Can Forced Population Transfers Resolve Self-determination Conflicts?

Published in Journal for Contemporary European Studies (vol. 12, no. 1, 2004), this article takes as its starting point that the largely incongruent political and ethnic maps of Europe have meant that the competing claims of distinct ethnic groups to self-determination have been among the most prominent sources of conflicts within and across state boundaries. Striving to achieve internal stability and external security in the face of such demands, many states have sought to minimise the political impact of ethnic minorities with an affiliation to other, often neighbouring, states or parts of their population by expelling them or exchanging them against ethnic kinfolk of their own. Such forced population transfers in Europe are primarily linked with two phenomena, which in themselves are interrelated: the collapse of (multi-national) states and the redrawing of state boundaries. From the First and Second Balkan Wars, to World Wars One and Two, and finally to the violent break-up of Yugoslavia, Europe has seen numerous expulsions and exchanges of populations. Against this background, this article discusses in how far ethnic cleansing and its consequences contribute to the internal stability and external security of the states affected by such demographic changes. Following a conceptual clarification of forced population transfers, a number of cases of forced population transfers in twentieth century Europe are outlined. This is followed by an examination and summary of the similarities and differences between these cases from the perspective of common problems before suggesting any lessons that can be learned from the European experience of forced population transfers for developing policies conducive to establishing conditions under which forced population transfers, once they have occurred, can contribute to the internal stability and external security of the states involved, rather than become a source of constant crises. Thus, the article does not attempt to provide a normative assessment of forced population transfers as a whole or of any individual case or make an argument for or against them as mechanisms for resolving self-determination conflicts. Rather, the focus is on the pragmatic aspects of this phenomenon, which continues to occur in Europe and elsewhere. In other words, the article seeks to establish under what conditions, if any, forced population transfers can contribute to states’ internal stability and external security, i.e., whether they can adequately address the root causes of self-determination conflicts that they are supposed to resolve.

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