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?
I’d really like to hear the detail of the proposed alternative.
Because of the numbers involved, I would guess that part of it would mean no holding centres at the border.
Maybe no detentions anywhere at all. Because if someone came up with the idea to greatly reduce the numbers by moving the detainees quickly away into other states, so to disperse the concentration – that would be heavily criticised too. Because they would still be being held while being processed.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez voted to stop a $4 billion plus injection of funds into the border facilities, so for people like that, nothing short of an open border will be good enough I guess. I can’t see such an idea being put to the people by the Democratic Party for the 2020 election though. If that’s what they do want, they should propose it and see what the people think.
This issue is going to be an ongoing problem for decades to come. Once something like this becomes a reality, it can’t go back to how it was before when it was not even thought about. Everyone in Latin America could potentially claim asylum and that is now a widely known factor in the possible ways of getting into the United States. Given that assessing someone’s eligibility for asylum and refugee status takes a lot of time and involves lawyers and legal cases, then there’s a good chance the system will buckle, just like the UK’s did when John Reid was Home Secretary.
What’s slightly annoying about people who are for open borders, is that they seem to avoid some of the negative potential consequences of what would be likely to happen. It’s more of an ideological position than a practical one in my opinion. There would be so much more provision, housing and infrastructure that would need to be built.
It would alter the nature of existing cities.
When I saw the headline on this article I thought it would be about the immigrant detention centres in the UK, which are also a moral disgrace. Of that more later.
Damon wrote “This issue is going to be an ongoing problem for decades to come.” Yesterday David Attenborough addressing MPs in Westminster on the subject of climate change said “great social unrest” caused by climate change will affect “what we eat and how we live”. This was on the same day that the the chair of the government’s own advisory Committee on Climate Change Lord Deben said of the government’s efforts on climate change “The whole thing is run by the government like a Dad’s Army operation.” My own suspicion is that the scale of climate change driven migration could in the long run make the idea of camps laughable, and eventually threaten what we like to call civilisation.
But that is worst-case scenario and does not excuse us from tackling today’s problems. What concerns me, in relation to UK immigration detention centres, is that when we talk or think about concentration camps and the Holocaust, describing them as “evil”, or even “ultimately evil”, the work of “evil” people, we automatically assume that we are not evil. After all we won the war and got rid of the evil people didn’t we? So it couldn’t happen here could it? And we don’t notice it happening under our noses.
Immigrant detention centres work on the assumption that the occupants are illegal immigrants with no right to be in the country, despite the fact that they are imprisoned without legal process or representation. Habeas corpus does not apply in the centres and human rights are overtly and officially denied. The delegation to private sector operators allows separation and deniability of responsibility on the part of government, aided by the obfuscation of commercial confidentiality.
Honest God-fearing citizens obviously have nothing to fear. Despite the fact that both the major parties have for several decades been blithely building an ideal legal framework for totalitarian government, e.g. introducing thousands of new offences, making all offences arrestable, and reducing legal aid to a shell. The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 (a.k.a. the Snoopers’ Charter) is the latest example.
Historically the main reason for governments lurching to the right and bully boy tactics is inability to cope, either through incompetence or overwhelming circumstances. Ring any bells?
Such an administration might find the idea of expanding the use of detention centres attractive. Things can change. In 1939 SS Lieutenant Rudolf Hoess was sent to the Polish town of Oświęcim with orders to convert a Polish cavalry barracks into a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners, which he did. Seven years later, as Colonel Hoess, he was hanged in that camp, called by the Germans Auschwitz, for the murder of 1.3 million people.
Damon, you write
You raised virtually the same issue in your response to my previous post. I responded by pointing you to some of my articles, and eventually you replied ‘I know you’ve written a lot about this issue Kenan, but my point is, that I’m my opinion there’s a problem with what you say each time.’ I pointed out that you don’t have to agree with me but that’s not the same as suggesting that I don’t address the issue.
