Challenging (Internal) Integration: Debating Internal Displacement and Integration in Greek-Cypriot Refugees’ Oral Histories

  • Published in:
    Central and Eastern European Migration Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2023, pp. 31-47
    DOI: 10.54667/ceemr.2023.09

    18 February 2022


    25 May 2023


    7 June 2023

    Views: 1791

The turn of the century has brought the issue of internal displacement to the forefront of the international agenda, recognising it as a matter of global concern. Scholarly research has also taken an interest, examining important aspects such as the integration of internally displaced persons into their resettlement areas. This paper examines the case of Greek-Cypriot ‘refugees’, a population which has experienced internal displacement for the past 50 years. Despite enjoying certain privileges granted by the Greek-Cypriot government and sharing a common language, religion and cultural practices with the non-displaced population, oral narratives collected and analysed in this study reveal a complex interaction with non-refugees during resettlement. These narratives highlight the challenges of internal displacement and emphasise that a shared ethnicity alone is insufficient to ensure social inclusion. In order to comprehend these complexities, the paper sought to engage with theories of refugee integration, with this engagement revealing the limitations of indicator-oriented conceptualisations in cases of internal displacement. The way in which these oral narratives contradict an observable indicator such as ethnicity is a point which we should take into serious consideration.


Keywords: internal displacement, Greek-Cypriot refugees, oral history, refugee integration, resettlement, objective indicators


The turn of the century brought the issue of internal displacement onto the international agenda and recognised it as a matter of worldwide concern. The dissolutions of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union served as prime examples of such mass forced migrations (Brubaker 1994; Cohen and Deng 1998; Djuric 2010; Mooney 2005). Over 20 years later, the European continent is witnessing a massive wave of internal mass displacement due to armed conflict in Ukraine. Scholarly research has rekindled its interest in issues like discrimination, marginalisation and the integration of the displaced in their resettlement areas (Pikulicka-Wilczewska and Uehling 2017; Uehling 2021; Sasse 2020). As the number of internal mass displacements due to armed conflict continues to rise and scholarly interest in these cases grows, examining past instances of internal mass displacement becomes more relevant than ever. This exploration sheds light on the experiences of these individuals and enhances our understanding of their predicament within scholarly research.

This paper engages with the case of Greek-Cypriot ‘refugees’, a population which has experienced internal displacement within its own country for the past 50 years. It is important to clarify at this point that, although commonly referred to as ‘refugees’, signifying individuals forced to leave their own country, these Greek-Cypriots have not trespassed international borders and, in strict legal terms, should be classified instead as internally displaced.1 As Zetter (1994) has identified, however, the term ‘refugees’ was used as a convenient and realistic designation of their social status and identity. These individuals have retained full citizenship rights in their country and share a cultural affinity with the local population in their resettlement areas. Additionally, they have benefited from various governmental social provisions (Zetter 1991, 1994, 2021). However, an important aspect of the experiences of Greek-Cypriot refugees, specifically their interactions with locals in the areas where they resettled after their expulsion, has largely been overlooked in scholarly research or has been given secondary importance compared to general analyses of their social condition. This paper explores this interaction between internally displaced and local populations in Cyprus and examines how it intersects with other aspects of internal mass displacement, such as shared ethnicity and citizenship status. In seeking to comprehend this relationship, the paper engages with Ager and Strang’s (2008, 2010) well-known theory on refugee integration. However, the paper argues that relying solely on indicator-oriented conceptualisations often falls short in capturing the multifaceted nature of resettlement efforts, as social inclusion encompasses a range of experiences that may not be readily captured by such indicators. In the concluding remarks, the paper advocates for a narrative-driven approach as the most effective methodology with which to understand the experiences of refugees/displaced populations, shedding light on their predicaments.

An important aspect of this paper – and the overarching argument of this special issue – is the methodology employed to examine the experiences of refugees/displaced persons. Three decades ago, Roger Zetter (1991) contended that understanding the plight of refugees necessitates listening to their own voices, allowing them to exert control over their circumstances and define their experiences, rather than relying solely on programme outputs or policy assumptions. However, Bakewell (2008) argues that research on mass displacement, one of the most significant humanitarian crises of our time, has primarily been driven by policy concerns and general examinations of the legal and social conditions faced by the displaced. This paper challenges these tendencies by placing emphasis on the actual voices of displaced persons, exploring the diverse ways in which Greek-Cypriot refugees narrate their interactions with locals and how these narratives reflect their perceptions of their position within Greek-Cypriot society (Bruner 2002; Hammack 2011). The fact that these narratives often contradict or present a different perspective compared to observable indicators underscores the need for careful examination of contemporary crises of internal mass displacement, such as those currently unfolding in Eastern Europe and Ukraine.

This paper adopts an empirical approach, focusing on oral narratives regarding the experience of internal mass displacement. It was through efforts to understand these narratives and their connection to other aspects of internal displacement that the theoretical context of refugee integration was explored. Consequently, the paper follows a different structure compared to a typical theoretical paper. The first section discusses the methodology employed and the use of oral history. The subsequent section delves into the case of Greek-Cypriot internal mass displacement, providing a review of pertinent scholarly works. In the penultimate section, three examples of narratives from three Greek-Cypriot refugees are presented and analysed, while the discussion engages with Ager and Strang’s model of refugee integration and the complexities involved in applying such theoretical frameworks to actual experiences of internal displacement. In conclusion, the paper highlights the significance of narrative-oriented research as a methodology that amplifies the voices of those directly involved in the experience of mass displacement.


