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Exchange of Populations

Greece / TurkeyMegali Katastrofi19222,000,000
EuropeDisplaced Germans194512,000,000
India / PakistanPartition194711,000,000
Israel / PalestineNakba19471,500,000

Forced population movement is multi-faceted because it encompasses expulsions, deportations and exchanges of populations; it can take place within one or between more countries; it is used as a form of punishment for imputed political opinion, a means of ethnic cleansing or a way to solve the issue of national, ethnic or religious minorities. However multi-faceted and complex, it is a single phenomenon having the following features: 1) it has a mass dimension, since it concerns entire populations, national or ethnic groups, or otherwise identifiable groups of people; 2) it is forced, either directly or indirectly; 3) at present, it is unlawful on the basis of international human rights law and international criminal law.

Given that ethnic identity is based, in part, on territorial aspirations. boundary lines that satisfy all parties will be nearly impossible to draw, are likely to be drawn arbitrarily, and may simply hone animosities. The human costs of a population exchange would be staggering, as the historical examples of the massive Greco-Turkish exchanges in the post-World War I era, the population shifts that accompanied the division of India and Pakistan, and the 45 years of war that have followed the partition of Palestine clearly indicate. Such an option once again sets a precedent that could be viewed as little more than aiding and abetting the "ethnic cleansing" campaign.

During the recent history of Europe, millions of people have been forcibly expelled, transferred or exchanged by reason of their ethnicity, as a result of the delimitation of new state borders or to solve the question of ethnic minorities or, again, on the basis of deliberate policies of ethnic cleansing. Mass deportations have been used to punish some national, ethnic or social groups for their imputed political opinion and hundreds of thousands of people have felt compelled to leave their homeland for fear of being persecuted by oppressive regimes or within new state borders.

It is not possible to discuss forced population movements without mentioning the deportation of Jews to concentration camps under the Nazi regime, in Germany as well as other territories under Nazi influence. This crime against humanity represents one of the most atrocious pages of European history.

In the first half of the twentieth century, forced migration was a collective European experience. 60 to 80 Million Europeans were forced to leave their homeland, many of them never to return again. In Central and Eastern Europe hardly any nation or region was exempted from this tragedy. In recent years millions of people have been forcibly displaced in the Balkans and the Caucasus due to conflicts in these regions.

In the collective memory of the peoples of Europe there are wounds that have not healed. Exile has blighted the lives of millions of people and this suffering has been handed down from generation to generation. Sadly, this is not a memory of the distant past for our continent, since violent conflicts and forced population movements have been ravaging entire regions throughout the '90s and are still taking place.

  1. Expulsion: technically is the removal of a foreigner to another country. In practice this term is often used as a synonym of deportation.
  2. Forced population transfer: permanent movement of a large group of people, often defined by their ethnicity or religion, from one region to another. Sometimes two groups are transferred in opposite directions at about the same time, in which case the process is called population exchange.
  3. Ethnic cleansing: the displacement from a given territory of groups of people defined according to ethnic criteria forced, or tolerated or condoned by the state, in order to make the ethnic composition of that territory homogeneous.
  4. Deportation: the removal of someone from a territory. It can apply equally to foreigners and nationals; it can imply the removal inside the same country (resettlement) or abroad.

For a long time in history, the international community acquiesced in and sometimes even encouraged population displacements and transfers as a means to bring durable peace to a region. Nowadays, deportation and forced population transfers could, under the statutes of a number of international tribunals, including the International Criminal Court, be prosecuted as crimes against humanity. In addition, it is widely recognized that they entail numerous and serious human rights violations.

Forced population movements constitute a collective European experience. In the last century 60 to 80 million people were forced to leave their homelands, many of them never to return again. In Central and Eastern Europe there was hardly any nation or region exempted from these gigantic population transfers. A map of the migration waves in Europe during the 20th century shows an innumerable amount of arrows pointing in all directions, many from East to West. Forced population transfers and deportations aimed at changing the ethnic composition of a region have not been rare occurrences in Europe. Even if the term "ethnic cleansing" entered common parlance after the war in former Yugoslavia at the beginning of the 1990s, this practice goes back at least to the 19th century.

The perception of forced population movements by the international community has changed over the years. This change has been reflected by an evolution of international law: from an acceptable way to solve the issue of ethnic and religious minorities, these acts became unlawful after the tragic events of the Second World War. Since then, the prohibition of forced population movements in international law developed progressively, and in several respects: from limited to situations of armed conflict, such a prohibition was extended to situations of peace; from limited to international movements, it was extended to forced movements within the same country; finally, from limited to foreigners, the prohibition was extended to nationals.

Nowadays, forced population movements are considered as 'crimes against humanity' under the statute of a number of international tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC), the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and, outside Europe, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR); they are considered as a gross violation of human rights and as an interference with rights enshrined in various international instruments35. Collective expulsions of foreigners, finally, are prohibited by Article 4 of Protocol 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In parallel to the progressive acceptance of the prohibition of these acts, another branch of international law developed: the cornerstone of international refugee protection, that is the Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees, and the statute of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees were created under the still vivid impression of the atrocities committed by the fascist regimes, of the sufferings endured by the civilian population during the second world war as well as the multi-faceted displacement caused by the war.

Deportations and forced population transfers have been used as forms of punishment against potential opponents and as instruments of ethnic cleansing. It is important, however, to realise that very often in history deportations and transfers have been regarded by states as the only way to protect their own nationals abroad or by a coalition of states to bring lasting peace to a region. This position is epitomised by the statement made by Sir Winston Churchill in the House of Commons in 1944 that 'Expulsion is the method which, in so far as we have been able to see, will be the most satisfactory and lasting. There will be no mixture of populations to cause endless trouble... A clean sweep will be made. I am not alarmed by these transferences, which are more possible in modern conditions.'

At first sight, it would seem that this approach is completely outdated and superseded. It is true that Council of Europe member states have committed themselves to the respect of the rights of national minorities, among others through the ratification of the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities. It cannot be forgotten, however, that the approach of the international community to finding a durable solution for the former Yugoslavia was by separating different ethnic groups.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:27:45 ZULU