My current research project is on refugees and state-formation in the post-Ottoman Middle East—roughly 1918–1939. It grew out of my earlier project on minorities in French mandate Syria: I’d collected quite a bit of material on refugee communities, but realized that I wouldn’t use it in my PhD (and later book) because refugees in Syria weren’t considered ‘minorities’ but, precisely, refugees.
When I started the project, I didn’t expect that long before I’d finished it Syria would collapse into an appalling civil war, and become the crucible of a vast new refugee crisis: about 10% of the country’s entire population (roughly two million people, out of a bit over twenty million) has fled to neighbouring or nearby states, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and a much larger number of people have been displaced within Syria. Click on the map here for the latest figures from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Immense—and depressing—though these numbers are, the displacement crises that afflicted the late Ottoman and interwar Middle East were comparable both in absolute terms and in proportion to population size: the flight of Muslims from the Caucasus as the Russian empire expanded in the 1860s; the expulsion of Muslims from breakaway states in the Balkans from the 1870s on; internecine expulsions and exchanges between those breakaway Christian states in the early 20th century; genocidal deportations of Ottoman Armenians (often perpetrated by people who themselves had been, or were descendants of, recent refugees) and other Christians during the first world war; the great Greek-Turkish population exchange of 1923–4; and the smaller exoduses and expulsions that persisted through the twentieth century—from Assyrian Christians fleeing Iraq in the 1930s to late communist Bulgaria kicking out Muslims in the 1980s, with plenty of other examples: the Palestinian refugees are only the best-known of many. The states of the modern Middle East, like the states of modern Europe, were largely formed out of processes of population displacement.
All this means that my historical research has led me to get more involved than I might once have expected with contemporary humanitarian issues—partly through an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded research network that some colleagues are coordinating, and partly through collaboration with the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute in London. Both sets of initiatives are premised on the idea that historical research can offer useful perspectives to humanitarian planning and interventions in the present.
But after a summer where I was more focused on the contemporary issues, I’m now returning to my research, with a paper to write for a seminar at the School of Oriental and African Studies next month. It’s about a small but significant instance of population displacement within this much larger history I’ve been sketching out: the exodus of at least fifty thousand Armenians from Cilicia in what is now southern Turkey at the end of a two-year period of French occupation following the first world war, and what I’m calling the ‘grudging rescue’ of perhaps twenty thousand of them, by sea and rail, in the final two weeks of 1921. I’ll post something about that tomorrow.