Methodologically, this paper is based on oral-history interviews conducted between 2017 and 2018 with three female members of my extended family. These interviews were part of my doctoral research, which aimed to explore the memory of displacement and the significance of home within a Greek-Cypriot extended family. The only way to have insights into how family members remember the influence of displacement, however, was to study one. Due to the simultaneous presence of the personal experience and the socio-historical context that I intended to examine, I made the decision to focus my research on my entire maternal extended family. This encompassed a total of 28 individuals: 14 ‘historical eyewitnesses’ who had experienced the Turkish invasion, two individuals from the ‘1.5 generation’ (Suleiman 2002), and 12 individuals born after 1974 and classified as ‘second generation’. The paper concentrates on the three most poignant testimonies from the historical eyewitnesses, covering both the early and the later stages of reception and adjustment. Additionally, it includes excerpts from testimonies given by other historical eyewitnesses and second-generation individuals to support its argument.

Certain socio-economic characteristics of the family were relevant as they exemplified the historical process under investigation. Like numerous other Greek-Cypriot refugee families, my family was large and predominantly rural, relying on livestock and agriculture as their primary sources of income (Loizos 1981, 2008). The experience of displacement had a profound impact on the lives of family members and their diverse paths in life reflect the societal changes that have transpired in Greek-Cypriot society since 1974. The resettlement of five out of the eight nuclear families in Nicosia serves as evidence of the widespread urbanisation after 1974. In terms of occupation, family members found employment in various sectors of the expanding post-1974 economy, with some working in the private sector and others in the public one. Moreover, the political affiliations of individual families and members mirror the political landscape of the post-1974 Greek-Cypriot community. Some families lean towards ethno-centric political tendencies, while others lean towards the left – and there are also those who remain apolitical. Even within a nuclear family, political beliefs can vary.

As Holger Briel (2013) has documented, oral history is well-suited for capturing the diverse and sometimes contradictory memories and interpretations of events in Cyprus. Its emphasis on the subjectivity of memory is particularly crucial for the analysis presented in this paper, setting it apart from traditional historical writing. As famously stated by Alessandro Portelli (2006: 36), oral history ‘tells us less about events than about their meaning’, while Perks and Thomson (2006) emphasise that it provides insights into the meanings of historical experiences and the interplay between memory, personal identity and collective identity. Therefore, when refugees recount past experiences and express their identities in relation to non-refugees in specific ways, it is essential to comprehend these narratives as processes and practices of becoming.

The interviews themselves were designed to be semi-structured, aiming to capture the overall trajectory of individuals’ past and anticipated lives (Rosenthal 1993). They commenced with a brief introduction and a request for participants to discuss significant facts and experiences that were of personal importance to them. Subsequently, an open-ended question was posed to explore the meanings of displacement as perceived by the participants. The purpose of this initial question was to encourage a narrative encompassing the diverse interpretations of displacement – regardless of generation, age or gender. Following this, a combination of biographical and theme-specific questions was employed to guide participants in providing a chronological account of their lives based on predetermined themes such as extended family relations, post-1974 housing, employment opportunities or engagement with the refugee community.

During the process of data analysis, I sought to apply Hollway and Jefferson’s (2000) psychosocial perspective, which posits that individuals’ inner worlds are shaped by their experiences of the outer world and that understanding these inner worlds requires an understanding of how they enable individuals to engage with the outer world. Embracing the psychosocial approach entails rejecting the notion that a narrative provides an exact representation of the narrator’s experience and, instead, recognising it as only one aspect of a larger whole. This perspective has implications for both the role of the researcher and the impact on the knowledge generated. According to the psychosocial approach, the analysis of narratives should take into account the biographies and personal histories of the narrators. Thus, I had to acknowledge the multiple levels of biographical similarity between the narrators and myself, which often influenced the construction of meaning within the interview setting. This process carried the risk of ‘distortions and preconceptions of social reality’, particularly the danger of making assumptions based on prior knowledge and experiences (Kikumura 1986). This concern, commonly referred to as a ‘loss of objectivity’ in social research literature, was a recurring issue during the fieldwork (Breen 2007).

Moreover, these testimonies were shaped not only by the biographies of both myself and the narrators but also by our subjectivities. In the context of oral-history interviews, this is often evidenced by an increased awareness of how intersubjectivity influences the type of knowledge produced (Summerfield 1998). Due to the close family connections, I interacted with them on a daily basis outside the research environment, which continued even after the research was conducted. This relationship was a dialogic encounter in which our efforts to reconstruct the past enlisted both my and the narrators’ emotions and subjectivities (Roper 2004). Consequently, our reactions and feelings became integral to the analysis process, serving as a means to comprehend the content being conveyed and the underlying motivations behind it.

