To understand the family narratives of the displaced in Turkey, Emre Erol explains, you have to pick your words carefully.

Emre is a member of Sabanci University’s History Department.

For a considerable number of people in contemporary Greece and Turkey Lausanne is primarily known for the Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations, signed several months before the Lausanne Treaty itself. Although the agreement is clear about who the forcefully displaced would be, there seems to have been a genuine confusion among many of the displaced peoples, which persists among their descendants in contemporary Turkey.

To make sense of the confusion one needs to understand two words used in contemporary Turkish to refer to the displaced peoples: muhacir and mübadil. Etymologically speaking, both are very old loan words from Arabic, still widely used in modern Turkish. Muhacir, meaning refugee, is also imbued with references to the history of Islam. The word is sometimes used in a symbolic sense to address Muslim refugees of the territories once ruled by Muslims who are now seeking refuge in lands ruled by Muslims.

Mübadil like bedel, which is derived from the same root, emphasizes “cost” and in this context mübadil consequently means “matched exchange.” In today’s Turkey, muhacir is often used to describe all the Muslim refugees that had to migrate to the remaining territories of the Ottoman Empire, once borders started to shrink during the twilight of the imperial order. Mübadil on the other hand addresses a very particular subset of muhacirs, or Muslim refugees: those who are displaced within the confines of an international treaty. The Treaty of Lausanne is one such example.

When people refer to their family histories in Turkey, therefore, they describe themselves as descendants of muhacirs if for instance their ancestors were displaced from Crimea and moved to what is now İzmit after the Crimean War of 1853-1856. If the family’s ancestors were forcibly migrated to Turkey, let’s say to Edirne, after the Greek-Turkish War of 1919-1922 and under the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne, they refer to themselves as mübadil. Whereas the latter almost always involved replacing displaced non-Muslims, this is not necessarily the case for the muhacirs

The confusion emanates precisely from this rather widespread misconception about who among the displaced Muslims were included in the Treaty of Lausanne. In other words, the confusion is about the boundaries of the word mübadil.

The first article of the Convention describes the target peoples in Greece as “Greek nationals of the Moslem religion established in Greek territory.” Then it describes exceptions and excludes “the Moslem inhabitants of Western Thrace” in the second article. Finally, it sets specific time limits for each affected population group, including the exceptional cases. The third article of the treaty clearly sets out the general temporal framework:

Those Greeks and Moslems who have already, and since the 18th October, 1912, left the territories the Greek and Turkish inhabitants of which are to be respectively exchanged, shall be considered as included in the exchange.

The expression “emigrant” in the present Convention includes all physical and juridical persons who have been obliged to emigrate or have emigrated since the 18th October, 1912.

Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations Signed at Lausanne, January 30, 1923.

The temporal framework of the convention begins with the First Balkan War, and it does not recognize any subsequent intervals of peace or other exceptions down to the ratification of the Treaty of Lausanne. In other words, all the populations, on both sides of the Aegean, who had been displaced (sometime of them repeatedly) until the end of the Greek-Turkish War are included.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims who were displaced from their homes during and after the Balkan Wars, and around 160,000 Ottoman Greek citizens who were forcefully displaced from their homes in June 1914 found themselves captured by the Convention’s definition of “emigrants”. Their forced displacement met with international recognition, nay praise, helping to its architect Fridtjof Nansen a Nobel Peace Prize.

In other words, the convention’s definition of “emigrants” is much more extensive than that of the general public. Many only consider the displaced Muslims of the Greek-Turkish War to be mübadil. This still causes many to misinterpret the history of their grandparents and reproduce personal narratives that are sometimes disconnected from historical facts.

Eski Foça is one such place, located northwest of İzmir on the shores of Western Anatolia where one encounters genuine confusion among people’s narratives about their family histories and the meaning of the words muhcir and mübadil. Eski Foça used to have a very sizable population of Ottoman Greeks who were displaced and subjected to violence multiple times between 1914-1922. They were to be replaced by Muslim refugees, who were again displaced and subjected to violence multiple times during the same period.


Many contemporary residents of Eski Foça, whose families were forcibly migrated after the Balkan Wars, define themselves as mübadils but then consequently assume that their grandparents were displaced after 1923. What the records show is that they were displaced almost a decade before that. Or, in other cases, ancestors were displaced after the convention of 1923, but their descendants describe themselves as muhacirs since the family has an earlier history of displacement.

The confusion that still exists a century after the ratification of the Treaty of Lausanne is perhaps a testament to the prevailing nationalist narrative in Turkey, one that is rather amnesic when it comes to the period immediately before the declaration of an independent republic. What is undoubtedly clear is the fact that this displacement and its repercussions still play a very significant role in the way people define themselves and tell their personal histories a hundred years later.

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