Concentration camps have deep roots in liberal democracies
The New York Times recently reported that U.S. President Donald Trump wanted to authorize shooting Central American migrants in the legs and building snake- and alligator-infested moats to stop them from entering the United States.
Instead, his administration continues to house them in overcrowded detention camps on the southern border.
United States congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez condemned the Trump administration for running “concentration camps” earlier this year.
Though she was by no means the first to describe migrant detention centres as concentration camps — disgraced Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio boasted his “tent city” in the Sonora Desert was just that — her comments ignited a firestorm of controversy.
Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney complained concentration camp comparisons “demeaned the memory” of six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust and she urged AOC to learn some “actual history.”
The U.S. Holocaust Museum also issued a statement rejecting analogies between the Holocaust and other events, prompting more than 500 historians to petition the museum to reverse its “radical” and “ahistorical” position: “Similarities across time and space” were essential to learning lessons from the past, they argued.
An American Holocaust survivor even recently compared her childhood in a concentration camp in German-occupied Poland to the separation of migrant families in the southern United States.
And so looking back on a summer of heated and often misleading debate, two important points bear repeating.
British work camps
First: Concentration camps are by no means only synonymous with Nazi terror or totalitarianism. In fact, concentration camps have deep roots within the culture and politics of Anglo-Saxon liberal democracies.
In Victorian India, for example, Britain concentrated millions of “migratory people” fleeing drought and famine in a system of work camps designed to prevent unwanted populations from entering colonial towns.
And the term “concentration camp” itself dates back to the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), when Britain detained a quarter million civilians, mostly women and children, displaced by scorched-earth warfare.
Heeding advice from a young Winston Churchill, the United States soon established its own camps during the Philippine War (1899-1902), contributing to an American tradition — already prevailing in the form of guarded Indigenous encampments — of concentrating unwanted groups behind barbed wire.
Some decades later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt revived this well-established practice when he ordered Japanese immigrants and their descendants into what he called “concentration camps” (like the one at Fort Sill, recently proposed as a migrant detention facility).
The Anglo-Saxon world therefore has a long history of concentrating “undesirables” in facilities historically known as “concentration camps.”
Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric denigrating asylum seekers as “criminals,” “rapists” and “disease carriers” may well resemble Nazi statements directed at Jews, but it also revives a longer discourse of colonial racism in Britain and the United States.
South African refugees, British officers maintained, were a “dirty, careless, lazy lot” who spread disease, crime and poverty.
As America carried the “white man’s burden” across Latin America and the Pacific, it articulated a familiar language when detaining “semi-civilized” “half-breeds” in Philippine camps.
Stemming from racist tropes rooted in Euro-American settler expansion, meanwhile, concentration camps during the Second World War were aimed at preventing Japanese newcomers from “taking over” American jobs.
The crisis mentality in the U.S. following Pearl Harbor facilitated longstanding ideas about racial cleansing. In this context, it’s hardly surprising that Trump’s White House has used militarized language to present migrant flows as an “invasion” and “national crisis.” It revives an Anglo-American practice of suspending civil rights and constitutional protections under the guise of a declared emergency.
Trump routinely violates democratic norms, but his statements and policies sit within an established continuum —an “American way” — of establishing concentration camps.
Parallels and lessons
History provides both parallels and lessons.
Like today’s migrant shelters, British concentration camps in South Africa were hastily improvised, often with impermanent canvas tents, and administrators struggled to cope with a mass influx of inmates amid limited resources.
Statements from leaders like Lord Kitchener lambasting refugees as “savages with only a thin white veneer” framed official attitudes. Private letters deprecating the homes inmates left behind as “fit only for pigs” further served to justify appalling conditions.
South Africa, according to the British at the time, was a “shithole country” (to use Trump’s modern-day lexicon) and its residents deserved only the most basic facilities.
As with U.S. migrant camps, British concentration camps did not provide soap or sanitary facilities, and they were hopelessly overcrowded.
Worse still, inhuman conditions resulted in the outbreak of epidemic diseases — measles and typhoid in particular — that killed thousands of inmates. With modern vaccinations, America is unlikely to see similar death rates, yet Britain’s crowded camps are ominous portents as mortality rates rise at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s standing-room-only cells.
What not to do
Britain’s concentration camps demonstrate what not to do. But they also offer lessons in the virtues of engaged journalism and open democracy.
As images of detained and suffering children infiltrated London newspapers, humanitarian activists like Emily Hobhouse, who travelled to South Africa to personally visit the camps, and opposition politicians like Liberal Party leader Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who condemned the camps as “methods of barbarism,” mobilized civil society.
After months of complaints about “hysterical women” meddling in politics — Hobhouse was no more popular than Ocasio-Cortez — daily revelations about “prison camps” surrounded by “barbed-wire fences” eventually forced action.
War Secretary St. John Brodrick appointed an independent commission to report on camp conditions, and he rapidly accepted its recommendations.
In doing so, the government drastically reduced camp mortality and silenced its critics. More importantly, High Commissioner Alfred Milner conceded the camps had been a tragic mistake —the “one black spot of the war” —and rapidly disbanded them as soon as inmates could viably return home.
Britain went on to develop future camps —most controversially in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion. But in the immediate future, lessons from South Africa helped prevent Britain from interning German women and children during the First World War, a policy lauded as a moral and political success
If Trump wishes to mitigate further fallout from migrant detention, he might forsake his fantasies of terrorizing migrants as they attempt to enter the U.S. and listen instead to activists, journalists and lawyers.
Far from peddling “fake news,” their oversight, historically, has offered an important check on detention camps.