Ethnic Expulsions

Introduction / Definition

Ethnic expulsions are extreme actions typically executed by governments or militias to “homogenize” specific places. The perpetrators may display emotions of hatred, fear, revenge or resentment (Petersen: 2002). It is best to operate with a broad definition of ethnicity when considering ethnic expulsions. After all, the targeted may be regarded as racially, nationally, religiously, linguistically or culturally distinctive, and it is not essential that the perpetrators regard themselves as immediately descended from different ancestors to their victims.  Expulsion policies may be executed through the deliberate and forced deportation of non-combatant populations, or through the deliberate and threatening inducement of targeted civilians to quit their residences for no otherwise reasonable reason (such as war-time evacuation for civilian security).

            In conflicts expulsions are one of the most extreme strategies adopted by governments or militias to eliminate “ethnic differences.” The annual World Refugee Survey invariably estimates a global total of millions of international refugees and displaced persons, most of which are attributable to ethno-political conflicts (see Weiner: 1993; Weiner: 1996).

            The more colloquial and reprehensible metaphor of  “ethnic cleansing” is sometimes used to describe (Naimark: 2002; Lieberman: 2006; Ahmed: 1995), and sometimes to justify ethnic expulsions. It is a perpetrator’s term and should therefore be used with caution. The expression suggests the aesthetic rightness of the relevant action because “cleansing” removes “impurities” (Semelin: 2007). The metaphor, however, misleads some scholars into conflating three separate actions, all of which are crimes–namely the deliberate killing of civilians to induce flight (which may amount to genocide), deliberate expulsions, and coercive assimilation. These three activities should be distinguished even if they are sometimes found together (for an example of conceptual conflation see Mann (2005)).

            Are ethnic expulsions genocide? In a case presided over by Justice Rosalyn Higgins, the International Court of Justice made an important judgment in February 2007. Bosnia and Herzegovina argued against the former Republic of Yugoslavia and its successor states Serbia and Montenegro, and Serbia, that Serbia had been responsible for genocide and had failed to prevent genocide carried out by Serb militias in Bosnia. The Court found, by a majority vote, that Serbia had not committed genocide through its offices or institutions, or through those with delegated authority from Serbia; had not conspired to commit genocide; had not incited the commission of genocide; and was not complicit in genocide; but that Serbia had violated its obligation to prevent the genocide that occurred in Srebrenica in July 1995; and had failed under its duties under the international convention against genocide to transfer Ratko Mladic for trial by the International Criminal Tribunal (President of the Court Justice Higgins et al: 2007: Operative clause para 471). In its judgment the Court addressed the legal significance of the expression “ethnic cleansing”:

“It is in practice used, by reference to a specific region or area, to mean “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area” ...  It does not appear in the Genocide Convention; indeed, a proposal during the drafting of the Convention to include in the definition “measures intended to oblige members of a group to abandon their homes in order to escape the threat of subsequent ill-treatment” was not accepted...  It can only be a form of genocide within the meaning of the Convention, if it corresponds to or falls within one of the categories of acts prohibited by Article II of the Convention.  Neither the intent, as a matter of policy, to render an area “ethnically homogeneous,” nor the operations that may be carried out to implement such policy, can as such be designated as genocide:  the intent that characterizes genocide is “to destroy, in whole or in part” a particular group, and deportation or displacement of the members of a group, even if effected by force, is not necessarily equivalent to destruction of that group, nor is such destruction an automatic consequence of the displacement.  This is not to say that acts described as “ethnic cleansing” may never constitute genocide, if they are such as to be characterized as, for example, “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”, contrary to Article II, paragraph (c), of the Convention, provided such action is carried out with the necessary specific intent... that is to say with a view to the destruction of the group, as distinct from its removal from the region.  [While] “there are obvious similarities between a genocidal policy and the policy commonly known as ‘ethnic cleansing’”... a … “clear distinction must be drawn between physical destruction and mere dissolution of a group. The expulsion of a group or part of a group does not in itself suffice for genocide.” ... In other words, whether a particular operation described as “ethnic cleansing” amounts to genocide depends on the presence or absence of acts listed in Article II of the Genocide Convention, and of the intent to destroy the group as such.  In fact, in the context of the Convention, the term “ethnic cleansing” has no legal significance of its own.  That said, it is clear that acts of “ethnic cleansing” may occur in parallel to acts prohibited by Article II of the Convention, and may be significant as indicative of the presence of a specific intent ... inspiring those acts (President of the Court Justice Higgins et al: 2007 190.)

In this case the Court did not find, on the evidence presented to it, that the expulsions, which took place in Bosnia in 1992-95, were accompanied by the intent to destroy the targeted group, either in whole or in part. Therefore, legally speaking, we should not presume that ethnic expulsions are genocidal, as some have done (e.g. Cigar: 1995), though expulsions may accompany partial genocide, and may indicate that genocidal massacres are taking place. (For further legal discussions see Petrovic: 1994).