The methodological section concludes with a discussion of the ethical considerations that arose during the research study. It is worth noting that the study received ethical approval from the University of Essex Ethics Committee. Among the practical considerations recognised was the issue of access, as there was no need for me to negotiate any form of admittance to a social space to which I was already a member. However, upon review of the proposal, the ethics committee identified a potential issue with informed consent, as the personal relationship between the researcher and participants could be perceived as ‘coercing participation’. Furthermore, after the first interview, I observed that the informed aspect of consent was also compromised, as participants often signed consent forms without fully reading their content. To address these issues, I provided additional verbal information and affirmation of the voluntariness of participation before conducting the interviews.

Other important ethical issues that must be addressed include anonymity and confidentiality. First, the names presented here are pseudonyms, despite the original study using participants’ real names. This change was made in accordance with a point in the consent form which stated that any separate academic publication resulting from the study would not use the real names of the participants. In addition, due to the close relationship between the researcher and participants, the latter often disclosed personal information that they might otherwise have kept private. During the interviews, instances of deviant behaviour or other sensitive information about family dynamics were mentioned. I chose not to use any information that could put the participants at risk or jeopardise relationships, even though this meant sacrificing data that would have otherwise been valuable for the study. This was a conscious decision that recognised the need to prioritise the confidentiality of participants.

The Greek-Cypriot refugees

As a result of the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, approximately 180,000 Greek-Cypriots living in the north of the island fled to the south, while around 50,000 Turkish-Cypriots migrated in the opposite direction. Displaced Greek-Cypriots have retained full citizenship of the Republic of Cyprus and have been entitled to several support schemes, such as a large rehousing programme and extensive social provisions (Zetter 1991, 1994). While these government programmes have provided ongoing support to refugee families, they have also instigated a process by which those displaced were politically and economically excluded and privileged by turns; for example, while the large rehousing programme provided refugee families with affordable or even complimentary housing, it simultaneously segregated the refugee community in particular areas across Cyprus.

After 1974, the Green Line dividing the ‘south’ from the ‘north’ became a militarised de facto border that separated the two zones along ethnic lines. As noted by Vassiliadou (2002: 461), the people had to live with ‘political insecurity, fear of violence and potential war’ on a daily basis. Bryant and Papadakis (2012: 2–3) have described this social atmosphere as living ‘in the shadow of violence, where the anticipation of violence defines the boundaries of the community’. Simultaneously, Greek-Cypriot society constructed an ‘official’ narrative for the Turkish invasion, focusing on the representation of victimhood and evoking a wound that anticipates future healing (Bryant 2012; Roudometof and Christou 2016). Greek-Cypriot refugees were central to this meta-narrative and faced political pressure not to settle permanently in the south, as it would interfere with demands for return. The unity of all Greek-Cypriots in the face of perceived threats from Turkey was emphasised to foster national identification. As Loizos (2008: 57) asserted, ‘a great deal of what was written and said in Southern Cyprus for many years’ relied on ‘the story of the victimisation of the Greek-Cypriots’.

For 30 years, this was the reality for Cypriots. However, on 23 April 2003, the border between the ‘north’ and the ‘south’ opened, allowing members of the two communities to cross to the other side for the first time since 1974. According to Olga Demetriou (2007), this event brought about a transformation in political subjectivity and temporality in Cyprus, as it challenged the sovereignty of the political entity in the ‘south’ and forced Greek-Cypriots to reconsider their relation to their state. Moreover, the crossings to the ‘north’ for Greek-Cypriot refugees were accompanied by a tension between the remembered past and the present reality (Bryant 2010; Constantinou and Hatay 2010; Dikomitis 2012; Loizos 2008). Many encountered a different reality upon return, which diverged greatly from their memories. The opening of the border thus had a profound impact on the interpretations of Greek-Cypriot refugees regarding their relationship with the state, while simultaneously undermining the aspirations for return which many still held at the time.

Studies on Greek-Cypriot refugees have traditionally examined various aspects of their experience, such as housing, employment, health and welfare (Demetriou 2018; Kliot and Mansfield 1994; Loizos 1981, 2008; Zetter 1991, 1994). Recent anthropological research has also highlighted the practices of home-making in exile, where refugees establish new homes and social networks that reflect their pre-1974 lives (Dikomitis 2012; Jepson 2006; Taylor 2015). However, while the literature has predominantly focused on the loss of relationships due to displacement rather than the connections formed in exile, some studies have acknowledged the complex dynamics between refugees and non-refugees. Zetter (1991) was among the first to address this relationship in the context of the housing programme, noting that refugees felt stigmatised and believed that non-refugees resented them due to the provision of housing. In a subsequent article, Zetter (1994) linked refugees’ reluctance to engage in community development with issues of trust and the prevailing mercantile social relations in the ‘south’. Additionally, Loizos (1981) observed that refugees insisted on not being understood by non-refugees, identifying this as an aspect of their emerging refugee identity. As this brief literature review demonstrates, the interaction between Greek-Cypriot refugees and non-refugees has often been encompassed within broader analyses of the social condition of refugees and the formation of a refugee identity.

The case of Greek-Cypriot refugees exhibits several characteristics that may also be observed in other cases of internal mass displacement currently unfolding in Eastern Europe. These refugees benefited from several facilitators, such as a common language, religion and cultural practices with non-refugees, as well as the retention of full citizenship in the Republic and access to various support programmes. Despite their challenging circumstances, many refugees were able to achieve notable success in the post-1974 period. Therefore, establishing a connection between refugees’ personal narratives and the tangible aspects of their situation can be essential in comprehending their challenges and circumstances.

