Refugee Regime in the Ottoman Middle East
January 14, 2021
Dr. Vladimir Hamed-Troyansky’s (Global Studies, UCSB) talk examined the making of the Ottoman refugee regime between the 1860s and World War I. The presentation challenged the conventional wisdom that refugee regimes are the products of the contemporary nation-state order, which go back to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention or, at the earliest, the interwar League of Nations. In contrast, Dr. Hamed-Troyansky argued that the Ottoman Empire constructed its own refugee regime, which functioned in many ways similar to the ones we have today.
In order to illustrate this argument, the presentation focused on the migration of Muslim refugees from the North Caucasus and Abkhazia to the Ottoman Empire in the 1860s. They were known as muhajirs, and their migration entered Russian and Soviet historiography as muhajirstvo . Namely, between the mid-1850s and the mid-1860s, over a million Crimean Tatars, Nogai Tatars, and Circassians left Russia for the Ottoman Empire. Over a hundred thousand Chechens, Abkhazians, and Kabardins arrived by the late 1860s. The significant influx of muhajirs from the North Caucasus engendered a prolonged refugee crisis in the Ottoman Empire. The refugee crisis was further exacerbated by successive arrivals of Muslims who had been displaced from the Balkans. To accommodate these newcomers, the Ottoman government established the Refugee Commission in 1860. Over the next fifty years, the commission resettled several million Muslim refugees. Yet the commission also became a tool of the state in changing demographics and displacing Ottoman Christians.
Dr. Hamed-Troyansky’s research points to a different genesis of the familiar modalities of the contemporary global refugee regime and invites us to consider how the arrival of the predominately Muslim refugees from the North Caucasus, Crimea, and the Balkans in the second half of the nineteenth century have shaped the history of the modern Middle East. In addition, Dr. Hamed-Troyansky’s study of muhajirstvo has important implications for the historiography of the nineteenth-century Caucasus. During most of the twentieth century, the state censorship had precluded Soviet historians from engaging the topic of muhajirstvo in any meaningful way. Things have changed in the early 1990s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the exodus of the Muslim refugees from the North Caucasus has been a prominent topic of passionate debate and rigorous investigation among Russian historians and the refugee diaspora. However, unlike the scholarship in the Russian academic circles, which primarily investigates the circumstances of the refugees’ forced departure from the region, Dr. Hamed-Troyansky’s work demonstrates what happened to the people of the North Caucasus when they reached the lands of the Ottoman Empire. In short, Dr. Hamed-Troyansky’s talk gives a tantalizing glimpse into his future monograph, which will undoubtedly make a significant and most welcome historiographical contribution to Ottoman and Middle Eastern studies, the emergent field of Caucasus Studies, and international refugee law.
By Sergey Salushchev (Ph.D. Candidate, History, UC Santa Barbara)