            Phenomena related to and often found as components of ethnic expulsions. If genocide is more extreme than ethnic expulsion because the intent to destroy the group is present, in whole or in part, then “pogroms” or “deadly ethnic riots” may reasonably be judged less extreme than expulsions, because they are intermittent, and their intent is usually to intimidate or exploit the targeted group’s vulnerability rather than comprehensively to displace it (Bergmann: 2003; Brass: 1996; Brass: 1996; Horowitz: 2001). Large-scale ethnic expulsions may be preceded by waves of intimidation in workplaces or by the destructions and burning out of homes where the targeted group lives. But such events may be halt and fall short of comprehensive expulsion.  In  Belfast and surrounding towns in 1920 (Lawlor 2009, 2011), and again in 1969,  Protestant loyalists expelled Catholics from their work-places and burnt shops and homes in what they regarded as justified responses to Irish nationalist provocations. The planned destruction of homes, seen as part of people’s homelands, justified by planning or development projects,  may be seen as “domicide,” which may  culminate in expulsions (see e.g. Porteous and Smith 2001).

            Ethnic expulsions should also be distinguished from (the rare) cases of voluntary exchanges of population subsequent to a partition or secession. Usually, however, such “exchanges” or “transfers” are involuntary from the perspective of the frightened populations that are to be moved, and they will regard them as expulsions. Ethnic expulsions should also be differentiated from policies of “control.” A subordinated group (or groups) may experience systematic discrimination in a control system, which then induces a higher-rate out of out-migration among that group than among the dominant group (O'Leary and McGarry: 1993 Ch. 3; Lustick: 1979). Control policies certainly have demographic components (McGarry: 1998), but they do not have the immediacy or local comprehensiveness of a targeted expulsion policy. It may require care to distinguish expulsion from induced emigration in particular cases, but usually the distinction will not be difficult to establish.

            Types of Expulsions. We may distinguish “Siberian exiles,” i.e. internal expulsions or the creation of “internally displaced people (IDPs)” in the course of internal conflicts and civil wars (Cohen and Deng: 1998; Hanf: 1993), from the deliberate policy of “creating refugees,” i.e. the unambiguous expulsion of citizens to territories or seas and oceans outside of the relevant sovereign borders, actions which are unlawful for governments to perform under international law (Goodwin-Gill: 1977; Hencckaerts: 1995). Examples of the former include the treatment of indigenous peoples in many of the European empires (Brantlinger: 2003; Cocker: 1998; Jennings: 1975); Irish Catholics moved by Oliver Cromwell during 1649-50 and by his predecessors and successors (Edwards, et al.: 2007; Ó Siochrú: 2008); national minorities within the Soviet Union during and after World War II (Nekrich: 1978; Pohl: 1999); the movement of South Africa’s blacks to their alleged homelands under apartheid (Desmond: 1971; Dugard: 1980); and the forced movement and concentration of Kurds and Turkomen within republican and Baathist Iraq.

            Examples of “refugee creation” include the expulsion of Jews from a large number of places in their collective history, notably by European Christian kingdoms, especially from England, France, and most dramatically in early modernity from Spain (Netanyahu: 1995; Netanyahu: 1999; Hess: 1968; Baer: 1992). The Nazis infamously expelled Jews from the Reich before they embarked upon “the final solution.” Here expulsion was abandoned in favor of the ambition to terminate the community entirely. Jews were also expelled from Arab states after the formation of Israel. The Jews have not been alone, of course. Upwards of fifteen million VolkDeutsch from Eastern Europe were expelled after World War II (De Zayas: 1977, Douglas 2012); so were some of the Palestinian Arab-population during the formation of Israel in 1948 (Khalidi: 1959; Palumbo: 1989 (1987); Khalidi: 1992; Pappé: 2006); Uganda’s Asians during the Amin dictatorship (Melady and Melady: 1976; Twaddle: 1975); and the Greek-Cypriot community of northern Cyprus in 1974 and after. As this article is composed ISIS is executing partial genocide and expulsions–targeting Kurds, Yazidis, Shabak, Shiite Arabs, and Christians in Syria and Iraq.

