Beste İşleyen argues that it is time for EU Studies to acknowledge the connected histories of the “refugee crisis” in the Aegean.

Beste is Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Amsterdam.

When almost one-million people crossed from Turkey into Greece during the summer of 2015 and early 2016, a range of steps were taken to address these border crossing attempts. One key outcome is the infamous EU-Turkey Agreement of March 2016, which resulted in the stranding of thousands of refugees on the Greek Aegean islands, caught in limbo between the hope of a positive asylum decision or deportation to Turkey.

A humanitarian narrative was invoked to justify state and non-state interventions to control migration in the Aegean Sea. These included increased border enforcement on both sides of the Aegean enabled by the March 2016 agreement and NATO’s deployment within Greek territorial waters for maritime surveillance. Border surveillance technologies were enhanced to support search and rescue operations. It also led to a greater NGO presence (albeit only on the Greek side) to help people in need at sea.

EU studies consider the EU-Turkey Agreement as a crucial step in the consolidation of Europe’s external border.[1] William Walters, among others, traces the origins of Europe’s ‘external frontier’ to the late 1990s, particularly to the Amsterdam Treaty (1997).[2] With the Amsterdam Treaty, the Schengen Agreement (1985), based on the idea of the simultaneous abolishment of EU internal borders and extension of control over external borders, was incorporated into the EU’s legal framework. The strengthening of the external dimension of migration control primarily concerns EU member states that border the Mediterranean Sea, which separates the Schengen space of free movement from non-Schengen countries in the south and the east.[3]


Frank Schimmelfennig argues that the historical evolution of Europe’s external border was a natural continuation of institutional developments inherent to the European integration project, including the adoption of the Single Market and the introduction of free movement of goods, capital and services as well as people. “The progressive elimination of borders within the EU has, in turn, necessitated a common regime for managing the Union’s external borders to compensate for the individual loss of boundary control.”[4]

An important outcome of this is the emergence of what Luiza Bialasiewicz and Enno Maessen have termed ‘differential affective geographies’ within the EU with regard to the humanitarian management of migration.[5] The EU-Turkey Agreement has led to further investment in border and migration control at Europe’s edges. The confinement of the growing number of irregular border-crossers on Greek islands in turn requires humanitarian solutions to alleviate suffering and care for migrant populations, such as the creation of new refugee camps, the maintenance of the existing camps and a multitude of state and non-state European humanitarians to perform different tasks within them (e.g. food delivery, cash assistance).[6] In this way Europe’s external frontier serves the purposes of “sorting populations and individuals into those to be feared and those to be cared for.”[7] What is omitted from such presentist accounts is the 1923 Lausanne Treaty and how it demarcated the Aegean Sea as a space of humanitarian migration management.

What is omitted from such presentist accounts is the 1923 Lausanne Treaty and how it demarcated the Aegean Sea as a space of humanitarian migration management.

Throughout 1922 and 1923 thousands of Greek Orthodox Christians left Asia Minor and arrived in boats on the Greek islands in search of safety. Those with more financial means made it to major Aegean port cities on the Greek mainland (e.g. Thessaloniki, Kavala, etc.). By the time the Lausanne negotiations ended, Greek ports were full of new refugee arrivals. Overwhelmed, the Greek state gathered its own resources and called on the international community for humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian assistance in Greece was made ready by state authorities and Western philanthropic groups.[8]

Key international actors included the American philanthropic institutions, in particular the American Red Cross and the Near East Relief. All British Appeal, the British Red Cross Society, Save the Children Fund and American Women’s Hospitals were also involved.[9] In the refugee camps on the Aegean islands, western humanitarians provided food, clothes, shelter and medical assistance – not unlike today. Near East Relief paid particular attention to orphanage care both in Greece and across the Middle East and Caucasus, hosting large numbers of Ottoman Christians displaced during the war.[10] Western organizations were also present to deliver humanitarian aid to people in transit in Istanbul, İzmir/Smyrna and across the Black Sea region.