‘Narrating integration’: oral histories of refugee and non-refugee interactions

Before examining the three accounts, I provide a concise overview of the family’s period of flight. The family originated from a village situated relatively close to the capital, Nicosia. During the month of August 1974, my grandparents and their six unmarried children fled the village, taking shelter in four different villages over the next year. First, they were hosted for a day by a friend of my grandfather. They were then hosted in a neighbouring village for approximately 40 days by a family they had never met before. Afterward, they squatted in a house amidst the mountain peaks of Troodos for a duration of three months. The family then headed to the village where my eldest married uncle lived, staying in his home for some weeks before renting a house in the same neighbourhood. Eventually, they were granted land in the village through a government self-build scheme, enabling them to construct a new house.

Contradictory interactions and the use of labelling in the narrative

Penelope was in her mid-20s at the time of the invasion in 1974. She was engaged to be married, with her fiancé being drafted during the Turkish offensive. They were married in 1975 but, unfortunately, her husband passed away in 1980. By 1978, the couple had already relocated to Nicosia and Penelope has remained there ever since. Despite becoming a widow, she achieved notable success in her career. She owned and operated her own private kindergarten school in the centre of Nicosia, which she eventually sold upon retiring. The loss of her husband had a profound impact on Penelope, leading her to become a devout Christian Orthodox. This added to the already significant importance that Eastern Orthodox Christianity holds in modern Greek socio-cultural identity (Roudometof 2011). Orthodox Christianity has played a prominent role in the self-perception of Greek-Cypriot refugees, offering a framework that gave meaning to their specific losses and provided a sense of comfort (Loizos 2008).

Penelope’s account provides insights into a range of interactions with non-refugees, which encompassed diverse experiences and emotional investments. Her narrative highlighted two contrasting ends of the spectrum: instances where non-refugees embraced her family as their own and instances of discrimination. These accounts reflected a conflicted societal position, aligning with Zetter’s (1999: 3) assertion that many refugees perceive themselves to be ‘both insiders and outsiders, incorporated yet excluded’. In the first of these experiences, Penelope recounted the meeting between her family and the family who hosted them in the second village during their flight. Her narrative conveyed a sense of appreciation and gratitude, indicating a mutual commitment between refugees and non-refugees to support each other during the challenging times that followed the invasion.

We were in the car, and we stopped on a road and a woman comes and asks me: ‘Would you like to come to my house?’ We did not know what to say. It was a miracle. It was a miracle indeed! Miss XXX, this was her name, she tells me: ‘It’s been three, four days that cars filled with people are passing but my husband YYY was not allowing me to take them in. Now he has seen that you stopped here and he told me to come to ask you if you would like to come to our house?’ I have the shivers now that I am remembering it. Those people were truly our benefactors. We went, they loved us as if they were our relatives.

The excerpt portrays both the chaotic situation that unfolded after the invasion and an instance where non-refugees chose to offer the family shelter and support, embracing them during these challenging circumstances. Penelope’s narrative was filled with gratitude for the kindness shown by this family. She even interrupted her narration at one point to express her emotional investment in their kindness, emphasising that ‘she had the shivers just recalling them’. Penelope named these individuals and acknowledged them as benefactors. In order to fully express her gratitude, she employed religious language and referred to them as a ‘miracle’. In her eyes, the family took on a divine quality, bridging the gap between the natural and supernatural worlds through their actions (Papachristoforou 2014). However, the culmination of Penelope’s narrative was the reimagining of their relationship as a familial one, the ultimate expression of affinity in Greek culture (Just 1991). The interaction between refugees and non-refugees in this case was so positive that the latter could even be considered kin.

The second excerpt from Penelope’s account presents a contrasting view of the interaction between refugees and non-refugees. It depicts an incident of discrimination against Penelope’s mother while she was working part-time at a packaging factory in the village where they resettled during the late 1970s. The passage conveys a sense of resentment towards the way certain non-refugees treated refugees.

(…) she was going as one [worker]; and sometimes they complained about her these ‘gentlemen’ in village X and she would come home crying. She went to work in a packaging factory that packed carrots and that ‘gentleman’ from village X… he saddened her. He told her: ‘You should go to the orchards, do not come to the packaging factory’. And she cried, she came home crying. Everywhere the refugee is discriminated against, even in their own place.

The second excerpt from Penelope’s account sheds light on the discrimination experienced by her mother, who was denied employment at a packaging factory due to her farming background and refugee status. Penelope interpreted this act as exclusion from the emerging manufacturing industry and discrimination against her identity as a refugee and farmer. It reflected the marginalised position that refugees from a farming background, particularly older individuals, faced in the job market following the invasion, contributing to their disadvantaged position in society. In her concluding remarks, Penelope extended this discrimination as a shared experience among ‘refugees’, despite sharing a common ethnicity with non-refugees. It is worth noting that Penelope referred to those displaced as ‘people’ in the first excerpt but as ‘refugees’ in the second. This shift in terminology highlights a form of labelling, where Penelope goes beyond her personal experience and creates a broader stereotype that not only encompasses the experience of displacement but also politicises it (Zetter 1991). The use of labelling is further discussed below.

