Ethnic Cleansing

Ethnic cleansing refers to the implementation of a well-defined policy that aims to establish an ethnically homogenous group in a specific territory or society through the expulsion of an unwanted minority group in a systematic manner. Such a policy may be carried out directly through deportation, forced emigration, or violence, or it may involve the use of more passive forms of coercive action such as harassment or discriminatory legislation. A broader definition of ethnic cleansing includes the discrimination of one group against another civilian group, delineated by a demographic variable that extends beyond ethnicity to include other sociocultural divides such as race, religion, national origin, or ideological considerations. Ethnic cleansing of minorities is often motivated by a desire of a particular group to consolidate its power by eliminating the conditions for potential and actual opposition in order to create a political stronghold throughout a region. That is, although causes of ethnic cleansing are mainly rooted in political gain for a particular group, ethnic cleansing is embellished by, and inseparable from, prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory practices on the basis of ethnicity, race, or religion. Each of these forms of discrimination reflects the general tendency for human beings to fear dissimilarity.

Concerted efforts also may be made to remove all physical traces of the expelled group in the territory (e.g., the destruction of civilian infrastructure and cultural sites), thereby effecting radical demographic changes. Because ethnic cleansing is such a brutal tactic intended specifically to create a hostile, if not life-threatening, environment for members of the target group, it is characterized by widespread and flagrant human rights violations.

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Included in the broad definition of ethnic cleansing is genocide. Among the most active and aggressive forms of ethnic cleansing, genocide is used to eradicate entire segments of a population, with the implicit or explicit aim of creating cultural, racial, and ethnic homogeneity. In an effort to prevent atrocities similar to the Holocaust of Nazi Germany during World War II, when an estimated 6 million European Jews were tortured and executed, the United Nations passed a resolution in 1948 that recognized genocide as a crime against humanity. This resolution, The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, defined genocide as any criminal act committed by an individual, group, or government, in time of peace or in time of war, with intent to destroy a national, racial, ethnic, or religious group. These punishable acts include killing members of the target group, causing them serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions that will bring about the group’s physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures to prevent births within the group, and forcefully transferring children of the group to other groups.

Examples of ethnic cleansing include the forced displacement of Native Americans by White settlers in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Armenian massacres by the Turks in 1915-1916, the Nazi Holocaust, and the Soviet Union’s deportation of certain ethnic minorities from the Caucasus and Crimea during the 1940s. Precipitating events among the recent cases of ethnic cleansing in the late 20th century often include complex regional struggles between different political constituencies that have pushed minorities to the edge of extinction. When ethnic clashes among factions occur, mass rape, sexual torture, and psychological trauma are common. Women and children are particularly vulnerable because many men leave their families and communities to join resistance groups. During the armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, for example, the vicious treatment and massacre of ethnic groups was the consequence of belligerent mobs targeting civilians to expel ethnic minorities in the population and hasten military surrender.

Another recent example of ethnic cleansing is the Rwandan genocide in 1994. This example is of particular importance because of the scale of fighting and the rapid speed of the massacre. Within a few months of the start of political and ethnic fighting in Rwanda, waves of violence claimed between 500,000 and 1 million lives, most of them ethnic Tutsis. Another 2 million civilians were forced to abandon their homes.

The violence associated with ethnic hatred in Rwanda has threatened the stability of the region in Africa, with the potential to ignite a wide conflagration throughout the continent. This ripple effect destabilizing the region is most recently evident in the Darfur crisis of ethnic cleansing in western Sudan at the start of the 21st century. Some 200,000 innocent civilians of Darfur have died, and 2.5 million have been displaced since fighting among rebels, the Sudanese army, and a militia of Arab nomads began in early 2003. Many civilians died in refugee camps because they were subject to further attacks. Lack of food, water, and medicine has also led to mass starvation and disease epidemics. Although the Darfur atrocities have drawn widespread condemnation, the international community remains slow or ineffective in stopping the violence that continues at the time of this writing. As in the past, the degree and pace of responses to ethnic cleansing in Darfur at the international level hinge largely on the calculation of perceived interest and the actual costs of intervention and enforcement within the diversity of the international society. Although the long-term effects of such destructive atrocities are not known, it is evident that practices of ethnic cleansing are comprehensively toxic.

Experiences and Needs of Ethnic Cleansing Survivors

Survivors of ethnic cleansing may be at heightened risk for developing physical and mental health problems. They may experience psychological traumatization subsequent to the violence committed against them through the development of symptom patterns that are subsumed under the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Symptoms of PTSD are common among refugees when they have been the victims of, or have witnessed, torture, rape, and other horrific events.

