Issues Affecting Macedonians from Greece
By Victor Bivell
This paper was delivered at the Macedonian Conference on Women,
Aged and Youth held in Sydney on September 22, 1994.
Thank you for this opportunity to discuss some of the problems that
affect Macedonians in Australia and in particular those Macedonians
who come from Greece.
These Macedonians have always considered themselves to be, and have
always called themselves, "Macedonian". The term "Aegean
Macedonian" is only used when it is necessary to distinguish this
group from the Macedonians in or from the Republics of Macedonia, Bulgaria
and Albania. They are of course the same people, and speak the same
Not so long ago these Macedonians were sometimes, loosely, refered
to as "Greek Macedonian" but for obvious political reasons
this term is now quite unacceptable. Many Macedonians have always considered
it unacceptable and this is now the prevailing view.
To understand Macedonians from Greece who now live in Australia it is
crucial to understand their experiences in Greece and why they emigrated.
Between 1912 and 1949 these Macedonians experienced five wars: the
First and Second Balkan Wars, the First and Second World Wars, and the
Greek Civil War. They also lived under the Metaxas dictatorship of the
Although the first Macedonians in Australia arrived in the 1890s and
came from the part of Ottoman Macedonia now in Greece, their arrival
in significant numbers coincides with the periods of major political
repression in Greece.
The first significant waves were in the 1920s and 1930s. The most important
political event here was the Balkan Wars and the division of Macedonia
among Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria as this denied the Macedonian people
an independent homeland where they could live and develop in peace.
Instead, in 1913, Macedonians who had lived in the same villages for
generations suddenly found themselves a national minority within the
new borders of Greece.
By 1919 the Greek Government had commenced a policy of Hellenizing
northern Greece and in essence this involved either the expulsion or
the denationalization and assimilation of the Macedonians.
As part of its denial that Macedonians existed, the Greek Government
assiduously avoided referring to the Macedonians as Macedonians. Instead
it used, and still uses, terms such as "Slavophones", "Greeks
who speak a slavic dialect," "Macedo-slavs", "Slavomacedonians"
or "Slav-Macedonians". The rest of the time they are "non-existent".
In 1919 the Greek Government commenced a so called "voluntary
exchange of populations" with Bulgaria and several years later
with Turkey. For Macedonians in eastern Macedonia these exchanges were
compulsory and today would be known as ethnic cleansing.
Between 1922 and 1925 Greece brought in over 600,000 Greeks from Turkey
who took over the homes and villages of the departing Macedonians.
From 1926 new efforts to hide the existence and past presence of Macedonians
included the replacing of all Macedonian geographic and family names
with Greek names. Many Macedonians in Australia still carry these Greekafied
In the 1930s under Metaxas the Macedonian language was outlawed, even
as a spoken language at home. In this period over 5,000 Macedonians
were interned in prison camps.
Thus throughout the 1920s and 30s this political and cultural persecution
resulted in many Macedonians fleeing Greece as political and economic
refugees, with many thousands coming to Australia.
Another wave of emigration began with the Greek Civil War between 1946
and 1949 during which Macedonians in northern Greece fought for their
independence, but lost due to the intervention of Greece's Western allies,
who saw the conflict in terms of the capitalist-communist struggle.
As a result of this period Australia continued to receive Macedonian
immigrants from Greece into the 1960s and 70s.
Today, Macedonians in Greece are still denied basic human rights such
as the freedoms of speech, language, religion, education, etc and this
is documented in the Human Rights Watch report Denying Ethnic Identity:
The Macedonians of Greece, published in April this year. Thus relations
between the Macedonians in Australia and the Greek government have rarely
Finding official data on Macedonians from Greece is difficult as the
Australian Census and other statistical sources have hidden rather than
revealed their presence.
However, from community sources we know that most of the Macedonians
from Greece settled in Melbourne and Perth with smaller groups in Adelaide,
Richmond near Sydney, Shepparton, Newcastle and Manjimup in WA.
Nowadays they are found in all other Macedonian settlements around
Australia. They are also well dispersed into the wider community, with
almost half of Australia's federal electorates registering some Macedonians
within their boundaries.
The exact number of Macedonians from Greece is hard to determine, but
within the Macedonian community they and their offspring are generally
believed to make up about half of the total Macedonian community in
Australia. Although the Australian Bureau of Statistics, for various
reasons, has registered only 75,000 Macedonians in Australia, the figure
of 150,000 given by Professor Peter Hill in his book The Macedonians
in Australia is considered to be far more realistic. That would give
Macedonians from Greece and their families a population of around 75,000.
Problems with the census
The official invisibility of the Macedonians from Greece is a real problem
for the whole Macedonian community.