So, I am not sure why you are asking the same question again. I can but point you to the same articles that I did before, and to the same authors who have engaged with these questions far more than I have. Or wait until I publish my book that addresses the issue in more detail. But most of all, I’d again make the same point: that my starting point is that migration detention centres (especially European-funded ones in north Africa) are morally unconscionable. My starting point, in other words, is that such detention, and such policies, should not exist. If you don’t agree that such policies and such forms of detention are unconscionable, then you have to be honest (your favourite word) and acknowledge that you are willing to accept mass detention and mass deaths as the price of controls. So far you’ve been unwilling to follow through and accept the consequences of your own argument.
As I have pointed you previously to my talk where I address some of ‘the negative potential consequences of what would be likely to happen’, what’s more than ‘slightly annoying’ is that you keep repeating the same claim. And if my arguments are insufficient or unconvincing, there are many others whose arguments you could read – such as Reece Jones or Joseph Carens or Chris Bertram. You don’t have to agree with any of the arguments. But don’t keep repeating that no one addresses the issues.
And, again as I pointed out in our exchange over my previous past, your argument is equally ‘ideological’. You just like to pretend that you’re simply talking common sense but everyone who disagrees with you (especially on the ‘left’) is ‘ideological’.
Finally, and again I’m repeating myself, perhaps you could address the ‘negative consequences’ of a system that involves mass detention and mass deaths, and, in the case of Europe, the creation of a kidnap-and-detention throughout North Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, and the acceptance by European governments of the most degrading of conditions, including torture, in EU-funded detention centres?
“But most of all, I’d again make the same point: that my starting point is that migration detention centres (especially European-funded ones in north Africa) are morally unconscionable.”
I’ve always tried to be quite liberal, but at the moment Ted Cruz seems to be making more sense than people on the left.
You can’t just say something is morally unconscionable if you don’t also recognise that there is no way out of these problems short of open borders. If people support open borders, then fine.
But it could be the end of the West – kind of like “reactionaries” like Douglas Murray have been saying.
There’s nothing that gives western countries “the right” to be rich and prosperous. They are just that way for the time being. It could all fall apart one day. And open borders could help bring that about.
If you put me on the spot and asked me if I support detention centres, or doing what Hungary did by building a physical barrier along its border, I’d have to say “yes” … but only because to not have them would lead to a bigger problem when even more came the next year.
Germany might have been able to take in a million people one time, but it couldn’t be doing that every year for the next twenty years.
I’d like to hear a through criticism of what Ted Cruz says in that video.
Meanwhile, leftists Sunny Hundal and Ash Sarkar have been calling them concentration camps again – and fascism.
I think I must be right wing then.
You’re still avoiding the issue. I didn’t ask whether you thought it was OK for the Hungarians to put up barbed wire fencing. I asked whether you accepted a system of controls that involves mass detention and mass deaths, and, in the case of Europe, the creation of a kidnap-and-detention industry throughout much of Africa, and the acceptance by European governments of the most degrading of conditions, including torture, in EU-funded detention centres. And I pointed out that if you don’t agree that the policies pursued both by the USA and by the EU are unconscionable and therefore unacceptable, then you should be honest enough to acknowledge that you are willing to accept mass detention and mass deaths as the price of controls. For someone who constantly insists on the ‘left’ being ‘honest’ and lambasts it for ‘not engaging with criticism’, you seem very good at not being straight with your answers.
An honest answer to your question about EU funded detention centres in Africa and what exactly goes on in them is that I don’t know much about them. Have I just missed the newspaper articles about them? I’ve heard how hellish things can be for African migrants in Libya and Egypt, but that’s more about criminal gangs. I really don’t know much, and my guess is, that hardly anyone else does either. I’ve never heard it discussed on the radio, and I listen to far too much of that. I’ve even got it on now and their talking about Extinction Rebellion again.
I can’t make head nor tail of the open borders argument. What might have once worked for small numbers of Moroccan workers going back and forth to Spain to work on the farms, is hardly applicable to today’s situation. Those millions of young men from Africa aren’t going to be doing a lot of going back. But even if they did, it would still be hugely disruptive.
