Overlapping Waves of Migration in the Aegean
Contextualizing Hundred Years of Disconcerted Displacement with an Interdisciplinary, Comparative, and Ethnographic Approach

Associate Professor Ilay Romain Ors was born and raised in Istanbul, where she completed her undergraduate education at Bogazici University in Political Science and Sociology. After a year at the University College London doing an M.Sc. in Social Anthropology, she pursued her Ph.D. degree at Harvard University in Anthropology. Her dissertation fieldwork on the Greek Orthodox community of Istanbul was later revised and published under the title Diaspora of the City: stories of cosmopolitanism from Istanbul and Athens by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018. She is currently working on a project on migration where she investigates the overlapping migratory waves in the Aegean over the course of the last century until today. In addition to the eminent ‘refugee crisis’ at present, she will be taking into account other major episodes of displacement, such as the Forced Exchange of Population between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s. Ors is interested in showing that migration is not a singular linear narrative with a beginning and an end, but involves circular, broken, and overlapping waves that are diverse and disconcerted, which need to be comparatively studied and spatiotemporally contextualized. She is focusing her ethnographic research on various locations in Greece, including Athens and the islands of Lesvos and Leros.


An ancient seaway of migration, the Aegean has long been scene to a variety of migratory experiences. The situation with Syrian refugees adds yet another dramatic episode to the backdrop of migratory waves in the region, not least the one imposed by the Treaty of Lausanne almost a century ago. Today, Aegean shores make breaking news with theatrically contrasting images of beach tourists and asylum-seekers. The juxtaposition of such criss-crossing trajectories in the same small corner of the world invites critical inquiry.

Migration is rightly recognized as an extraordinary matter of human concern, but the coding of single cases as ‘crisis’ causes us to lose sight of its persistent aspects, disregard its various perceptions in societies accustomed to living with mobility throughout their history, and disable any social preparedness that may render the impact of migration to be less than disastrous. The present project is unique for recognizing the overlapping courses of displacement and offering an interdisciplinary perspective for their spatiotemporal conceptualization to reach comparative analyses of migration in the Aegean and beyond.

My argument is that migration is best understood without reverting to conflation but through due contextualization, and that it is effectively addressed not through crisis-management, but through cultural accommodation––of how societies have at different times dealt with different migratory processes, and how these may help construct the basis for more apt strategies of policy-making in response to migration.

Fieldwork will be based on two critical sites selected as nodes of mobility for addressing the complex diversity of disconcerted displacement in Turkey and Greece. The research combines an interdisciplinary theoretical perspective with a qualitative mixed-methods approach and an ethnographically grounded analysis, which will form the first step in the longer term objective of a longitidunal study of the dynamic meta-network of global migration.

The Research Idea

The current project recognizes that while the Aegean as an ancient seaway has long housed migratory experiences, it has not been effectively addressed as a unique site for comparative and historical analysis of international displacement. The variety of migratory waves even in the last hundred years allows this small corner of the world to offer an important opportunity for the conceptualization and contextualization of global migration. Syrian refugees of the last five years share temporary housing in hotspot towns with Asian and African asylum-seekers, rescued by islanders who have spent decades in Germany as economic migrants, whose grandparents have crossed the Aegean on different boats when forced to leave Asia Minor after the Greco-Turkish war, and are now neighbours with two purged Turkish professors from the country of their own expulsion. The fact that such diverse and disconcerted waves of displacement are so concentrated in time and space makes fieldwork in the Aegean open a great window into viewing international migratory processes worldwide.

This project is innovative: rather than concentrating on a singular case of migration and deducting its wider implications, it reverses the order and takes a historicized focus on selected sets of spatial contexts that have undergone subsequent and overlapping waves of migration. The research combines an interdisciplinary theoretical perspective with an ethnographically grounded mixed-methods approach. Fieldwork in two corresponding sites in Turkey and Greece, Lesvos and Cunda, will be addressing the intergenerational living memory of multiple migratory experiences and thus reveal the complex diversity of disconcerted displacement.


