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Reality check: Is it OK to call migrant detention centres concentration camps?

Global News with Stephanie Silverman 22 June 2019

The detention centres housing thousands of migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border are concentration camps, said New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“That is exactly what they are,” Ocasio-Cotez said during an Instagram Live video on Monday evening. “If that doesn’t bother you … I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say that ‘Never Again’ means something.”

The comments were met with a swift backlash.

In an open letter posted on Twitter, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York urged Ocasio-Cortez not to use terminology that evokes the Holocaust.

“The terms ‘Concentration Camp’ and ‘Never Again’ are synonymous with and evocative of the atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, in which six million European Jews were systematically denied civil and human rights due to their race and ultimately murdered in state-sponsored genocide,” their letter says.

Ocasio-Cortez has since doubled down.

“What term makes you feel better about brutality?” she tweeted on Thursday, highlighting the historians who have rushed to correct the record amid the controversy — distinguishing between concentration camps and death camps — while others still are urging people to cut the semantics entirely: Kids are in cages, does it matter what you call them?

This is a good conversation to have as long as the people debating the use of the term “actually know the history,” says Andrea Pitzer, who researched and wrote One Long Night: a Global History of Concentration Camps.

“It shouldn’t be something we do lightly,” she says. “It’s something we should think about, something we should do with gravity.”

Pitzer says “concentration camp” is the appropriate term for the American migrant detention centres: “What we’re repeating right now is those very early camps.”

So while the migrant detention centres are not Auschwitz, they are concentration camps, she says. They replicate the concentration camps that preceded Auschwitz — an extermination camp — in Nazi Germany.

“What I want to do is pull back that lens to show people, ‘Hey look, this is the same stuff that’s happened before,’” Pitzer says.

“And guess what? Not every time, but a lot of times, it’s going to end really badly. So why do we want to go down this path?”

The Nazis did not invent concentration camps

Extermination is not the actual goal of concentration camps, although many do die in them. They are a form of administrative detention, Pitzer says — a way to detain civilians without a trial.

“In a lot of places, it’s been legalized through a law that says you don’t have to follow the law, so it’s this weird kind of circular loop,” she says.

The first concentration camps were built in Cuba during the fight for independence from Spain in the late 1890s. Pitzer summarized the history of the camps in a piece for Smithsonian Magazine a few years ago.

It goes like this:

The Spanish governor-general in Cuba was of the mind that victory required “inflicting new cruelties on civilians and fighters alike.” He had the idea (he called it reconcentración) to move thousands of rural Cubans who provided food and shelter on occasion to the rebels into cities behind barbed wire that the Spaniards controlled.

Basically, Pitzer wrote:

“Concentration camps made civilians into proxies in order to get at combatants who had dared defy the ruling power.”

Although that governor-general didn’t follow through with the idea, writing that he could not “as the representative of a civilized nation, be the first to give an example of cruelty and intransigence” his successor did; civilians who refused to comply faced death.

Once there, Pitzer wrote, “No mass executions were necessary; horrific living conditions and lack of food eventually took the lives of some 15,000 people.”

In 1901, the U.S. also began using concentration camps in the Philippines to deal with “the most recalcitrant regions.” Pitzer wrote about how one Army officer described them: “some suburb of hell.”

The idea of mass detention spread during the First World War, Pitzer wrote. Concentration camps were erected in France, Russia, Turkey, Austro-Hungary, Brazil, Japan, China, India, Haiti, Cuba, Singapore, Siam, and New Zealand, among other countries.

That, she says now, is when we started to get comfortable with the idea as a society. Where once they had been brutal places where people died, instead, concentration camps became this place where people were sent but could still send and receive mail, and access their bank accounts.

“There was actually pretty serious mental health harm done to the people that were interned,” Pitzer says, but most people weren’t dying there and people started to think of them as “fairly harmless.”

The greatest harm, she says, is that “it made this kind of administrative detention seem normal.”

