This essay, on whether migrant detention centres should be described as ‘concentration camps’, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on Tory policy and attitudes to the homeless.) It was published on 7 July 2019, under the headline ‘Whatever we call them, wherever they are, detention centres are a disgrace’.
They are held in wire cages, with standing room only, sometimes for months. Adults have to wear the same clothes for weeks. Children have no washing facilities and sleep on bare concrete floors. Babies are fed from the same unwashed bottle for days. Children as young as four months are separated from their parents. Some are never reunited.
The detention centres to hold undocumented migrants on America’s southern border are a moral abomination. But are they ‘concentration camps’?
Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stirred up a major controversy when she denounced them as such. Outraged critics accused her of demeaning the memory of those murdered in Nazi death camps. Many historians responded to such criticism by pointing out that concentration camps predate Nazism.
Historical analogies are powerful tools, the misuse of which can be deeply damaging. So what’s the truth both about concentration camps and migration detention centres?
The origins of the concentration camp lie in the attempt by European powers to suppress freedom struggles in their colonies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Spain, faced with an independence movement in Cuba, introduced in 1896 the policy of reconcentración, under which hundreds of thousands of civilians were forcibly relocated into barbed wire encampments. The idea was to weaken the insurgents by making civilians suffer.
Britain, during the Boer war in South Africa, similarly relocated more than 200,000 civilians into what David Lloyd George called ‘camps of concentration’. One in 10 of the Boer population died there. In the neighbouring colony of south-west Africa, now Namibia, Germany pursued an even more brutal relocation system in which the Herero people were virtually exterminated.
During the First World War, a new form of mass detention developed – internment camps for locking up ‘enemy aliens’, civilians who had committed no crime but whose origins lay in the enemy nation. Perhaps the most notorious such camps were established by the US government to intern Japanese Americans in the Second World War.
In the 1920s and 30s, more industrialised, brutal versions of the concentration camp were created to relocate not foreign insurgents or enemy aliens but a nation’s own citizens as punishment and eventually for extermination. An early expression of this came with the Soviet gulags, while its most barbarous form came with the Nazi death camps. Today, the mass detention by China of more than a million Uighur Muslims represents the latest example of such a relocation policy.
Where do migrant detention camps fit into this history? If by concentration camp we simply mean Nazi death camps, there is no comparison. There are, however, aspects of migrant detention that recall the broader history of concentration camps – the imprisonment of thousands of civilians without trial for indefinite periods and in inhumane conditions.
There are also major differences. Today’s camps are not a means by which governments impose control in a conflict, nor do they involve the mass relocation of people. And, so far at least in America, they are not beyond the bounds of law, even if the law is ignored in many of them.
What migrant detention centres represent is a new coercive, militarised mechanism through which states, particularly rich and powerful ones, try to impose control over the movement of people. To see what such a mechanism can turn into, look at the southern border of Europe. Or, rather, at north Africa which, for the EU, is where the southern border of Europe lies, at least for immigration purposes.
The EU has poured huge amounts of money into countries across Africa and the Middle East in return for states, militias and even criminal gangs locking up tens of thousands of would-be or thought-to-be migrants before they reach the Mediterranean shore.
US border camps may be squalid and degrading. The EU-funded prisons are places of true horror in which sexual abuse and torture are commonplace. European governments are aware of the conditions. But these prisons are far enough away to allow them to wash their hands of any responsibility.
Against this background, the question of whether detention centres are really ‘concentration camps’ is almost irrelevant. However we label them, they are a moral disgrace. The question we need to ask ourselves is: how has such detention become acceptable?
At least Americans are still challenging the existence of such imprisonment. Europeans simply shrug their shoulders and accept them as the price worth paying for ‘protecting’ Europe. ‘In maintaining these facilities,’ the historian of the Holocaust, Timothy Snyder, wrote of US migrant detention, ‘we are transforming ourselves into what we imagine we could never become.’
How much truer is that of Europeans?