The ambivalence in Penelope’s narrative is linked to the extreme nature of the interactions she described with non-refugees. While there were instances where non-refugees showed compassion towards refugees, such as opening their homes or willingly paying higher taxes to support them (Loizos 1981), there were also situations where this interaction was strained or even discriminatory towards refugees. These contradictory interactions reflect conflicting societal positions: a sense of partial inclusion and simultaneous exclusion. Similar perplexing positions have been observed in other scholarly sources as well. For instance, Brubaker (2010) argues that, while refugees may be ‘insiders’ in certain aspects, they resist considering themselves as full members of society in other domains. This is exemplified by the specific language and terminology used by refugees to distinguish between different social groups, as seen in Penelope’s narrative. Similar patterns of narration were observed among other participants in the study, including those of the second generation. Ares, Penelope’s nephew, described how local children in the village in which he was born and grew up would often speak negatively about refugees, even when it came to making friends at school. In his interview, he ironically imitated the way local students would talk about refugees at school: ‘Ah look, there is the refugee… We shall not hang out with them; they are not one of our own. They are foreign, they came from a different village’.2 Interestingly, Ares used the label ‘refugee’ himself when discussing how this discrimination eventually subsided, stressing that this occurred due to demographic changes rather than a change in attitude among locals: ‘(…) because around my age and afterwards, there were many refugees born, we became more numerous in relation to locals… and we did not have these issues’.3 Like his aunt Penelope, Ares projected the label ‘refugee’ through the narration in a way that suggests that his identity has been conditioned and takes precedence over a common ethnicity.

Lynn Abrams (2016) argues that oral history not only provides factual information but also allows individuals to express their subjective experiences of the past through the lens of the present. It is within this context that we should interpret the significance of the labelling in the testimonies mentioned above. A label is not merely an identification of an existing object; it also shapes the identity and behaviour of the person to whom it is applied (Cole 2018). Penelope and Ares were not simply recounting their past experiences of displacement; they were actively defining themselves and others, drawing on their lived experiences over time. As Georgia Cole (2018: 17) explains, these labels ‘alongside describing individuals (…) and bestowing meaning, act as a repository, accumulating histories, ideas and connotations’.

The feeling of exploitation and the persistence of uncertainty

Demetra was in her early 20s and working for the police department during the invasion. In the late 1970s, she married a fellow refugee who held a high-ranking position at a banking institution, moving to Nicosia soon after. Despite both being refugees, they achieved significant success in their careers, acquiring multiple holiday properties in addition to their self-built family home. This economic success might suggest successful integration but there is more to the story. Demetra’s oral history, particularly her recollection of the early reception of refugees, was filled with accounts of exploitation, while her overall narrative concerning her interaction with non-refugees was marked by uncertainty about the extent of refugees’ social acceptance.

The first excerpt from Demetra’s account describes an experience in a village close to where they were hosted by a non-refugee family. When asked about the environment in the village in which they were hosted, Demetra said that it was such a small village that it lacked any shops. As a result, they had to walk to a different village to obtain any necessary supplies.

We were going to Kakopetria to buy something. We were going, I recall in a shop (…) we needed shoes. And we went to a shop to buy shoes. Since we did not have! And I recall, whatever old shoes that shop had, it put them out so we would buy them and at twice the price! They did not even think that we left and we did not have any money.

There was a notable moment in Demetra’s narration that stood out. Her phrase ‘since we did not have’ and the passionate manner in which it was expressed seemed to not only highlight the family’s lack of basic needs but also to assert the validity of her claims. It was as if she believed that the situation she was describing was so extraordinary that reiteration was required, anticipating potential doubts. It was precisely this extraordinary situation that made it difficult for her to comprehend why shop-owners would not acknowledge their unfortunate situation. Instead of offering assistance, they sought to exploit them. This disbelief towards the behaviour of shop-owners underscored the narrative and revealed a deep mistrust of non-refugees and social relations in the south. Moreover, it was a disbelief that aligned with Zetter’s (1994) observation that refugees often criticised the prevailing mercantile culture in the south, where ‘everything had to be bought’. Therefore, Demetra’s disbelief of the shop-owners’ conduct reflects broader concerns about community development and highlights the conflicting values between refugees and non-refugees.

The second excerpt from Demetra’s account provides details about the family’s stay with a refugee family. In contrast to Penelope’s narrative, Demetra’s depiction of events lacked the emotional expressions of gratitude that were prominent in her sister’s account and was, instead, characterised by an unusual narrative focus.

She was a very kind woman. We stayed for a month; her house was good but!... she had put more people in and she gave one room for each (per family). And she stayed in a room with her own children. She took her children out of their rooms; she gave a room to us, a room to another family and a room to another family. And she stayed in one room herself. We stayed for a month and afterwards, we could not anymore.