It results from the Census requiring them to put Greece as their country
of birth, and requiring the first generation Australian children to
put Greece as the country of birth of their parents. Religion is often
"Greek Orthodox" as this was compulsory in Greece. Their presence
is also obscured because they entered Australia with Greek passports
and have Greek sounding names.
The result of this invisibility is that it significantly understates
the official number of Macedonians in Australia and overstates the number
of Greeks. For example, in the 1986 Census 30.6 per cent of people in
Western Australia who were born in Greece put Macedonian as their language
spoken at home. The figure in Victoria was 5.2 per cent. In reality
the numbers are likely to be higher.
This miscounting no doubt has the potential to affect the provision
of many social services.
However, its most potent affect is in the political arena, as seen
this year with the controversy that arose over the recognition of the
Republic of Macedonia and the attempt to introduce the "Slav"
prefix to describe Macedonians. During this period the Greek community
intensively lobbied federal and state politicians with statistics about
the number of people of Greek origin in Australia compared to the number
of people of Macedonian origin. Many of these statistics for Greek-Australians
were wildly overstated even against the Australian Bureau of Statistic's
figures, and ridiculous figures of up to 1 million Greeks in Australia
were publicly used by federal politicians. Australia's politicians from
both major parties allowed these figures to influence their rational
judgement to the detriment of fairness and multiculturalism. This powerful
and sometimes negative influence exerted by statistics describing ethnic
groups remains a major political problem for the operation of democracy
A more accurate rendering of the real population balance between the
two communities would go some way towards taking the political potency
out of the Greek-Macedonian conflict in Australia. It would also assist
Macedonians in gaining political support for other issues at local,
state and federal levels. Thus an accurate census of the Macedonians
from Greece and of all Macedonians is very high on the list of the priorities
of the Macedonian-Australian community.
Crucial to understanding Macedonians from Greece is the fear which they
have experienced, which often falls into the scale of traumatic, and
which they still carry to this day.
They fear the Greek Government in particular for what it has done in
the past and what it could still do to their relatives and friends who
remain in Greece. Many also fear Greek nationalists, even here in Australia.
This fear has many practical ramifications. It manifests itself in
a reluctance to identify as Macedonian at public and private levels.
Some consider that to publicly identify as Macedonian is to invite the
scrutiny of the Greek Government and Greek nationalists, with possible
For example, prominent Macedonians from Greece who now live in Australia,
Canada, US and elsewhere are regularly denied entry to Greece and thus
are unable to visit family and their ancestral villages.
Many Macedonians from Australia who have arrived at the Greek border
have been abused, detained and assaulted. Over the years these have
not been infrequent occurrences.
Macedonians who retained Greek citizenship have had that citizenship
arbitrarily taken away without warning or consultation, despite the
fact that this contravenes international human rights agreements.
Such harassment is particularly so for human rights campaigners, those
who are seen to be active on Macedonian issues, and those who have changed
their Greek names back to the original Macedonian form.
At a national level, there is evidence that the Macedonian community
in Australia has been and may still be under surveillance. There is
a strong suspicion that successful Macedonians, particularly activists,
are identified, and such Macedonians in Australia who have Greek superiors
fear interference in their careers.
Prominent Macedonians are also concerned for the safety of their families.
The spate of firebombings in Melbourne earlier this year was taken by
Macedonians from Greece as a well understood signal.
Thus many Macedonians are reluctant to identify as Macedonian on any
official forms, including the Australian Census.
Some Macedonians have handled these problems by joining the other side.
Fear and assimilation mean that there are a number of Macedonians from
Greece who have come to identify as Greek. Some may have developed a
Greek or partial Greek consciousness, but others have simply adopted
a safer and more convenient public persona. These "Grkomani"
as they are called further complicate the task of identifying the number
of Macedonians from Greece as in the Census many place Greek as the
language spoken at home.
Education and literacy
Another crucial feature of the Macedonians from Greece is that virtually
all have come from an agrarian, village based lifestyle. The development
of a Macedonian intellectual elite or professional class was simply
not allowed by either the Ottomans or Greeks.
The great majority of these Macedonians have received little or no
education. At best they may have one to several years of primary schooling,
and thus most are illiterate.
Most however are bilingual in spoken Macedonian and spoken Greek.
This lack of schooling of course impeded their ability to rapidly learn
the English language. After decades in Australia many still cannot cope
with the English language, particularly in its written form, in the
same way that they cannot cope with written Macedonian or written Greek.
This of course has severely limited their employment and social opportunities
in Australia and it is only the Australian born offspring who have been
able to rise to professional status.
Lack of literacy has also limited their ability to present their history
and experiences in written English so that is available to their fellow
Australians and the rest of the English reading world. Thus there is
a tremendous gap in the knowledge base on Macedonians in and from Greece.
When, less than two years ago, my company published the book What Europe
Has Forgotten: The Struggle Of The Aegean Macedonians, we were able
to promote it as one of the first texts on this subject in English.