In our increasingly interconnected world, international migration is a reality that touches all corners of the globe. It is important to put recent developments in specific regions into global and historical contexts, and consider the geographic, demographic and geopolitical variations in the analysis on migration.

This project recognizes that there is a lack of spatiotemporal contextualization in migration studies (Gabaccia 2015, Hardwick 2015). Displacements are ‘embedded’ in place-specific contexts that depend on local culture and history where particular global flows converge, which in turn inform the policies of integration, citizenship regimes, and cultural contexts of migration (Lewitt&Jaworsky 2007).

In the Aegean, the overlapping of different migratory waves in the same space is highly striking, yet largely escapes the attention of analyists. The study is focused on the multiple trajectories of migration between Cunda in Turkey and Lesvos in Greece, both located in close proximity across the Aegean border, involving diverse waves of displacement between the Forced Exchange with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 and the European refugee crisis of the last few years. This project aims at the dynamic conceptualization and due contextualization of the complex diversity of disconcerted displacement in the Aegean, by seeking ethnographically particularized answers to questions, including: How significant is the time and place of migration to how it is perceived? How does a local history of displacement have an effect on contemporary reactions to migration? When is social mobility called migration, when is it cultural exchange, when does it become ‘crisis,’ and for whom?

The Focus

Similar to the recurrent natural disasters like earthquakes or forest fires, repeated forms of human tragedy, such as forced migration, are usually met with shock and sorrow in the Aegean. Despite the tendency of mass media to portray them as singular crises, the living memory of similar experiences renders the cultural responses in certain localities to be more mature than those of national states and international organizations. It is about time that their position of crisis-management from far away is replaced by the notion of contextualized cultural accommodation by the locals in order to render better social preparedness.

The present research project operates in the field of border studies, among others, but expands beyond its present confines in important ways. Existing scholarship on borders is either focused on resident societies or on governmental regimes of border-making (Andersson 2014, Genova ed. 2017, Green 2013). By taking into account the border experiences of a variety of migrant groups, including refugees, expats, and tourists in the Aegean, and juxtaposing them on the spatiotemporal contexts within which they take place, this project shifts the attention from the fixed (border and the people around it) to the dynamic (network of relations between them) units of analysis. Directed at the understudied intersection between policy, society, and mobility, it is an interdisciplinary and comparative study of how waves of migration in changing historical contexts are addressed differently by a network of agents such as states, citizens, migrants, and the international community and, most importantly, why.

Theoretical Novelty

Based on the distinct theoretical premise that displacement processes need to be seen as being interconnected and networked, yet remain diverse and disconcerted, the present project offers a close examination of the migratory experiences of a variety of migrant groups in the Aegean, and the social and spatiotemporal contexts within which they take place.

Diversity concerns the categories, channels, conditions, definitions, and experiences of migration. Migration can involve mobility as a result of choice or of being forced, may arise out of emergency or planning, and may involve internally displaced persons, refugees, asylum seekers, guest workers, return migrants, skilled economic migrants, smuggled persons, environmental refugees, expatriates, students, scholars or travelers. Such terminological classification invites discrimination and stigmatization (Crawley&Skleparis 2018, Zetter 2007), yet remains largely undefined and unchallenged. Diversity also refers to waves of migration that occured after historical turning points, such as wars, crises, regime changes or natural disasters. This inherent multi-layered juxtaposition of ‘superdiversity’ (Vertovec 2006) in migratory phenomena inevitably leads to the fact that displacement is also disconcerted, that is, unregulated, unnoticed, unevenly evolved across time and space, and unsurprisingly, largely unstudied.

The novel theoretical argument is that migration is best understood without reverting to conflation but through historical and social contextualization, and that it is best addressed not through crisis-management, but through cultural accommodation. This project expands on the existing yet limited literature on crossing the Aegean (Hirschon 2003), through a more dynamic conceptualization of the complex diversity of disconcerted displacement in the Aegean and beyond.