            What accounts for ethnic expulsions? They are strongly associated with wars, and their aftermaths. Scholars divide between “modernists” who believe that their incidence has increased in modernity–as a by-product of imperialism, the rise and spread of the nation-state, and, in some cases, as the alleged consequence of the dark-side of democracy (Mann: 1999). “Perennialists,” by contrast, believe expulsions are coextensive with the formation of the first states and empires (Bell-Fialkoff: 1993; Bell-Fialkoff: 1996; Morris and Scheidel: 2009; Oded: 1979; Tägil: 1990); just as genocide may be found in all periods of history and in all continents (Chirot and McCauley: 2006), the same is argued of ethnic expulsions. It is, however, frequently noted that the enslavement of conquered peoples was once more common, with the suggestion being that the exclusion of that awful option makes expulsions more likely. The belief that nation-state formation generates refugees is widespread (e.g. Zolberg: 1983; Tarzi: 1991; Jackson Preece: 1998); as is the suggestion that democracy generates pressure for expulsions (Mann: 2005). The implication is that the political effort to equate “demos,” and “ethnos” culminates in expulsion or worse. In this “modernist” perspective the first Balkan wars of 1912-14 are seen as typical and portents rather than as exceptional (Mylonas: 2012). Critics, however, respond that imperialism, religious exclusivism, and racism have had more salient roles in explaining and justifying expulsions, and expose significant problems with the “dark side of democracy” thesis, arguing that well-established democracies make expulsions much less likely, and wonder whether the implication is that we should prevent further democratizations (see Laitin: 2006; and the reply by Mann: 2006). 

            Normative Justifications and Rejoinders. The discourses used to justify expulsions normally focus on security considerations, but often have religious and other moral defenses; see, for example, Czech claims justifying the expulsion of the Germans (Bednar: 1948; Benes: 1942; Benes: 1944; Benes: 1946). The targeted group is accused of active disloyalty, or of being a potential fifth column for a foreign power; borderlands have to be secured in pre-emptive defense: facts must be made on the ground.  Expulsions have sometimes retrospectively been justified because they brought nationalist conflicts to an end (Evans: 1989).

            The justness of the targeted people’s presence in the land may be questioned: they may be recent colonial settlers, the vanguard or garrison stock of a great power; they may have attacked, or tried to expel the natives themselves; or they may be illegal immigrants. It has been argued that colonial settlers should not have the right to vote in self-determination referendums (Beran: 1990); it is a further step to suggest that they should also be expelled.  In a different ethical vein are those who focus on “moral hazard.” They fear that questionable claims that ethnic expulsions have taken place are triggering excuses for armed interventions (for discussions see inter alia Kresock: 1994; Kuperman: 2004). Anyone who needs reminding why ethnic expulsions are wrong should read Nickel: (1995).

            Some expulsions, however, have not been driven by security concerns, or supported by historic arguments related to who has the rightful claim to the relevant land. Nomadic and foraging peoples have often been driven from their lands by avaricious settlers, with or without the support of their governments, and with no respect for history. “Reservations” were often created for expelled indigenous peoples. Agrarian and industrialized peoples have often been both lethal and expulsionist toward those deemed to be at a lower level of civilization, and adept at providing legal justifications for their removal from their traditional lands (see Moses: 2000; Williams: 1990). Religious minorities who posed no major security threat have also been scapegoated before expulsion (Marx: 2003).


 What is to be done? The prevention of ethnic expulsions is a troublesome business, and is obviously closely tied to genocide prevention, and the prevention of pogroms and deadly ethnic riots. Secure multi-national federations, consociations and democracies provide the best institutional insurance but cannot guarantee attempts at expulsions will not occur. Credible commitments to protect collective as well as individual human rights by the Security Council of the UN may help in future. Equally troubling is the question of the pursuit of perpetrators, and whether those who have been expelled should have an enforceable right of return, a subject that remains pertinent in many places, including Bosnia (Toal and Dahlman: 2011), and contemporary Sudan, South Sudan, Iraq and Syria. On any defensible interpretation of the right to self-determination expelled peoples should have a right to return to their homelands with appropriate compensation. But it is extraordinarily rare for such returns to take place with the consent of the perpetrators or the perpetrators’ successors.

References / Further Reading

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Bell-Fialkoff, Andrew. “A Brief History of Ethnic Cleansing.” Foreign Affairs, Summer (1993): 110-21.

———. Ethnic Cleansing.  Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996.

Benes, Eduard. “Czechoslovakia Plans for Peace.” Foreign Affairs 23, no. 1 (1944): 26-37.

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Bergmann, Werner. “Pogroms.” In International Handbook of Violence Research, edited by Wilhelm Heitmeyer and John Hagan, 351-67. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2003.

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Brass, Paul R. “Introduction: Discourses of Ethnicity, Communalism, and Violence.” In Riots and Pogroms, edited by Paul R Brass, 1-55. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996.

Brass, Paul R., ed. Riots and Pogroms. New York, NY: New York University Press, 1996.

Chirot, Daniel, and Clark McCauley. Why Not Kill Them All? .  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Cigar, Norman. Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of “Ethnic Cleansing”. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995.

Cocker, Mark. Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold: Europe's Contact with Tribal Peoples.  London: Jonathan Cape, 1998.

Cohen, Roberta, and Francis M Deng. Masses in Flight: The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement.  Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1998.

De Zayas, Alfred M. Nemesis at Potsdam: The Expulsion of the Germans: Background, Execution, Consequences.  London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.

Desmond, Cosmas. The Discarded People: An Account of African Resettlement in South Africa.  Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

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