Immigration has at times been an issue for many countries. When a nation gains a large body of immigrants, it almost inevitably raises the question, for better of for worse, of what is that nation’s identity. But when does this self-examination of the nation turn from an understanding of oneself into a rejection of the other in society?

Greeks Emigrating from Patras to the United States, 1910 | Library of Congress

Immigration vs. Conquest

            First, an important distinction should be made between immigration and conquest. Although conquerors do join the nation they conquer, and are often influenced by it, the relationship is set up on completely different grounds. In the case of immigration, individuals, families, or sometimes even entire peoples are passively joining a society for social, geographic, economic, or personal reasons. In the case of conquest, these same reasons may apply, but are instead tied to an aggressive desire to rule over another people. While the conquering people may have been emigrating, like the Germanic invasions of the Roman Empire, they were not immigrating, but conquering. The power structure of the subsequent society was different: conquerors rule over their subject populations, while immigrants are instead joining an already established society, often being in an exposed or even weak position upon arriving. While conquerors have been integrated into their conquered societies, for example the Bulgars that took Bulgaria both becoming Slavicized over time by the larger local Slav populations or the Germanic tribes that conquered the Roman Empire adopting customs and institutions from the conquered Romans, the difference in power makes them distinctly not fit into the immigrant mold.

Factors in Reaction

            Whether the nation is accepting or reactionary towards immigrants depends on a variety of factors, but three of the most important are the condition of the state (both in composition and in success), the nation’s leadership, and the size of the immigrant body.

I. State’s Composition

            In regards to composition, there are two main categories that can be delineated: an ethnically homogenous state and a multi-ethnic one. In the former category, there are the classic examples of historical nation states (such as France or Germany), zones of settlement by mainly one people (like ancient Egypt or Greece), and states that, despite smaller minorities that are present, by and large are composed of people of the same ethnicity (such as Greece or Bulgaria today). In these states, it is generally more difficult for immigrants to integrate into society, since these societies are largely homogenous in their language and customs. For example, ancient Greeks scoffed at those who didn’t speak Greek, terming them barbarians (or those who speak barbar).

Byzantine Emperor Basil I (r. 867-886) | Madrid Skylitzes

A multi-ethnic state has historically been an empire in most cases. The Byzantine, Ottoman, and Habsburg Empires all were composed of a plethora of diverse ethnic elements. While one people may have nominally held more power or influence (respectively Greek, Turkish, and Austrian), circumstances of rule necessitated a degree of acceptance, since the primary ethnicity did not form a majority. The empires themselves were based on the idea of empire and the rule of a dynasty or emperor, not on the ethnic homogeneity of a state, like the previous category. Immigrants could more easily find themselves as home in such a cosmopolitan state: few would bat an eye at an Armenian moving to Constantinople under either the Byzantine or Ottoman regimes, given the multitudes of Greeks, Turks, Italians, Arabs, Slavs, and others who moved through the diverse hub. Language was also not as much of a barrier to inclusion in society: in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for example, several languages were used in the military just to communicate orders. Ethnic background was also not a bar on advancement: Armenians became Byzantine emperors, Slavs became Ottoman grand viziers, and Hungarians served as Habsburg official and military commanders. Today’s examples are more limited with the fall of most empires in the course of the twentieth century, but examples such as Bosnia still exist.

Xenophobia can exist in any nation or among any people. But there is a greater danger in single-ethnicity states that resentment against immigrants could arise, since they are more easily seen as the other. The ease of focusing around a national identity in this case to the exclusion of others can, in its worst forms, result in deadly results, such as the example of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Multiethnic states can also break into ethnic violence, but in these cases it is often predicated on some sense of nationalism. For example, when the Ottoman government unleashed genocidal campaigns against the Armenian minority in the twentieth century, the CUP government was also promoting Turkish ethnicity as a unifying factor for the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Similarly, ethnic violence in former Yugoslavia was predicated on the eruption of national fervor among its constituent parts. While the United States, and similarly countries like Canada and Australia, can be held up as countries that are (uniquely in history) not based on a particular ethnicity, leader, or dynasty, nationalism can also lead to the rejection of immigrants. For example, the idea that American culture is European (or historically just Anglo-Saxon protestant), has led to the rejection and otherization of immigrants many times throughout American history.