The project will entail interdisciplinary, multi-sited, and multi-methodological research in two selected dual fields of displacement. It will involve mixed methods from multiple disciplinary frameworks, using both original techniques such as ‘the symmetrical approach,’ as well as more time-honored tools of historical and ethnographic research, including participant observation, oral history, and archival work.

The selected sites are not regarded to be spatially fixed but are rather taken as dynamic networks or nodes of mobility at the intersection of the local, the national, and the global. The ‘symmetrical approach’ will allow the research to take place on multiple locations through following persons, objects, and ideas through various fluid fields, often by crossing to the other side with informants, engaging with civil society organisations or observing interactions at the border. Migrants and locals will be given the chance to draw maps or sketch places, both of present settings and the locations they left behind, thereby creating valuable data to be used for the comparative visualization of multi-sited fieldwork. Empirical material will be gathered in the form of population data, memoirs, family albums, network charts, documentaries, taped interviews, fieldnotes, excerpts taken from social and mass media, and dedicated internet sites related to displacement.

Overall, the primary research method of the study will be ethnographic fieldwork, which, when combined with these other field techniques enables an eclectic methodological choice that helps establish an engaged, contextually rich, and nuanced type of qualitative social research towards documenting the complex diversity of migratory experiences in the Aegean.

Work Plan

The work plan is divided between three main pillars: fieldwork period, analysis period, and output period. Fieldwork would encompass two thirds of the research, around eight months in total, which will be distributed between the two selected sites. Analysis will follow each period of the fieldwork for about one month each, spent for organizing fieldnotes, transcribing and translating the interviews. The last two months of the year will involve writing up what has been written down by way of producing the outputs, which will have the following four forms: a public lecture, an exhibit, an internet based platform, and a scholarly article.

The public lecture will take place at the Observatory of the Refugee and Migration Crisis in the Aegean, which is overseen by the University of the Aegean’s Department of History and Anthropology, where the researcher has an affiliation. A dedicated website will be formed for broadcasting notes, images, and blogs/vlogs from the field, while social media, e.g. a Facebook page, will also be utilized for the purpose of reaching out to the research community. The article will seek publication in one of the SSCI or AHCI indexed peer-reviewed thematic or regional journals.

One major output will be in the form of an interactive multi-media exhibit, where the findings of the research will be shared with locals and informants in accessible formats. These outputs should contribute to the analytical interdisciplinary literature on displacement, migration or refugee crises in this border region, as in many others around the world.


This research project of contextualizing migration through the symmetrical comparative method of dual fieldsites is envisaged to be part of a larger project with additional sets in the Aegean (Leros/Bodrum, Chios/Cesme etc.), in the Mediterranean (Athens/Istanbul, Tripoli/Malta, Tunis/Sicily, Syria/Turkey, Lebanon/Cyprus, Palestine/Jordan etc.), and further in the larger network of various sea-, and land-routes of global migration.

With the aim of building an analytical comparative framework for the interdisciplinary study of displacement, this project is the first part in the systemic approach to historicizing and contextualizing disconcerted and diverse migratory experiences worldwide. The next step is envisaged to be an international conference with the involvement of scholars from different geographical and cultural fields, followed by publications in the form of edited volumes and special journal issues, all of which shall demonstrate the overlapping trajectories of displacement and offer an interdisciplinary approach to conceptualize them to reach a comparative analysis of migration, past and present.

An additional achievement will be recognizing the locally generated ‘emic’ ways of dealing with migratory waves, which would both supplement and challenge the more abstract, ‘etic,’ and often inadequate top-down approaches of national and international institutions. Altogether, these projects would synergically combine to address the need of replacing the notion of ‘crisis-management’ with that of ‘cultural accommodation of migration’––of how different societies have at different times dealt with different waves of migration, and how these––when juxtaposed, contextualized, and comparatively analyzed, may help construct the basis for more effective strategies in response to global migration.