They would be living in transitory bedsit neighbourhoods which would make places far from stable. They could end up having some of the problems South African apartheid-era worker hostels had.
What’s going to cause more deaths? The right wingers in the American media are blaming the left for encouraging the flows of people through Mexico which is resulting in terrible suffering en-route. They’re talking about the percentage of females (including children) being raped and sexually abused before they get to the border. Who knows what percentages are the true ones?
Just today on Fox, they were saying that they’ve been doing DNA tests on supposed families and found that 30% of them were not related. I don’t know if this stuff is true, but you should be watching the Fox News clips right now because they’re making a lot of these claims.
Back to Europe and Africa – the EU can not take in all the people who will come.
Saying that the starting point is that the detention centres are unconscionable, starts from the wrong point imo. Because without any deterrents, the numbers will lead to destabilisation in Europe. Most Europeans don’t want to have more waves of mass immigration.
I’m sure Turks wouldn’t want it, and I can’t think of any other country where a majority would welcome it. How about Slovenia? I really don’t think so. Should they be forced though?
To sum up – about the deaths – I don’t know what’s worse. Trying to deter, or giving a green light like Angela Merkel did.
Personally, I think there’s no good solution. We’re pretty stuffed whatever we do.
Did you see the video of the African migrants storming into the Pantheon in Paris yesterday?
We can expect a lot more of that.
Oh, and about Turkey and football, I was going to say that Turkey is really peaceful – apart from when it’s football. And I wasn’t making light of the situation in the Kurdish region, that was me getting sidetracked into that, because if I’d said that Turkey is homogeneous, you could rightly have mentioned the Kurds.
Turkey is much more at ease with itself (at street level) than England is.
I can walk anywhere at any time without considering the issue of personal safety.
And if not “anywhere” – let’s say every place I’ve been in then.
I can’t do that in my own London borough.
Every time I’ve written an article about migration, you’ve responded, and responded critically. Now, you say you don’t know much the actual policies and their consequences. Perhaps it would have helped to have found out a bit more before responding, continually and critically.
Let’s have a look at numbers, shall we? The ‘millions’ that people have in mind refers to one year – 2015, when 1.3 m undocumented migrants came to Europe, driven largely by the specific nature that year of the Syrian war. Before and after the figures have been much lower. This year, so far, there are 42,000 undocumented migrants coming to Europe. To put that in context, last year more than 10 times as many regular migrants came to the UK alone. So, let’s get some perspective on the panic.
Not saying that the starting point is that the detention centres are unconscionable is to say that you accept them. You’re entitled to that view. But what you are saying is that mass detention and mass deaths (at least 35,000 in the past 25 years of undocumented migrants to Europe) is a price worth paying. You’ve wriggled all kinds of ways to try not to acknowledge that. And, as I keep repeating, for someone who constantly talks about the ‘left’ needing to be ‘honest’, your refusal to accept the consequences of the policies you support is hardly honest.
And have you seen the hundreds of videos of the gilets jaunes, their violence and the even greater violence done to them by the police, over the past six months? But they’re not migrants, so you simply ignore that violence. Your obsession is only with violence done by migrants, never about violence done to migrants, or violence perpetrated by anyone else.
Only someone who doesn’t know Turkey, or refuses to acknowledge what’s in front of his eyes, could suggest this. The key feature of Turkey today is precisely tension, not simply between Turks and Kurds, but between pro and anti-AKP supporters. As I’ve pointed out already in a thread in another post where you’ve made exactly this same point, Turkey is a country in which over the past three years, almost 100,000 have been arrested, 150,000 people, including 6000 academics and 4000 members of the judicial systems dismissed, almost 200 media outlets shut down, and over 300 journalists arrested. A country at ‘ease with itself?
You’re having a pop at me for not knowing anything about these detention centres outside of Europe. Where are they? I know that Turkey was paid a lot of money to help stop the flow of migrants to Greece. Tomorrow I’m going to a town right opposite the island of Lesbos, so it must have been a place where many migrants set out from. But it’s difficult to see anything just by travelling about in a normal way.
Overall numbers go up and down with the conditions and how open or easy the way is.