The severity of these symptoms, however, differs widely from individual to individual and also depends on the type, duration, and nature of the trauma experienced. Although the concept of PTSD may serve as a useful tool for understanding victims of psychological traumatization, PTSD is not necessarily a universal response to traumatic stress. That is, trauma as experienced by refugee youth and families may be moderated by personal, contextual, and cultural factors.

When ethnic cleansing occurs, the prolonged armed conflict displaces many civilians, and many of them seek refuge outside their countries to escape political turmoil as well as religious, racial, or political persecution. During the internal political upheavals in their countries in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, large scales of refugees from Latin America slipped across the international border into the United States.

When ethnic cleansing survivors are forced to abandon their homelands, the horror they endured may end when they successfully take shelter outside their country, but the stress they experience may not subside; rather, it may manifest in a different form. As war refugees, they have been uprooted from their familiar social and cultural milieu, which, combined with their exposure to violence, can have severe negative impacts on their health and well-being. Similar to other groups of immigrants, war refugees in a foreign country also face obstacles, such as linguistic constraints and cultural differences, in their adjustment process. The process is further complicated by the cumulative effects of resettlement, familial separation, and previous exposure to the violent, abusive, and dehumanizing world of war. These myriad potential counseling issues, combined with clinical manifestations characteristic of PTSD, create a unique challenge for counseling professionals working with survivors of ethnic cleansing. War refugees may suffer the psychological impact of separation from family and friends. The psychosocial impact of relocation and the disruption of a social support system may lead to loss of self-identification, social isolation, and loss of the sense of security. Such family disintegration disrupts the protective function of a social network that can mitigate the psychological effects of trauma and distress among individuals—children in particular. When children experience the violent death of, or separation from, parents during a war, severe grief, sleep disorders, depression, intense fears, feelings of vulnerability, and other emotional problems are common. Such difficulties faced by refugee children may be exacerbated by the inability of their surviving family members, who may suffer psychological distress themselves as well, to respond to the emotional and psychological needs of the children.

For refugee youth, their ability to cope with traumatic life events is further complicated by stress in relation to relocation, educational pursuits, and their identity development. In the United States, for example, it is the age, rather than academic background, of refugee children that determines their grade placement in schools. Young refugee children may thus be apt to quickly learn the new language and adjust to the new culture, whereas refugee adolescents may find resettlement a more daunting task due, in part, to inadequate education, lack of family support and community resources, and significant linguistic and cultural differences. Some may eventually develop behavior problems (e.g., aggression, vandalism), drop out of school, or run away from home.

Counseling Implications

Counseling professionals working with ethnic cleansing survivors need to design interventions that achieve a high level of social and cultural specificity. Effective interventions assist refugee youth and families as they negotiate profound social, cultural, economic, familial, and psychological transitions. These considerations underscore the importance of a systemic approach that examines the interplay between trauma and distress as related to political violence and forced migration, as well as the transitions associated with life in a foreign country. This perspective also necessitates the need to locate the refugee’s experiences within multiple social spaces, including that of life before war, wartime, and within multiple systems, including families, neighborhoods, schools, villages, and service institutions.

Specifically, in designing intervention strategies, counseling professionals must keep in mind a number of overarching principles. First, attention needs to be given to the importance of cultural variables, as well as individual resilience, that moderate the effects of traumatic experiences. Because the severity of symptoms of ethnic cleansing survivors differs widely from individual to individual and from time to time, many survivors experience mild or occasional symptoms that do not interfere with their daily functioning. Second, consistent with the hierarchy of human needs, any intervention should address basic human needs (e.g., food, water, shelter, and security) first, followed by psychological needs (e.g., belongingness and personal identity). Creation of a stable structure, physical and psychological, proves advantageous for survivors because of the lack-of-control and general disruption characteristics of experiencing such comprehensive physical and psychological displacement. Third, survivors of ethnic cleansing may experience survivor’s guilt, that is, the guilt of being one of the few who successfully escape from dangerous situations. They may have no information about the whereabouts of their family, relatives, and friends left behind. As they struggle to rebuild their life, the feeling of survivor’s guilt may interfere with a survivor’s process of recovery from psychological trauma. Counseling professionals must strike a balance between helping their clients reconstruct their traumatic story and supporting them to go through the grieving process at their own pace. Group counseling as a treatment modality may be particularly effective in providing the therapeutic power of universality and instillation of hope necessary for ethnic cleansing survivors to restore their social bonds with others and their connections with ordinary life.


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