The second part of composition is the success of a nation. On the whole, peoples that are doing well economically, politically, and socially are much more likely to be accepting of new immigrant populations. For example, when Louis XIV kicked the Huguenots (French protestants) out of France in the 17th century, the stadtholder of the Dutch Republic and the duke of Prussia, both rulers of small but prosperous countries, welcomed the fleeing Huguenots. But poor economic conditions can lead to persecution against minorities. The Byzantines lashed out at Italians several times from the 12th through 15th centuries when their own economy declined and the Italian merchants prospered. When Venice’s economy was constricted during a lengthy war in the early 16th century, the populace blamed the Jews. The ethno-centric and exclusionary policies of the Ottoman CUP government were no doubt partially guided by the Ottoman Empire’s own political and economic decline. Immigrants have been convenient scapegoats during rough times since practically the dawn of time.

Relief of Frederick William (r. 1640-1688), the “Great Elector,” Duke of Prussia and Elector Brandenburg, Welcoming the Huguenots

II. Leadership

            In addition to national composition, the leadership of a country is an important factor in determining the acceptance of immigrants. While other factors can be in place, a catalyst may be necessary for those xenophobic tendencies to boil over. Would Germany have lashed out at the Jews if not for Adolf Hitler? Possibly; nationalism certainly rose during the economic hardships of the 1920s and 30s, but a Hitler proved to be the catalyst. Similarly, ethno-centric and xenophobic leadership of the CUP Ottoman government and Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian government also harnessed ethnic discontent into a malicious force that might not otherwise have emerged, or at least not reached the same degree of violence. Leaders also guide policies on allowing immigrants to enter: Donald Trump’s recent executive order, although nullified for now by court orders, directly prohibited immigration from seven countries.

III. Size of Immigrant Population

            The amount of immigrants entering the country is also a contributing factor to acceptance or rejection. In the Byzantine Empire, Armenians had moved in for centuries and there was a sizeable minority in Byzantium by the end of the tenth century. But when thousands of Armenians immigrated into the heart of Byzantine Anatolia over the following seventy years, it was too much. Despite their different ethnicity and religion, in their smaller numbers Armenians had gradually integrated into Byzantine society. With this huge new body of Armenian immigrants, however, integration never really occurred and they remained a giant other in Byzantine society. The ethnic tensions of the 11th century between the Byzantines and the large Armenian minority were in part a result of this.

Today it is the same way. Smaller numbers of immigrants join their new societies with less attention than several thousands of people entering a country around the same time. While integration can be easier for immigrants under these circumstances, it is also important that such immigration doesn’t rouse xenophobia to the same degree. When there have been large groups, however, xenophobia has reached high levels. Americans only decried the Irish and Italians to the degree they did when they started arriving in the United States by the thousands every year during the mid-1800s.

Syrian Refugees Arriving on the Greek Island of Lesbos in 2015 | Photo by Ggia

Now large numbers of Syrians emigrating from their homeland has set off this condition again. Although most European countries are relatively homogenous, many such as Germany and France have accepted budding minority populations with varying degrees of tolerance. The Syrian refugee crisis has thrown this system off kilter. Germany and other European Union members have agreed to take large numbers of Syrian refugees, to some agreement but also much backlash from their populace. The countries currently receiving the brunt of the exodus, Turkey and Greece, have been flooded by thousands of refugees. The sheer weight of numbers, compounded with an economic crisis in Greece and recent political unrest in Turkey, has led to incidents of xenophobia in both countries.


            The condition of the state, leadership, and immigration size have been influential factors in the acceptance or denial of immigrants and ethnic minorities throughout history. This trend is unlikely to change. Other factors, such as degree of difference between the immigrant and his new country and where they reside in their new country, are also part of the broader picture of acceptance of immigrants. Understanding how these factors mix to form national emotions towards immigration and minorities is important not only in the diverse countries of the Balkans, but also throughout the world.