The fact that numbers are down now will be due to it being seen as too hard or the routes closed now (well that would be how it seems like). If there were open borders there would be millions. Why wouldn’t there be? To suggest that there wouldn’t be, doesn’t sound credible.
People from the Indian subcontinent are joining in with trying to get into both Europe and the US by clandestine methods. It becomes a bigger flow as more people find successful ways in.
I see there is some detention deterrence in Niger from reading this:
But the first thing it says is that not a lot of detail about what happens is actually known.
As I know little about it, I can’t be said to support it. But there has to be some policing and clamp downs on these smuggling routes, as otherwise you end up with ever stronger criminal cartels forming. But I don’t think there’s much desire to find out great detail about what goes on in West Africa, otherwise it would be in the news more. Surely the (other) Guardian opinion writers would be taking a great interest.
As for the Africans in Paris the other day …… they weren’t being violent and I never suggested they were. So they weren’t like the yellow vests. They were just demanding to be granted asylum, or citizenship, or their papers, or whatever any of them were particularly agitated about.
It wasn’t violence, only a sign of a system under pressure. That was the only reason I mentioned them. They will keep coming for decades to come.
And I’m not sure if you are deliberately misunderstanding what I’ve been saying about Turkey.
My point has been, that for all its troubles, it feels remarkably safe and easy going.
At people to people levels. Unlike in Britain, as you and the Runnymede Trust Report have highlighted where apparently, minorities are feeling hated and looked down upon all the time.
My point was, that at least Turkey (away from any conflict areas) feels safe and at ease.
Unlike London, which you’ve described as sounding full of hurt.
Although the weekend before last, I did actually notice a large number of police and riot vehicles moving into the Taksim area of Istanbul. I only found out the next day that they were there to suppress a banned gay rights rally.
That’s one case of Turkey not being at ease, but I’m not sure how much gay rights are a concern there. The next day, you wouldn’t have known anything had happened.
All of the Eastern European capitals are more easy going than London.
In places like Belgrade, large suburbs of 1960s and 70s concrete housing estates are ugly, but quite civilised and not horrible places like they can be in Britain. And as you’ve described how marginalised and hurt so many minority people feel in Britain, not having new diversity at least spares Eastern Europe those kind of troubles. I’m sure there’s stuff I don’t see, but I’ve yet to see anything like this – from a rather good piece by Deborah Orr in 2008.
I’m not having a pop at you for ‘not knowing about these detention centres’. I’m criticising the fact that you take a stand on the USA’s and the EU’s migration policy, defend the policy of detention centres, and then, when pressed, eventually say ‘I don’t know much about them’. If I was to write an article, where I took a stance on some issue, spouted off at length about it, and then say ‘Actually, I don’t know much about it’, you’d be (rightly) outraged. If you don’t know about an issue, then don’t take a stance on it until you do. Otherwise, yes, I will ‘have a pop at you’.
The EU has deals with, among others, Turkey, Morocco, Libya, Niger, Ethiopia and Eritrea. You could begin by looking at this Amnesty International report on Libyan detention. And my essay on EU policy.
The numbers for 2015 were unique, and uniquely large. Both before and after, the numbers have been far smaller.
What you think ‘sounds credible’ is neither here nor there. Open borders were the norm until relatively recently, and still are in many parts of the world. Any evidence from all that data to support your thesis?
if you ‘know little about it’, then don’t keep arguing about it from what you yourself admit is ignorance. You wrote earlier in the thread ‘Saying that the starting point is that the detention centres are unconscionable, starts from the wrong point imo.’ In which case, as I wrote in response, ‘Not saying that the starting point is that the detention centres are unconscionable is to say that you accept them. You’re entitled to that view. But what you are saying is that mass detention and mass deaths (at least 35,000 in the past 25 years of undocumented migrants to Europe) is a price worth paying.’. You can’t have it both ways: insists that I’m wrong in suggesting that such policy is unconscionable and also that you can’t be said to support such policy because you ‘know little about it’.