Fear and illiteracy also combine to affect the main source of data
about Macedonians in the Census, which comes from the question on language
spoken at home.
A survey of federal electorates where there are significant numbers
of Macedonians indicates a high percentage of responses in these areas
that come under the categories of "Other language indicated but
not stated" and "Yugoslav not elsewhere indicated". It
is highly likely that many of these responses are from Macedonians.
Lack of pride
Another problem is the lack of pride in being Macedonian. The Macedonians
from Greece fought for their independence in 1903 and in 1946-49, but
lost on both occasions. They are a defeated people, with all the loss
of national pride and personal dignity that that entails.
This lack of pride is exacerbated by their lack of education and literacy,
and by the systematic repression of Macedonian culture and the systematic
destruction of the Macedonian heritage. For these people there is too
little of their history, too few past physical and cultural achievements,
which have survived and which can be pointed to with pride.
Alienation of youth
The biggest impact of this lack of pride has been in the first and second
generation born in Australia. Educated in Australia these children have
high standards against which their illiterate parents and grandparents
and their simple village lifestyle simply do not measure up.
Thus many of the children also learn to lack pride: in their families
and in their Macedonian identity. For some it has led to a rejection
of their identity and heritage.
This lack of pride can also affect their personal self esteem, particularly
where other factors that influence self esteem may also be absent.
It is only in the past few years, particularly with the foundation
of a Macedonian homeland in the Republic of Macedonia, that this lack
of pride has begun to be reversed.
War trauma and mental health services
The experience of up to five wars has traumatized several generations
of Macedonians from Greece.
The majority of Macedonian immigrants from Greece are now in their
50s, 60s and 70s and thus were children during the Second World War
when Greece was occupied and during the Greek Civil War directly afterwards.
If we include the political and cultural war against the Macedonians
by the dictator Metaxas in the 1930s, many of these people spent their
entire childhood and adolescence in war time conditions.
It is possible that such a prolonged climate of fear could have engendered
an existential insecurity that would predispose some of these people
to emotional instability and mental disorder.
Where mental disorders do occur, diagnosis and treatment may be hindered
by the patient's lack of English skills, lack of education, unfamiliarity
with western medical concepts and treatments, and a lack of comprehension
of these problems by medical staff.
Emotional instability is particularly probable in the case of the Macedonian
child refugees. These were about 28,00 Macedonian children between the
ages of 3 and 14 who were evacuated from northern Greece in 1948 and
49 when it became apparent that the Macedonians and their Greek communist
allies would lose the Civil War.
For these Macedonians the trauma of separation from their families
and villages was intensified by the sudden nature of their departure,
their tender age, and by the inability of many to return to Greece.
With their Greek citizenship withdrawn and discriminatory laws that
prevent them from returning to Greece, many of these child refugees
have still not been re-united with the families in Greece over 46 years
There are an estimated 500 to 600 child refugees in Australia. These
regularly experience problems such as the inability to reclaim Greek
citizenship, exclusion from the amnesty given to Greeks who fought on
the losing side during the Civil War, denial of entry into Greece, the
inability to visit family even for weddings and funerals, and the inability
to reclaim ancestral property.
These are matters of which the Australian government is aware, but
lacks the political will to pursue.
The many problems of the Macedonians from Greece clearly illustrate
why the Macedonian community in Australia had such an immediate and
strong reaction against the Government's dictatorial attempt earlier
this year to rename their community. Such a renaming should be clearly
seen in the context of the ongoing policy of denationalization of the
Macedonians in Greece with all its ugly human rights implications that
are now attracting international attention.
Although the Australian Government is becoming aware of this situation,
more needs to be done.
The way ahead for the Macedonians from Greece could be summarized as
follows. In regard to government the Australian community of Macedonians
from Greece recommends that:
1. The Australian Government influence the Greek Government to recognize
the Macedonian minority in Greece and to grant it all the essential
human rights as recommended in the Human Watch Report Denying Ethnic
Identity: The Macedonians of Greece.
2. The Australian Government investigate the problems of the denial
of entry to Greece and the reclamation of ancestral property by Macedonian-Australians.
3. The Australian Government guarantee the protection of the Macedonian
identity, heritage and community in Australia.
4. The Australian Bureau of Statistics undertakes a proper census of
all Macedonians in Australia, including Macedonians from Greece.
5. Awareness training be available for service providers such as doctors,
psychiatrists and others in the health, mental health, aged care and
social support sectors.
6. Further support be given for literacy training.
The fulfilment of these basic recommendations is essential to the well
being of many tens of thousands of Macedonians in Australia and hundreds
of thousands in Greece. For the many reasons outlined above, and others,
it is crucial that the Australian Government find the political will
to implement these recommendations.