The excerpt began by acknowledging the compassionate nature of the woman and her generosity towards the family. Demetra recognised how this woman had provided them with shelter and had a well-maintained house. Following from this, however, she interwove the generosity of the woman with its undesirable consequences. The extraordinary act of kindness of relocating her own children in order to accommodate more refugees became overshadowed by its negative aftermath, the overcrowding of the house. The shift in narrative focus, from highlighting the act of generosity to emphasising its negative impact, was peculiar. It suggested that what needed to be acknowledged in the historical record was the threat to the family’s well-being rather than the benevolence of this woman. The act of kindness became secondary, serving as a context for Demetra’s description of her family’s situation.

Demetra’s narrative focus was quite unique as she depicted instances of both generosity and exploitation, highlighting the negative consequences of both. There was an underlying sense of uncertainty and doubt in her descriptions of interactions with non-refugees. She seemed to question the reasoning behind their actions and their collective values, even though some of them did help refugees. This reflects the resistance of refugees to fully perceive themselves as integral members of society, based on how they perceive the interactions between the two populations (Brubaker 2010). A similar narrative focus, with an emphasis on the dangers connected with the conduct of non-refugees, also characterised the testimony of Leon, Demetra’s husband. Unlike Demetra, however, Leon did not limit his narrative to the immediate period following displacement but spoke of exploitation and unfairness more generally.

They let them get rich at the expense of refugees. And that is why I say there was no even distribution of damages. Was I at fault and the person from Limassol or Larnaca or Nicosia wasn’t? (…) There was a war and 200,000 people left their homes and for them, no consequences. And you would go to buy a plot of land and they would ask for outrageous money. They took advantage of refugees, these people on this side.

Leon’s perception of exploitation stemmed from his belief in an unequal distribution of damages among the Greek-Cypriot population after the invasion. He contested that, while some individuals had suffered greatly, others had not suffered at all. Furthermore, he expressed the view that refugees were exploited by residents in the south when it came to purchasing land. This claim is supported by Georgiades’ study (2009), which found that participants reported feeling exploited and treated as second-class citizens due to the inflated prices of properties. The notion of being treated as second-class citizens encapsulates the experiences of Demetra and Leon, as their accounts of interactions between refugees and non-refugees reflect a belief in an unfair and prejudiced treatment. The added element of exploitation in the context of land transactions further emphasises the sense of injustice in these circumstances.

Developing belonging

Aphrodite was in her early 20s when the invasion occurred. Following the war, she married Andreas, a local from the village where her family resettled. Both Aphrodite and Andreas had successful careers and were able to build a house in the village, as well as acquire an apartment in Nicosia and a seaside holiday retreat. While Andreas passed away in 2015, Aphrodite still resides in the village, despite her sisters urging her to move to Nicosia to be closer to them. Of particular relevance to this paper is a section in Aphrodite’s account where she described the reaction of the village community to her marriage, specifically focusing on the gossip and disapproval expressed by elderly female villagers regarding Andreas’ choice to marry a refugee.

Me, Andreas took me as his wife. It was a village and they were saying to my mother-in-law: ‘You took in the refugee and she has nothing’. And my mother-in-law was listening to them. And they told her: ‘They won’t give you land so you can build’. Andreas already owned land for a house, his own. ‘They won’t give you help so you can build’. And my mother-in-law responded to them. You know, these old grandmothers who sit in alleys and gossip. My mother-in-law responded: ‘If they do not give her, we will build the house’.

There are three possible interpretations of the way Aphrodite presented the gossiping of the elderly villagers regarding her marriage. The first interpretation views the gossiping as a form of defamation aimed at Aphrodite’s family, highlighting their perceived failure to meet the cultural expectations of providing a dowry house for the newly married couple. The villagers perceived this failure as putting Andreas’ family at a disadvantage. In this reading, the gossiping serves as an affirmation of the values prevalent in rural Cyprus (Loizos 1981) and as a critique of Aphrodite’s family for not adhering to the established norms. It also establishes a symbolic boundary that separates the village community and asserts the undesirability of intermarriage between refugees and villagers due to the perceived inability of refugees to conform to the accepted cultural norms (Zinovieff 1991).

The second interpretation of Aphrodite’s narrative emphasises the performative aspect of the gossiping which, along with its content, defined the boundaries of the village community. In this reading, it is noted that outsiders like Aphrodite were unable to engage in gossiping due to their lack of knowledge and experience of social life in the village (Zinovieff 1991). While her marriage to Andreas was the subject of the gossiping, Aphrodite herself was only able to narrate it through the perspective of her mother-in-law, as she did not have the ‘right’ to participate in the gossiping. Therefore, gossiping, both as a performative act and in its content, served to delineate membership within the group, distinguishing between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.

The third interpretation of Aphrodite’s narrative presents a contradictory perspective to the previous two interpretations but it is also the most critical. In the closing remarks of her narration, Aphrodite justifies the gossiping, acknowledging that, while it defamed her family and discriminated against her, it was also a common aspect of village culture. This understanding of gossiping differs from the previous interpretations, as it removes the notion of devious criticism and scandalisation, while still acknowledging it as a form of moral judgement. In this reading, Aphrodite recognises gossiping as a normal element of village culture, akin to a form of ‘social poetics’ where meaning is created through casual interactions in a social context (Herzfeld 1991). She appears to accept the women’s gossiping as an ordinary part of village life, almost ‘defending’ them against potential criticism. By assuming an instructive tone in her remarks, Aphrodite indicated that she expected the listener to adopt this understanding of gossiping as well.

