According to Bell-Fialkoff and others, the Assyrian Empire practiced ethnic cleansing when it forced millions of people in conquered lands to resettle between the ninth and seventh centuries B.C. Groups such as the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans continued this practice, though not always on such a large scale and often to procure slave labor. During the Middle Ages, religion rather than ethnicity was a main source of persecution; episodes of religious cleansing tended to target Jews, often the largest minority in European countries. In Spain, which had a large population of Jews and of Muslims, Jews were expelled in 1492 and Muslims in 1502; those who remained were forced to convert to Christianity, though all Muslim converts (called Moriscos) were expelled in the early 17th century. In North America, most Native Americans in North America were forced to resettle in territory allotted to them by the mid-19th century; when the Homestead Act of 1862 opened up most of the remaining lands to white settlers, those tribes who resisted–such as the Sioux, Comanche and Arapaho–were brutally crushed.
Despite these examples, some scholars argue that ethnic cleansing in its strictest sense is a 20th-century phenomenon. In contrast to forced resettlement movements of the past, 20th-century ethnic cleansing efforts have been driven by the rise of nationalist movements with racist theories fed by the desire to “purify” the nation by expelling (and in many cases destroying) groups considered “alien.” This was the case in the 1990s, both in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, where members of the majority Hutu ethnic group massacred hundreds of thousands of people, mostly minority Tutsis, from April to July 1994. The most prominent example of extremist nationalism-fueled ethnic cleansing was, of course, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany and its ceaseless campaign against Jews in German-controlled territory from 1933-1945. This movement began with cleansing by deportation and ended in the horrific “final solution”–the destruction of some six million Jews (along with 250,000 Gypsies and the same number of homosexuals) in concentration camps and mass killing centers.
The term ethnic cleansing has also been used to refer to the treatment of Chechens who fled Grozny and other areas of Chechnya after Russia began military operations against separatists there during the 1990s, as well as the killing or forcible removal from their homes of refugees from East Timor by Indonesian militants after a vote for independence in 1999. Most recently, it has been applied to the events occurring since 2003 in the Darfur region of Sudan, where brutal clashes between rebel groups and Sudanese military forces have left hundreds of thousands dead and more than 2 million displaced (many of whom, like the rebels, are members of the Fur, Zaghawa and Masaalit ethnic groups).