It may ‘feel remarkably safe and easy going’ to you. But it doesn’t to many, perhaps most, Turks. And only someone blind to what is happening in Turkey would suggest that it does.
There are things about your open borders idea that just don’t add up.
It would need through scrutiny for it to be deemed plausible.
I can’t see how it is. To talk about small numbers in the past is to be completely overlooking some likely factors. If you open up visa programmes where almost anyone in the world who wanted to, had a decent chance of being able to go and live in the Western countries, you’ll probably find any quotas you make are oversubscribed as soon as you announce them.
It would be like trying to buy tickets for Glastonbury.
If I could have gone and worked in the US, I would have gone too.
We may just disagree on that and there’s no point arguing about it.
But this has to be taken into consideration:
“Nigeria’s Population Projected to Double by 2050”
Even if you strongly disagree with me, at least you might consider how I’m forming my view.
The 2015 numbers grew so big because it seemed Europe had given refugees and migrants the green light to come in. Syrian families who had been settled in camps in Turkey, started walking across borders and trying to get to the Greek islands. People drowned even though they had been safe before.
On camps in Africa – I really don’t take a view. I can read some UNHCR or other agency reports, but will never know how accurate they are. I’ll let other people denounce those African camps, but the thing is, they’re hardly discussed as far as I can tell.
A possible outcome of illegal immigration getting out of control can be seen in southern Tel Aviv.
I spent days there walking around looking at the situation a few years ago. That was crisis of sorts. The place was a proper ghetto. The idea that Israel should just take twice or three times as many (Eritreans) just didn’t seem like a sensible idea. Where would they live for a start?
I have to bear in mind when I read your stuff, that you come from the tradition that believes in unlimited potential and that small countries like Britain could have double their population and still be thriving. In theory that might be true, but it’s not how things work out from where we are now. A country that can’t build infrastructure properly or give everyone decent lives.
I look on your view as seeing “the ideal” future. One that it could be (come the revolution etc).
As for Turkey – my only point was, that despite all their problems, they radiate good spirit.
And I feel that and really like it. It’s the opposite of being on the bus in London and being subject to that “pissed off” alienated street talk. Here they don’t seem to have that vibe.
The Runnymede Trust report was describing it to a degree.
Well, then, provide some actual evidence as opposed to the ‘It’s obvious to me…’ kind of arguments.
I’m afraid you do. You can’t simply dismiss them as ‘camps in Africa’. They are, as I wrote in the article, central to EU policy to create ‘a new coercive, militarised mechanism’ of control. The EU has a series of deals with a host of countries in North Africa, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East to ensure that those countries act as Europe’s immigration policy. You support ‘deterrence’. You believe that ‘Saying that the starting point is that the detention centres are unconscionable, starts from the wrong point imo’. In other words, you do take a view. You just refuse to admit the consequences of that view.
Certainly more accurate than evidence-free claims.
I’ve written about them, and I’ve pointed you to others who have. The fact that ‘they’re hardly discussed’ does not mean that they don’t exist nor that they’re not significant. I’m sure you will ‘let other people denounce those African camps’. But that, unfortunately, is a case of washing your hands of the issue, of pretending that it’s not your issue. That’s what too many people do, and that’s part of the problem.
Just watched this. Wow!
I say that not so much because of this press briefing, but because of the humongous gulf between left and right. I can just hear the liberals and leftists swearing at Lindsey Graham as he says all this.
“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.“
Is it wrong for nations to restrict or limit (i.e., “control”) the movement of non-citizens through their borders? I think we both strongly disagree with what’s happening, but you make it sound like nations should not have borders at all. Is that your position? Like Damon, I would also like to hear your proposed alternative.
Any form of immigration policy – coercive, liberal, open – requires a democratic mandate. But that does not mean either that a nation should impose such controls or that I have to agree with the imposition of such controls. As for open borders, I have talked about how the supposed consequences are not what they seem.
‘Strongly disagreeing with what’s happening’ is my starting point; in other words, that such policies should go. Beyond that, I am happy to listen to yours or anyone else’s views on what other policies there should be.