Video by Talya Nevins

By Talya Nevins

ATHENS — Greece is one of the most homogenous countries in the world.

Numbers tell the story:  A 2011 national census  found  that 93 percent of the citizens of the Hellenic Republic described themselves as ethnically Greek. A full 98 percent of the population identified its religion as Greek Orthodox. And 99 percent of citizens listed their primary language as Greek, according to the most recent government data available.

For as long as most Greeks can remember, this uniformity has been central to the country’s identity. But since 2011, the resident population of Greece has been changing rapidly, and today those changes are beginning to look permanent.


On June 29, Greek historianKostis Karpozilos presented a historical tour of the Benaki Museum’s modern Greece exhibition. Karpozilos, youthful despite his three degrees and slightly graying beard, organized the lecture around the question “Who is a Greek?”

According to Karpozilos, Greek identity evolved in tandem with the struggle for Greek independence—religious, intellectual, and national—from Ottoman rule. Because the Ottoman Empire organized its population by religious community, the Greek Orthodox population successfully organized a revolution and emerged victorious in 1821. However, as Karpozilos explained, “After victory, now what? Democracy, but what kind?” Thus, the process of Greek identity formation was born out of the war, and in victory the challenge to define Greekness became urgent.

Indicating a surprisingly petite copy of the first Greek Constitution encased in glass, Karpozilos explained that the document from 1844 essentially defined a Greek citizen as “someone who is Greek Orthodox, speaks Greek, and lives in Greece” (which was then geographically restricted to the Peloponnese and Athens). The following century was characterized by ethnic cleansing of non-Greeks, attempts to conquer more land in the Balkan wars, and the formation of a homogenous Greek nation first through integration of minorities, then “by expelling, suppressing, and killing the others,” Karpozilos continued.

After the Greek army’s “Catastrophe” at Smyrna, which ended Greek dreams of territorial expansion, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne ordered a compulsory population transfer between Turkey and Greece in an attempt to end conflict between the two countries. More than 1 million Greek Orthodox were brought from Turkey to Greece and 600,000 Muslims were moved from Greece to Turkey in exchange.

This swap ensured that Greece’s population was almost entirely Greek Orthodox, but these 1 million people were not yet Greek. They were uprooted by war and politics and transplanted in Greece to build new lives. The route they took from Smyrna—now Izmir in modern Turkey— to the Aegean islands is the same route that refugees now perilously traverse in mass numbers.

An estimated 1.04 million refugees and migrants arrived in Greece in the last 18 months, according to the CIA World Factbook. Most of these people attempted to continue on to Northern Europe. However, approximately 60,000 refugees and asylum-seekers remain in Greece, stuck in limbo between dangerous home countries on one side and the closed borders of European countries on the other.

But for how long can these refugees’ lives in Greece continue to be considered limbo? Many of these people—mostly Afghans and Iraqis, whom the European Union considers less of a priority than Syrian refugees— have been here for years, with no indication that they’ll leave any time soon. Isobox modular homes in Schisto refugee camp have gardens with 9-foot high sunflowers. Children enroll in school and learn Greek, not German.

In a June 26 lecture on modern Greece, University of Athens Professor Dimitri A. Sotiropoulos carefully maintained a distinction between the demographic statistics used to describe the official Greek population and the status of the 60,000 refugees and migrants living in camps, squats, UN-provided apartments and makeshift accommodations. In discussing unemployment rates and poverty figures, he only mentioned Greeks who are incorporated into civil society.

When asked when Greece and the refugees themselves will accept that these 60,000 are here to stay and adjust policies and data accordingly, Sotiropoulos replied, “As long as they are kept and remain on these four islands,” referring to the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios, and Leros where the majority of refugees are kept, “nobody will notice, apart of course from the local residents of these islands… They can throw resources at these four islands and Greek society will not have to pay attention. But this is not a solution.”

In addition to finding a more sustainable solution to the refugees’ economic and humanitarian needs, the challenge that awaits Greece in the coming months and years will be how to adjust the idea of Greekness so that the 60,000 people who are here to stay may have a shot at successful integration. After this modern-day population transfer, how will the definition of Greekness change?