People do defend it, Pitzer says:

“I don’t think we’ve ever shaken the idea that if we feel threatened as a society, it’s OK to lock a group of people we think is dangerous up.”

And yet, she says, every country seems convinced of its own ability to pull it off.

“People are always saying our camps aren’t like those camps, our camps are different,” she says, but “having that kind of detention seem normal almost always leads to something much worse in the long run.”

Death camps vs. concentration camps

“If you look back at across the century at things that were called concentration camps, Auschwitz is the Eiffel Tower in the middle of a flat landscape in terms of the scope of the horrors,” Pitzer says.

You don’t want to strip it apart from the broader story of concentration camps, she goes on, but you do want to distinguish it — “one leads to the other.”

And yet, when we look back collectively at the horror of the Holocaust, the two are often conflated. The reality is that the Nazis started with concentration camps and it was only in the middle of the war that they stacked horrors: adding a death camp system on top of the concentration camps.

The concentration camp system, while horrible in its own right, “was largely separate from that looming tower of horror that we look back at across history and teach. … It rose out of things that came before and it’s those things that are the real concentration camps.”

Here, history warns us of the creep, Pitzer says.

While the concentration camps may start with the goal of detention, “there’s almost always a creep. And the longer they’re open, the more institutionalized they become and the more dangerous they are.”

Danya Ruttenberg, a rabbi and author, wrote about that “creep” in The Washington Post this week.

“We already know that the path to atrocity can be a process, and that the Holocaust began with dehumanizing propaganda, with discriminatory laws, with roundups and deportations, and with internment. Those things are happening in our country now …

“Having a historical reference point can help us understand our own moral obligations in this story and to make sense of it as it unfolds. Whether it has or ever will reach the stage of ultimate atrocity is not the question. What we should be asking is how articulating parallels can help us to see where we are, with clarity, now.”

Now, it is overcrowding and inadequate food. It’s people being forced to sleep on bare ground during Texas dust storms. It’s a teenaged mother cradling her premature baby in a processing centre while an advocate says she needs to be in the hospital receiving care.

It’s living in fenced-in sections of a facility that are described as cages. It’s living in a place called the “icebox” because of its frigid temperatures. It’s children dying and being forcibly stripped from their parents’ custody.

This week, a Trump administration lawyer argued in court about whether migrant children being detained are entitled to toothbrushes and soap.

It’s all of those things “accompanied by a severe uptick in fascist rhetoric and the dehumanization of immigrants and asylum seekers,” says Stephanie Silverman, a partner at Thinking Forward whose research is on the socio-legal ethics and development of immigration detention in Canada and around the world.

Ocasio-Cortez is right to label the centres concentration camps, Silverman says, and Pitzer is taking on a “very brave leadership role in trying to call it what it is.”

The detention centres started as a deterrence strategy under former president Barack Obama, Silverman says, but have evolved into “a terrorizing mechanism by the Trump administration.”

And while some — including descendants of Holocaust victims and survivors — have come to Ocasio-Cortez’s defence, Silverman doesn’t see people easily accepting use of the term.

“Then they would have to admit the bigger injustice, which is the treatment of asylum seekers.”

Why Canada needs to take action

If we acknowledge the bigger injustice of how we treat asylum seekers, then we have to start thinking about what our options are if the so-called solution is not detention, Silverman says.

Immigration detention in Canada is nowhere near the scale of immigration detention in the United States.

Its own immigration holding centres are smaller and for low-risk people (higher risk immigrants are sent to prison), and the government has committed to reducing the number of children being held.

And yet, Silverman says, Canada can’t hide behind the buffer that is the U.S. forever.

“We have a coming environmental catastrophe. … It’s going to mean a lot more people moving.”

A 12-page policy paper indicated as much earlier this month when it painted a scenario of the future featuring nations strained to the breaking point by mass migration.

“It’s important to remember that these are real people and they have real feelings,” Silverman says.

“A lot of them will not be deported, especially in Canada, so we need to think about how we’re greeting them and treating them.”