizens who could help build a new Turkish nation.
As part of the peace negotiations the parties agreed to an exchange of populations in which these suspect Christians would be expelled from the new Turkey and sent to Greece in exchange for Greece’s small population of Muslims. This religious “un-mixing” was designed to promote national homogenization, creating Turkish and Greek populations that would be free of “dangerous” minority populations and thus lessen the potential for ethnic and religious conflict within the two countries. Turkey, Greece, and the League of Nations, which oversaw the negotiations, advertised the exchange as the best way to protect minorities in both countries, providing a humanitarian solution for populations who suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of national boundaries.
The Greco-Turkish population exchange received the support of the major European powers and was counted as a political success for all countries involved. But it was an unmitigated disaster for the religious minorities in both countries who were compelled to leave their homes for an uncertain future. Populations on both sides were left destitute, stripped of possessions and property, with official efforts for recompense long delayed, when they arrived at all. In Greece, which saw an influx of roughly 1.3 million refugees, exchangees piled up in port cities and on the Greek islands. Greece was utterly unprepared for such a large population influx and lacked the infrastructure and resources to care for the incoming refugees. Thousands died as a result of rampant infectious diseases, poor nutrition, and exposure. Turkey, which received roughly 300,000 Muslims expelled from Greece, faced similar issues in settling refugees on former Greek lands that had already been taken over by neighboring Turks. The exchange depopulated a segment of the Turkish countryside, thwarting economic gains, and it decimated the Greek middle class that had lived in Anatolia for centuries.
The same Greek ports and islands that once served as landing places for Greek Orthodox Christians are again hosting thousands of refugees. As in 1923, Greece, a country already beset by severe economic problems, has found itself unprepared for the sudden influx of a large refugee population. By all accounts, conditions in refugee camps at the Greek border with Macedonia, near Athens, and on the islands of Lesbos and Chios, are miserable. Little access to medical care and appalling hygiene conditions have led to the proliferation of disease. The exchange may not improve these conditions much. Just as it was unprepared for the original arrival of so many refugees, Greece lacks the infrastructure and support to adequately handle an exchange of this magnitude. Despite promises that asylum cases will all be heard and applicants will be treated fairly, the rushed nature of the agreement, lack of translators, little access to legal advice, and an opaque asylum process have left thousands of refugees vulnerable.
Conditions in refugee camps in Turkey are better, but deportation back to Turkey takes refugees further from their ultimate goal of safety in Europe, far from the conflicts that drove them out. Persistent allegations, some seemingly well founded, that Turkish authorities are rounding up hundreds of migrants and returning them to war-torn Syria, do little to help matters. The situation has led Amnesty International to argue, “In their desperation to seal their borders, EU leaders have willfully ignored the simplest of facts: Turkey is not a safe country for Syrian refugees and is getting less safe by the day.” Condemning refugees that have already reached Europe to an uncertain fate in Turkey cannot help but add to their misery. Yet, as in 1923, the insecurity of the refugee population is entirely the result of policy. Rather than arising out of a lack of resources, the brutal conditions imposed on this population are the consequence of exclusionism and fear, as European countries struggle to turn back a tide of refugees they consider to be different, and potentially dangerous.
The similarities between the 1923 Greco-Turkish population exchange and the current agreement for an exchange between the European Union and Turkey are striking. In 1923, Greek, Turkish, and other European leaders presented the population exchange as a political and humanitarian victory that would protect the lives of minorities and lead to a greater era of peace and understanding between Turkey and Europe. During the past few weeks, Turkish and European leaders have said much the same thing, extolling the virtues of an exchange theoretically designed to protect the lives of refugees and lead to a greater rapprochement between Turkey and the European Union.
In both cases, the exchanges were the end result of a politics of fear, the consequence of concerns over the presence of a religious other. They were driven as much by an impulse for homogeneity as any true humanitarian goals. In 1923, Turkey feared the continued presence of a religious minority that could serve as an anchor population for Western powers interested in seizing Turkish territory. In 2016, European populations fear the presence of a religious minority thought to harbor terrorists and religious extremists. A rising wave of right-wing nationalist politicians and movements throughout Europe has pushed back against immigrants from Muslim countries, concerned that fighters from the Islamic State and other groups could carry out further attacks on European soil and radicalize the significant populations of Muslim minorities already in Europe.
The tenor of the political debate in America has echoed these efforts: GOP politicians on the campaign trail have argued against accepting Muslim refugees, for fear of exposing the U.S. to the ravages of radical Islamic terrorism. Donald Trump has called for a blanket ban on any Muslims entering the United States. Ted Cruz suggested that the U.S. should more heavily police and secure “Muslim neighborhoods.” Such efforts raise the specter of radical Islamic terrorism, and this rhetoric erroneously depicts Muslim populations as culturally out of sync with America’s status as a “Christian nation.”
Such arguments fail to recognize that the Muslim refugees against whom they rail are fleeing the very same experiences of terror and violence, albeit to a much greater extent, that Europeans and Americans fear so much. It is fear, not economic or humanitarian concerns, that has driven policies toward refugees in Europe and America alike—fear of the religious other, and of the enemy within.
Yet history provides a stark warning for those seeking to expel the refugees and keep them out of Europe and America. The 1923 population exchange between Turkey and Europe proved devastating for those who were forced to leave their homes and cross the Aegean. A politics rooted in efforts to create homogenous nations free of the influence of “dangerous” religious minorities resulted in a humanitarian disaster on a grand scale. The Syrian refugees have already made that same trip, braving dangerous waters and horrendous conditions in their quest for safety. The humanitarian disaster is already underway. The agreement between the EU and Turkey, focused as it is far more on political and economic concerns than on humanitarian ones, offers little in the way of answers, merely shifting the problem back beyond Europe’s borders. Fear of religious minorities doomed thousands of migrants in 1923. Fear of religious minorities in 2016 has led to an agreement that echoes that failure and risks consigning thousands more to the same grim fate.
Greg Goalwin is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.