This last interpretation holds significant importance, as it takes into account her personal history within village X. This village is where she was married, raised her son and continues to reside, even after the passing of her husband. Throughout their marriage, she received support from Andreas’ family and relatives. This emotional connection and support from the village community is evident in her decision to remain there, despite the absence of her own relatives. These biographical details suggest that Aphrodite has developed a certain level of emotional attachment and involvement in the community.

This emotional bond helps to explain the overall tone and narrative approach which Aphrodite took in recounting her experiences. She strove to position herself as a member of the village community while remaining true to her refugee background. While she acknowledged the tensions between refugees and non-refugees, she avoided assigning blame, recognising, instead, the inevitability of friction due to the fundamental alteration of the social environment. Aphrodite’s narrative reconstruction can be seen as evidence of an evolving belonging within the community. Unlike her sisters, who attributed blame to non-refugees for their treatment of refugees, Aphrodite reconstructs the gossiping episode in a way that mitigates the discrimination she experienced and absolves any culpability associated with gossiping as an ‘ordinary element of village life’. This approach highlights her attempt to bridge the divide between her refugee identity and her desire for acceptance within the community.

Aphrodite’s life story sheds light on the significant role that familial relationships between refugees and non-refugees play in shaping social connections within a community. This point is particularly highlighted in her testimony when she discusses her son’s experiences growing up in the village. According to Aphrodite, ‘(…) he was not considered a refugee, as his father was not a refugee… The population was already starting to integrate, particularly us that we were not both refugees. One of his parents was native so he was not affected’. The fact that her son had a parent who was not a refugee is understood as facilitating his integration into the community. Due to his ‘mixed origins’, he was not perceived as an ‘outsider’ nor did he feel like one. This observation supports the argument that familial affiliations are crucial in establishing stronger social connections between refugees and non-refugees. It also suggests that, even in the early 2000s, there was still some stigma associated with being a refugee, although Aphrodite’s son did not personally experience it.

An indicator-oriented concept of integration and Greek-Cypriot internal displacement

The oral histories presented above provide insights into the interactions between Greek-Cypriot refugees and the non-refugee population following the 1974 Turkish invasion. These accounts depict a range of experiences and demonstrate how the narrators perceive and interpret these interactions in their own unique ways. When considering these accounts in relation to other observable aspects of the Greek-Cypriot experience of internal displacement, several factors come into play. How do these accounts concerning the interaction between the two populations relate to other observable aspects of the Greek-Cypriot experience of internal displacement – such as a common ethnicity, government social provisions and citizenship status for those displaced? What do these accounts tell us in relation to the refugees’ efforts towards (re)settlement and their belonging in Greek-Cypriot society?

Seeking to address the aforementioned questions and to bring together the different characteristics of the Greek-Cypriot experience of internal displacement, I encountered Ager and Strang’s (2008, 2010) theory of refugee integration. Their ‘mid-level’ theory is amongst the most cited works dealing with refugee and displaced persons and has been applied in numerous research studies worldwide, including those examining mass displacement in Eastern Europe (see, for example, Alencar 2018; Alessi et al. 2020; Platts-Fowler and Robinson 2015). The model encompasses four domains: a) markers and means of integration such as education, employment, housing and health; b) foundational principles such as rights and citizenship; c) facilitators of integration such as language, cultural knowledge and safety; and d) the social connections which refugees establish in the host society with formal institutions, members of the dominant group and their own intra-group ties. As Ager and Strang (2008) note, the domains of facilitators and social connections mediate between the foundational principles of citizenship and rights and the public outcomes in housing, education and employment.

Applying these domains to the case of Greek-Cypriot internal displacement may appear complex, given the ongoing and unresolved conflict that Cypriots have been living with for approximately 50 years (Bryant and Papadakis 2012). However, undertaking such an analysis can provide valuable insights into how relationships between different populations in war-torn countries impact on the resettlement and adjustment of those who have been displaced. To this end, Greek-Cypriot refugees share a common culture, religion and ethnicity with the non-refugee population, which can be seen as a facilitator for their integration. Furthermore, their retention of full citizenship rights in their country aligns with the foundational principles and citizenship indicator in Ager and Strang’s model. Additionally, the refugee population has benefited from various governmental social provisions that guaranteed rights such as housing, employment and welfare. The oral histories presented in this paper can be connected, in turn, to the domain of social connections and the different types of relationship between the two populations. As such, while Aphrodite’s account indicated a willingness to be seen as a member of her village’s community, the negative experiences described by Penelope and Demetra suggested issues in the establishment of social connections between refugees and non-refugees. Does this mean that Penelope and Demetra remain ‘unintegrated’ while Aphrodite has ‘accomplished integration’? Furthermore, what do these accounts tell us in relation to an important characteristic of internal displacement such as common ethnicity?

