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Remembering George Treloar, Australia’s First Commissioner for Refugees

08 Feb 2016
By Dr Panayiotis Diamadis
Colonel Treloar in Hellas in 1922. This photo copyrighted and used with permission.

In light of the current mass migration of refugees, George Treloar’s work to save thousands can be remembered as a lasting legacy. From humble origins in rural Australia, Treloar has grown to be known as one of Australia’s most influential humanitarian figures.

Born in the rural Victorian hub of Ballarat, George Devine Treloar enjoyed a variety of experiences throughout his life. He worked as a jackaroo in outback Australia, in England as an actor and as a Major in the Coldstream Guards on the Western Front. He served with the British Expedition to Russia (1919-1921) and worked with White Russian refugees near Constantinople (1921-1922) before his appointment as Commissioner for Refugees of the League of Nations in north-eastern Hellas.

Work in the League of Nations

Appointed by the head of the League’s Refugees Commission, Fridjtof Nansen, on 6 October 1922, Treloar spent most of the month in Hellas, gathering an appreciation for the issues on the ground. His immediate superior, Colonel Procter, had created provided five million drachmae to procure the necessary provisions, in particular grain, for the refugees there. This sum did not provide Major Treloar anywhere near enough provisions for the survivors.

Shortages brought about by war and genocide against the indigenous Hellenic, Armenian and Assyrian peoples of Thrace and Anatolia were exacerbated by the difficulties of an overwhelmed road network and an early winter. The correspondent covering the Helleno-Turkish War for The Daily Star newspaper of Toronto, Canada, described the scene:

In a never-ending, staggering march the Christian population of Eastern Thrace is jamming the roads toward Macedonia. The main column crossing the Maritza River at Adrianople is twenty miles long. Twenty miles of carts drawn by cows, bullocks and muddy-flanked water buffalo, with exhausted, staggering men, women and children, blankets over their heads, walking blindly along in the rain beside their worldly goods.

The correspondent’s name was Ernest Hemingway.

Treloar’s initial base was in the regional centre of Komotini, in December 1922. These problems meant that the Australian League of Nations’ commissioner was unable to provide the planned feeding stations along the route into western Thrace. Treloar moved the mission directly to Alexandroupolis (the closest major centre to the new border, 40 kilometres away) in order to do the best possible for survivors there, as well as for the numerous other refugees arriving every day.

Documenting refugees

Throughout his time in Hellas, Treloar documented what he saw with his camera, leaving a remarkable collection of photographs. These portray undeniable hardship and misery, although these Thracian refugees actually had a few days in which to gather some possessions onto a wagon. In that respect they were luckier than many from Anatolia who had to pick up anything they could carry and leave virtually immediately, with far fewer chances of survival.

One striking feature of Treloar’s writings and photographs is the disproportionate numbers of women and children compared to adult men. This was a direct consequence of the acts of genocide to which the Hellenes of Pontos and other regions of Anatolia had been subjected. As he wrote on the back of one print:

Smyrna refugees in Athens showing proportion of men, women and children – the men were killed or held prisoner by the Turks – hence reason why so many women with children are unable to support themselves.

Treloar had a keen eye for the human dimension of what he was experiencing, in this case, the aftermath of the genocides of the Hellenes, Armenians, and Assyrians.

Some of his most tender images show a mother and daughter having erected some troughs to shield their cooking fire from the winter wind. In another, a father consoles his baby daughter, while the women of the family heat a large cooking pan and the small children chat. Another depicts some families sheltered under bed frames or mattresses lain across rough piles of sacks and boxes of possessions.

Treloar’s most dramatic photographs illustrate how the genocide survivors arrived directly onto the beaches. In the foreground of one photograph, a man has collapsed into sleep, an empty cigarette packet behind him. In the centre, a woman holds her hand to her head in a state of despair. Some arrived without footwear, others seem to have arrived with nothing at all.

Treloar reported to the Hellenic Governor-General of Western Thrace (in all likelihood in November 1922) that his focus was on settling survivors on the land as productive farmers:

Our plan foresees the settlement [of] new villages, under tents of the Hellenic Government, assisting those being settled to erect dwellings for themselves as rapidly as possible so that the tents may be evacuated for use in the settlement of other refugees in other villages.

After four years of invaluable service, an exasperated Treloar resigned in 1926, returning to Australia early the following year with his family. His frustration was as much with the Hellenic state as with the lack of material support from a League of Nations stretched beyond its limits.


After his departure, a settlement along the Komotini-Alexandroupolis road was named in Treloar’s honour: Trelorio, (later adjusted to Thrylorio, from the Greek, thrylos, meaning legend), in honour of its founder. Its population was entirely made up of Pontic Greeks, survivors of the genocide of the Hellenes from the Kerasounta and Kars region of northeastern Anatolia. Treloar’s sons John and David have both visited Thrylorio, and were received with full honours by the children and grandchildren of the genocide survivors whom their father had saved.

The work of Major George Devine Treloar saved an estimated 108,000 lives.

Dr Panayiotis Diamadis is a lecturer in genocide studies at the University of Technology, Sydney and is currently Vice President of the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. This article may be republished under a Creative Commons Licence.

In recognition of Treloar’s contributions to humanity, the Pontian Hellenic associations of Australia unveiled a plaque and planted an olive tree at St Patrick’s College. Plans for the George Devine Treloar Humanitarian Award have also been announced, an annual award for a student who makes outstanding contributions to humanity in each calendar year.