World Refugee Day 2022 – Flight across the Aegean… History repeating itself


Some 100 million people are currently forcibly displaced worldwide. This year's World Refugee Day therefore, once again, marks a sad record: never before have there been so many refugees as this year, according to UNHCR figures. The brutal war of aggression against Ukraine has played a part in that.

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Migrant / refugee lifeboat at Therma beach
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Since the start of Russia's war against Ukraine, the question of unequal treatment of refugees depending on their country of origin has arisen.

Before Russia's war against Ukraine, there was a lull in discussion of the “refugee topic”. Few refugees were reaching the EU at all and it seemed that the EU Member States had found a way of dealing with the status quo. First, any reform of the Common European Asylum System – which had been discussed for years – was blocked. Second, “EU external border protection” – including by means of all the familiar violations of the law and abuses at the external borders – together with outsourcing of refugee protection to countries like Turkey had meant that hardly anyone reached Europe in search of protection anymore.

After 24 February 2022, more people fled to the European Union in a matter of days than in 2015 and 2016 combined. As a result, the issue of forced displacement was once again high on the agenda at meetings in Brussels and all the EU capitals. So far, the 7 million refugees from Ukraine have been met with solidarity, but it remains to be seen how long that will last. However, the question of unequal treatment of refugees depending on their country of origin has already arisen.

In Greece, this difference is particularly striking. It not only manifests itself in the rhetoric of official government representatives, such as Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis – who calls Ukrainians “real refugees”, contrasting them with otherwise “illegal migrants” – but also in the fact that the just over 21,000 Ukrainians that Greece is hosting have access to the labour market and health care, as well as housing and financial support, whereas such rights are denied to all other refugees by the state. In a joint paper of the Greek Council for Refugees with the organisations Oxfam and Save the Children, the inferior treatment of other refugees is criticised. That concerns not only access to key services, but also access to protection in general, which is systematically denied to all those arriving in Greece.

The recently published report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, Felipe González Morales, states, amongst other things, that pushbacks in Greece have become de facto “general policy”, i.e. a quasi-standard procedure, at both land and sea borders. Furthermore, Morales expressed concern about the increase in the number of people affected by this policy, noting that at least 17,000 people were reportedly returned by force to Turkey in 2020-21 alone. Pushbacks are the official strategy pursued by the Greek government in relation to these people, he said. Indeed, the government of the conservative Nea Dimokratia (New Democracy) party makes no secret of the number of people seeking protection it has “successfully” prevented from reaching Greece. At the same time, any accusations that the law is being violated at the country’s external borders are brushed aside. That is a patent contradiction, but one that so far has not had any blowback for the Greek government, resulting in it becoming the functioning modus operandi.

However, these are dire times for refugee protection not only on the Greek side of the Aegean Sea. Looking at Turkey, it is clear that the government there is also stirring up anti-refugee sentiment in the country. For years, Turkey has led the world in the number of refugees it has hosted relative to the size of the country. The country of nearly 85 million people is currently home to around five million refugees, including more than 3.6 million Syrians. Now, according to the latest statement by Turkish President Erdoğan, one million Syrians are to leave Turkey and a return programme to Syria is currently being arranged for them. In addition, the Minister of the Interior, Süleyman Soylu, has recently announced that Syrians are to be resettled within Turkey in order to prevent the supposedly excessively high density of refugees in individual districts. Whilst the Turkish government still relies on voluntary repatriation of Syrian refugees, Afghan nationals seeking protection are forcibly returned to Afghanistan, which has been shaken by the Taliban's takeover of power. According to the Turkish government, the number of people deported from Turkey has increased by 70% this year compared to the same period last year, with half of those affected coming from Afghanistan – despite the blatant deterioration of the human rights situation in the country.

With Turkey in the midst of a deep economic and monetary crisis, anti-refugee sentiment is increasingly spreading amongst the population and the government is now evidently trying to score points with voters by taking measures against refugees ahead of next year's elections. In this respect, notwithstanding all the conflicts between Turkey and Greece, the governments of the two countries are currently taking a very similar line. Anyone who opens a Greek or Turkish daily newspaper these days quickly notices that state rhetoric on both sides of the Aegean is increasingly marked by confrontation in the light of domestic and economic crises and upcoming elections – under such circumstances, refugees have become another bone of contention or means of demonstrating power and sovereignty.

Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon. The inhumane view of defenceless people seeking protection as a means of pressure and even as an instrument of hybrid warfare did not first arise – contrary to what is often claimed – in relation to the inhumane policy of the Belarusian dictator Lukashenko at the Polish border and the brutal response of the Polish government, but in spring 2020 at the Evros river on the border between Turkey and Greece. It is shameful how people caught between these two countries are being treated. Those fleeing across the Aegean in distress and despair are seen as a supposed threat, whereas it is they who face threats from all sides as they risk their lives in unseaworthy boats.

Such scenes are by no means new in the history of this region. Almost exactly a century ago, thousands of people fled across the Mediterranean Sea via the same routes. This year marks the centenary of the end of the Greco-Turkish War and 2023 is also the 100th year anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne. That was accompanied by the so-called “population exchange”, a euphemistic expression for the expulsion of around 1.5 million Greeks from Asia Minor and hundreds of thousands of Muslims from what is now Greece. Especially in the north of Greece, where many displaced persons arrived at that time, it is rare to come across somebody who cannot tell you about forced displacement and the associated traumas of their own family. An estimated forty percent of all people in Greece have their roots in Asia Minor.

However, the historical tensions and the fact that those newly arriving at that time were by no means welcomed with open arms are hardly ever addressed publicly in Greece. Yet the memory of that time is very much at the forefront of many people's minds, so much so that some identify themselves with refugees arriving in Greece today and therefore have a sense of solidarity with them. But why are those feelings not shared by all? Why are “the refugees” often perceived as “other”? After all, why is forced displacement not seen as a universal human fate that may befall different people over time for various reasons and to which – as Russia's war against Ukraine has recently demonstrated – no one can be fundamentally immune?

A recent event at the Goethe Institute in Thessaloniki featuring the historian Andreas Kossert, author of the book “Flucht. Eine Menschheitsgeschichte” (Flight: A history of mankind) explored precisely these questions. The discussion was moderated by historian and archaeologist Vasiliki Kartsiakli, founding member of “dot2dot”, which offers politically and historically themed educational tours of Thessaloniki, including tracing the footsteps of refugees in the city. It quickly became clear from the conversation that there are many points of connection, both personal and social, and that historical retrospection offers considerable potential for meeting the challenges of the present. Will we manage to grasp what refugees then and now have in common? Will we live up to the challenge for humanity of providing protection and a new home to those who are forced to flee? Indeed, the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention currently in force, to which we are party, has long required us to do so and World Refugee Day, aside from all the daily news, is an important occasion to remember that. Andreas Kossert gets to the heart of the matter: “The way we treat refugees is indicative of the kind of world we aspire to.”


This article was first published in German on