Ethnic Persecution: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Ethnic persecution has existed for thousands of years. But what exactly is ethnic persecution? How is it different from genocide, and how does it occur? In this lesson, we'll answer these questions as we take a peek at a few examples of ethnic persecution.


Think back three months ago. What was your life like? How has it changed since then? If you're like most people, while there are some differences in your life now compared with a few months ago, it is probably not dramatically different.

But in three months during the spring and early summer of 1994, many people in Rwanda had their lives completely changed. It was during that brief period that up to a million people were killed, just based on their ethnicity.

Ethnicity is the culture a person belongs to. This could include their nationality, religion, language, and customs.

Ethnicity is different from race, which is the biologically-determined color of one's skin. Take the Rwandan genocide, for example: the people who were being murdered and the people perpetuating the crimes were the same race, but they were different ethnicities.

What is ethnic persecution? And what forms does it take? Let's explore those questions further.

Ethnic Persecution

The genocide (or mass murder) in Rwanda is an example of ethnic persecution, but it's not the only one. Ethnic persecution is the violation of human rights based on ethnicity. Sadly, this has been a part of human history for thousands of years.

Like the Rwandan genocide, the Nazis in Germany launched ethnic persecution that led to genocide. They targeted many ethnic groups, including the Jews and Roma, or gypsies. Many people of different races, religions, as well as non-ethnic groups (like homosexuals) were sent to prison camps or killed, just for being different.

But not all ethnic persecution involves genocide. Remember that genocide is mass murder, but sometimes ethnic persecution doesn't involve murder, though it might still lead to deaths. A good example of this involves the potato famine in Ireland in the mid-1800s. Ireland was under British control at that time, and they grew wheat and oats to export to England, as well as potatoes, which they kept in Ireland to eat.

In 1845, a disease killed most of the potato crop. The British government refused to let the Irish keep wheat and oats to feed themselves, and instead insisted that they continue to export wheat and oats to England. As a result, many Irish died or immigrated to the United States to avoid starving to death.

Even when the Irish immigrated to the United States, they often faced persecution. Once in America, they were seen as less worthy than other groups of citizens. Help wanted ads often included the abbreviation 'N.I.N.A.,' which stood for 'No Irish Need Apply.' In other words, the company wouldn't hire Irish workers.

no irish need apply

Both the British refusal to allow the Irish to keep some of their food crops, and the American discrimination against the Irish, are examples of ethnic persecution that are not genocides.

How It Happens

Like many people, you might be wondering how ethnic persecution, and especially genocide, could happen. A common question people ask is how ordinary humans allow others, like the Nazis, to rise to power and engage in horrible acts of ethnic persecution.

There are some things that often happen near the beginning of an ethnic persecution, which allow the persecution to take root in a society.

1. Classification. The very first stage often involves creating an 'us' and a 'them.' The Nazis talked about how good Germans were different from Jews and Romas. Some of the Hutus in Rwanda created a division between their group and that of the Tutsis. The British saw the Irish as being very different than they were, in part due to the religious distinction of Catholic Ireland and Protestant England.

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