With the Lausanne Treaty, the Aegean Sea became a territorial border between Greece and Turkey. Viewing this border only in nation-state terms fails to account for the significance of 1923 in defining the Aegean Sea as Europe’s edge. Drawing upon the idea of “unmixing”, the Greek-Turkish population exchange is a particular politics of alterity management. At the heart of unmixing is a historicized categorization and (racial) hierarchization of people whose (spatial) co-existence was rendered problematic. The solution proposed by Lausanne was “segregative biopolitics” to separate Greeks as Europeans from Turks representing the “Other.” The Aegean Sea became Europe’s edge and the first place of arrival and reception of migrants destined for Europe.[11].

After one hundred years, the subjects may have changed but the Aegean continues to be the geography of alterity management, migration control and humanitarianism.

One striking historical parallel concerns Lesbos/Lesvos which has become the EU’s prison island for refugees. Lesvos once hosted a community of around 8,000 Muslims. In October 1923, however, these Muslims were sent to Ayvalık, just a few miles away. In “exchange”, 8,000 Greek Orthodox Christians left Samsun on the Black Sea to be resettled in Thessaloniki. The Turkish Red Crescent set up a health centre and a dispensary in Ayvalık to offer humanitarian aid in the form of food, clothes, health checks, vaccinations and, if necessary, quarantine.[12]

The Aegean Sea as Europe’s – and not just Greece’s – geographical endpoint is therefore rooted in at least a century of history. So is (Western) humanitarian action materializing at this particular site to manage migration. After one hundred years, the subjects may have changed but the Aegean continues to be the geography of alterity management, migration control and humanitarianism. As one Greek inhabitant on Lesvos states with regard to the mass arrivals on the island in 2015: “What can we do? This village was built by refugees. So we help them. Nothing else.”[13] The Lausanne Treaty is essential to shedding light on these connected histories. Only by remembering that can we save EU studies from its chronic ahistoricism.

Image Credit: Unknown Photographer, “Tent village in the shadows of the Temple of Theseus, Athens, where Greek refugees make their [sic] homes” (1922). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Div., LC-USZ62-139254.


[1] Frank Schimmelfennig, ‘Rebordering Europe: external boundaries and integration in the European Union’, Journal of European Public Policy 28.3 (2021): 311-330.

[2] William Walters, ‘Mapping Schengenland: Denaturalizing the Border’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 20.5 (2002), 573.

[3] See for example Sandra Lavenex and Emek N. Uçarer, ‘The external dimension of Europeanization: The case of immigration policies’, Cooperation and Connflict 39.4 (2004), 417-443.

[4] Schimmelfennig, p. 447.

[5] Luiza Bialasiewicz and Enno Maessen, ‘Scaling rights: the “Turkey deal” and the divided geographies of European responsibility’, Patterns of Prejudice 52.2-3(2018), 212.

[6] Polly Pallister-Wilkins, ‘Hotspots and the geographies of humanitarianism’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 38.6 (2020): 991-1008; Martina Tazzioli, ‘Refugees’ Debit Cards, Subjectivities, and Data Circuits: Financial-Humanitarianism in the Greek Migration Laboratory’, International Political Sociology 13.4 (2019): 392–408.

[7] Bialasiewicz and Maessen, 212.

[8] Onur Yıldırım, Diplomacy and Displacement: Reconsidering the Turco-Greek Exchange of Populations, 1922-1934 (New York and London: Routledge, 2012).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Davide Rodogno, “Beyond Relief: A Sketch of the Near East Relief’s Humanitarian Operations,” Monde(s) 2: 6 (2014): 45-64.

[11] Aslı Igsız, Humanitarianism in Ruins: Entangled Legacies of the Greek-Turkish Population Exchange (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018), p. 17.

[12] Fitnat Fatma Sönmez, ‘Lozan Antlaması Sonrası Midilli Adası’nda Mübadele’ [Population Exchange on Lesvos after the Lausanne Treaty] (MA thesis, Istanbul University, 2019).

[13] Jeanne Carstensen, “Greece: The Ghosts of the Refugees Past” Foreign Policy, January 4 2016.

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