The first question is connected to one of the most important criticisms of indicator-oriented concepts of integration and pertains to the way in which scholarly research tends to use the term ‘integration’ as both an analytical concept and an empirical indication, thereby conflating categories of analysis and experience (Spencer and Charsley 2021). However, using the concept as both an analytical concept and an empirical indication neglects the fact that integration – or the development of a feeling of belonging – is a process rather than an end. For a proper designation of a person’s efforts to resettle, then, research should recognise the variations in results that these efforts can yield, rather than denote a normative condition. In the case of the accounts presented above, we cannot claim that Aphrodite is integrated while her sisters are not; instead, the data suggest a clearer development of a feeling of social inclusion and belonging in Aphrodite’s narrative compared to those of her sisters. This consideration regarding the parallel usage of the term ‘integration’ is something upon which scholarly research should also reflect in their analyses of contemporary internal displacements in Central and Eastern Europe, as scholarship already employs the term in both of its uses, blurring the actual experiences of those displaced with an idealised state of belonging (Pikulicka-Wilczewska and Uehling 2017; Sasse 2020).

The second question pertains to an aspect of integration literature that can have significant implications, particularly in cases of internal displacement. More specifically, the integration literature often assumes homogenised notions of national belonging, a phenomenon known as methodological nationalism (Anthias and Pajnik 2014). However, in cases of internal displacement, this assumption takes on an interesting twist. It is often believed, particularly by policy-makers, that integration for internally displaced individuals will be ‘natural’ since they are already ‘homogenised’ with non-refugees (Harrell-Bond and Voutira 1992). As we have seen from the oral histories in this paper, however, an indicator such as a common ethnicity between refugees and the local population may not be sufficient to ensure a sense of social inclusion and belonging and can even result in negative perceptions of interactions with non-refugees. This aspect has already been acknowledged and discussed in the literature on Ukrainian internal displacement, where authors have identified various layers of ‘our-ness’ in how the non-displaced population perceives different displaced populations based on their origin, such as whether they are from Donbass or Crimea (Bulakh 2020).

The limitations of the Ager and Strang’s integration model in the context of Greek-Cypriot internal displacement raise the following questions: Is it redundant to discuss integration when examining cases of internal displacement? What is the broader role of the concept of integration in migration research? In answering the first question, we must first acknowledge the context in which Ager and Strang developed their model (refugees in Scotland) but, at the same time, we must question its applicability to all cases of displacement. In discussing internal displacement, the analysis of the paper suggested that relying solely on a common ethnicity as an indicator cannot guarantee integration or the development of belonging for those displaced. In fact, the paper demonstrates that the voices of the internally displaced can even challenge the importance of a shared ethnicity.

Regarding the second question, some authors have proposed completely abandoning the concept of integration (Schinkel 2018), while others argue for more critical reflection in its usage (Dahinden 2016; Spencer and Charsley 2021). There are also authors who suggest that integration should be seen as a property of the system rather than of the individual migrant or refugee (Ferris and Donato 2020). Regardless of one’s stance on this matter, it is crucial for migration research to further explore and examine the concept of integration, delving into additional issues and intersecting themes and topics, as this special issue has aimed to do.

Conclusion: the role of narrative in the experience of displacement

By way of conclusion, I would like to highlight the significance of oral history and narrative in the study of refugees and displaced persons and their experiences. Writing in relation to German expellees in Canada, Andreas Kintzmann (2011) contends that law is able to provide only a false closure to survivors; by itself, law is incapable of bringing about reconciliation. This argument can also be applied to the case of displaced persons and their pursuit of integration and social inclusion, where the mere attainment of integration indicators may not necessarily lead to a genuine sense of belonging. This observation aligns with the views of Zetter (1991), who argues that normative policy assumptions often overlook what truly matters to displaced persons. Instead, these assumptions often result in a process of labelling and the construction of a bureaucratic/legal identity that diminishes the individuality of refugees and obscures their subjective experiences.

In the case of Greek-Cypriot refugees, an impartial observer might argue that they are well integrated into Greek-Cypriot society as a whole. Many refugees have even achieved remarkable success and prosperity, reflecting the overall affluence of Cypriot society since 1974. Nevertheless, the narratives presented in this paper have unveiled underlying issues regarding the level of social inclusion that would otherwise have remained concealed. These narratives reveal bitterness towards the treatment of refugees by non-refugees and uncertainty about whether the former have truly been accepted. At the same time, they confirm that the development of social inclusion is an ongoing process rather than a fixed outcome.

Therefore, what the paper wishes to call attention to is the importance of narrative for the sake of refugees and displaced persons themselves. The oral histories presented herein do not intend to identify a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ nature of interaction; if anything, Aphrodite’s account demonstrates that such a binary distinction does not exist. Instead, narratives allow displaced individuals to express their own perspectives and unravel their subjectivities and experiences on the historical record. Through this process of unravelling, essential information emerges, shedding light on various aspects of their lives. This information is crucial for understanding the intricate and multifaceted nature of displacement.


  1. Having clarified the usage of the term ‘refugees’ to describe Greek-Cypriot displacement, the paper will henceforth be using the term without apostrophes.
  2. Similar types of experience were recorded in high schools in Limassol and Larnaca even until the 2010s.
  3. Ares’ village had a large Turkish-Cypriot community prior to 1974 and many Greek-Cypriot refugee families resettled in houses there. This resettlement altered the demographics of the village.

Conflict of interest statement

No conflict of interest was reported by the Author.


Christakis Perstianis


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