Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Useful Refugees in Ottoman and Turkish Politics


Ella Fratantuono
Associate Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Charlotte


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Ella Fratantuono. Ella is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research focuses on migration, settlement, governmentality, and state-building in the Ottoman Empire. Her first book, Governing Mass Migration in the Late Ottoman Empire, will be published by Edinburgh University Press. This is the third post of Border Criminologies’ themed series on 'Postcoloniality and Forced Migration' organised by Eva Magdalena Stambøl, Sharla M. Fett, Nina Sahraoui, Martin Lemberg-Pedersen and Lucy Mayblin.

This post is based on my chapter in the volume Postcoloniality and Forced Migration, in which I explore themes of expulsion and colonization within migration policies in the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire and present-day Turkey. In the chapter, I argue that historicizing the present can reveal patterns of exclusion, assimilation, and expulsion across regimes and through time. Refugees were useful to Ottoman administrators; though officials’ understanding refugee utility changed over time and in response to internal and external factors.       

Migration in the Ottoman Empire    

In 1857, the Ottoman Empire issued a set of Migration Regulations, inviting anyone with a small amount of capital to move to the empire and receive free land. The invitation was analogous to other pro-immigration laws of the era issued by states such as Argentina, Mexico, Canada, Australia, and the United States (see, among others, work by Moya, Hernandez, Banner). Such policies were intended to breathe new life, in the form of agricultural settlement, into “empty” land, to settle frontiers, and to displace and dispossess Indigenous peoples. Though the Ottoman regulations attracted the attention of potential settlers from Europe and the United States, the empire soon faced a more urgent immigration issue. As the Russian Empire consolidated its control over the north-east Black Sea littoral in the late 1850s and early 1860s, several hundred thousand Crimean and Nogai Tatars and more than a million Circassians from the Caucasus fled to Ottoman territory. Their arrival initiated a 70-year period of mass migration into, out of, and within the empire, culminating in mass expulsion and genocide during WWI.

a map of state-planned migrant village near present-day Bursa
State-planned migrant village near present-day Bursa, Turkey, 1897. Courtesy Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi, State Archives of Turkey (Y.MTV 205.91).

From the mid-1850s to the eve of WWI, some five million individuals arrived in the empire. Some were former subjects of the Russian Empire; others were Ottoman subjects expelled from newly independent and autonomous states. Though most of the migrants were Muslim, they were diverse in terms of languages, sect, cultural ties to the empire, and socio-economic status. Many, though not all, of the immigrants experienced violence and coercion as they moved across and within imperial spaces. Many moved multiple times; those who had arrived in the Balkans in the 1860s were displaced once again following the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-1878. Mass migrations created crises. Those who fled Russian colonization and conditions of war faced dangerous journeys. Upon arrival in Ottoman ports, insufficient shelter, limited supplies, and epidemic disease led to high rates of mortality. Hardship continued as refugees were moved inland for settlement only to remain stuck in temporary housing. Those who received land sometimes found it unsuitable for farming, claimed by local residents, or home to malarial mosquitos (see work by Chris Gratien).

Refugees were useful in carrying out Ottoman state-building. For Ottoman officials, crises of mass migration were also moments of opportunity. By and large the newcomers were not the self-sufficient colonists envisioned in the Migration Regulations. Nevertheless, officials believed that if they could manage settlement successfully, the immigrants could fulfill the regulation’s rationale: increasing the empire’s population, agricultural productivity and the tax revenue.

How officials envisioned refugee utility changed over time. In the 1860s, refugees could be economic colonizers like those envisioned in the regulations. Their settlement on “empty land” could potentially disrupt the autonomy of nomadic pastoralists and encourage tribal settlement in Eastern Anatolia (see the work of Reşat Kasaba). In subsequent decades, as other imperial powers and nationalist separatist movements threatened Ottoman sovereignty and territorial integrity, officials drew new lines of belonging and exclusion within the empire’s religiously, linguistically, and ethnically diverse populations. Migrant settlement became a colonization scheme premised not only on placing a productive population but also on displacing other Ottoman subjects.

From the late 1870s onwards, Muslim migrant settlement offered a route to undermine the claims of non-Muslim minorities in Eastern Anatolia and elsewhere. After the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), some Ottoman leaders prioritized establishing a Turkish national economy, narrowing their vision of who could be assimilated to the Ottoman state. During the Armenian Genocide, the ruling Committee of Union and Progress placed Muslim refugees on appropriated Armenian property in order to create a Turkish bourgeoisie and prevent Armenian return (see work by Uğur Üngör and Mehmet Polatel). The useful refugee contributed to expulsion and displacement within Ottoman imperial space.

Syrian Refugees in present-day Turkish politics

Themes of expulsion, colonization, and the useful refugee are present in Turkey’s response to refugees of the Syrian Civil War. Turkey hosts the world’s largest population of refugees, including nearly 3.7 million registered Syrians. Following a striking humanitarian effort to provide refuge to those fleeing the war, the Justice and Development Party [AKP] leveraged the refugees in its negotiations with Europe. In 2016, Turkey promised to take back undocumented migrants in exchange for €6 billion, the revival of EU accession talks, and visa free travel in the EU for Turkish citizens. The AKP has exploited the refugees to gain NATO acceptance of Turkish military operations in Syria, and during its military operations in 2019, the AKP proposed repatriating over two to three million refugees to a Turkish-occupied ‘safe zone’ in northeastern Syria in a bid to undermine Kurdish autonomy.

Refugee Camp in Kilis
Refugee Camp in Kilis, Turkey, 2012. Source: AFAD, Wikimedia Commons

The concentration of the refugee population in areas with historically higher Kurdish and Alevi populations contributes to concerns about how the AKP might wield the refugees domestically. There are concerns that the “useful refugee” could once more function in drawing lines of exclusion: some Alevi and Kurdish organizations suspect that the AKP is engaging in demographic engineering via refugee settlement.     

Beginning in 2014, opposition groups questioned whether providing Syrians ID cards would give refugees access to the vote and voiced concern that refugees’ gratitude toward the government would make them loyal supporters of the AKP (see work by Fulya Memisoğlu and Aslı Ilgıt). Recent talk of “voluntary repatriation” for one million Syrians on the part of the AKP comes at a moment of rising anti-refugee sentiment and discrimination within Turkey. Amidst economic crisis, refugees have become an essential issue in Turkey’s upcoming 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections. According to a recent poll, more than half of Turkish citizens believe that “their region has a refugee problem.” 

That states use forced migrants is not a new insight, yet it is worth reflecting on patterns of forced migration and colonization historically and in the present. What factors contribute to the use of refugees as colonists and settlers? How do those factors influence refugees’ experiences and public opinion long-term? What do states’ responses to refugees reveal about changing possibilities for inclusion, exclusion, and social expulsion for their populations at large? Historical sociological analysis can explore answers to these questions by considering a history of empire, state-building, and refugee settlement that long predates Turkey’s present-day policies.

Any comments about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

E. Fratantuono. (2023) Useful Refugees in Ottoman and Turkish Politics. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/05/useful-refugees-ottoman-and-turkish-politics. Accessed on: 04/12/2023

With the support of