Are Detention Centres the New Concentration Camps?
The phrase ‘concentration camp’ has now been in the headlines more than probably any other time since World War II.
In the US, this issue has been raging for over a week now, but it has relevance in other contexts too – like the Uighur ‘re-education camps’ in China, or the immigrant camps set up in Assam as part of the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
So what is the difference between a concentration camp and a simple detention centre?
Detention Centres Aren’t New, So What Is?
Many countries run immigrant detention centres, and these kinds of facilities have been used to house illegal immigrants or asylum seekers for decades – they are a necessity in any country in which people seek asylum in significant numbers. For those fleeing persecution, a secure place to stay is needed while asylum claims are processed.
But over the past couple of years, accusations of concentration camps have cropped up in three major countries of the world – the US, for its Texas detention centres; China, for its Uighur ‘re-education’ camps in Xinjiang; and India, with its immigrant detention camps in Assam for those who do not make it to the NRC.
It’s not as though countries have not faced domestic opposition for their detention centres in the past... Italy, Australia, Austria have all faced internal pressure for the conditions of their camps, for years, without anyone invoking the dreaded C word.
So why now?
Protesters in the US argue that the difference this time is the Trump administration’s heavy-handed and punitive policies pose a unique threat – this is in the wake of reports that expose overcrowding, lack of adequate medical care, and most harrowingly, overzealous and what is perceived as purely punitive separation of children from their parents and families.
Twenty-four detainees have died in American detention centres till date, with thousands of children already separated from their families, and, by the administration’s own admission, with likely no way to reunite them due to the lack of a ‘formal tracking process’.
Similarly in China too, the difference now, it is claimed, is that there’s a Chinese president in power who enjoys impunity to a greater extent than before. In India, like in China and the US, there’s been a hardening line against those considered ‘outsiders’ and ‘non-Indian’ – the surge of nationalism in both countries, like in the US, has no doubt contributed to this hardening.
Which of These Are Concentration Camps?
If and when detention facilities cross over into being concentration camps, there won’t be a set template to look out for. It will have different characteristics in different countries, varying according to context. Nazi-style gas chambers and medical experimentation are unlikely to make a comeback, so different metrics must be used.
For instance, the US has termed China’s Uighur camps ‘concentration camps’ – while it strenuously denies that its own camps fit that category even as domestic opposition grows.
This is despite an increasing number of media reports alleging inadequate medical care, inhumane conditions (like putting children in large cages, inadequate safety and sanitation), outbreaks of illness, and deaths. There have also been reports of unsanitary and unsafe conditions in the camps currently run by the US, the conditions of which were defended by a US government attorney to incredulous Supreme Court judges, in this exchange that went viral:
The Trump administration says the opposition is simply whipping up ‘concentration camp’ fears to gain political mileage. Nancy Pelosi, the senior-most Democrat in the House, seemed to distance herself from popular freshman Senator Alexander Ocasio-Cortez’s accusations that the immigration centres amount to concentration camps, saying that the members of Congress “represent their districts and point of view and take responsibility for what they say,” the New York Post reported.
But the American people are showing their displeasure in different ways; Bank of America has cut its business ties with detention centres and private prisons that are profiting from the immigrant crisis. Earlier in the year, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo had done the same, amid backlash against the Trump administration’s immigration policy.
Amid the furore, on 28 June, the House of Representatives even voted to spend $4.6 billion in aid to the crisis at the Mexican border – the money is supposed to be used towards improving conditions at the camps, but the Hispanic Caucus has claimed the Trump administration cannot be trusted with the funds, and that it will not help, BBC reported.
It’s an entirely different kettle of fish in China, though. China has closely guarded the Xinjiang region, and is refusing to let media and journalists in – except on supervised tours, of the kind that North Korea allows journalists to go on – so it presents a rather murkier picture than the US camps. Still, reports have come out in bits and pieces, alleging inadequate medical care, torture, and deaths, on top of separating families forcing detainees to give up their religious rituals and conform to ‘Chinese’ ones.
These ‘re-education camps’ are made to house a specific ethnic minority – around two million Uighur Muslims so far – but the danger here is not overcrowding, outbreaks of deadly disease, or outright large-scale murder.
Washington Post reported accounts of waterboarding, enforced stress positions and movement restriction for up to 12 hours. Before they get to the camps, Uighurs are usually given the option of facing trial for ‘extremism’ (which can be based on things like having a long beard, or possessing a Qu’ran) or entering ‘re-education’, which allows the Chinese government to say that the Uighurs at the centres are there ‘voluntarily’.
The Chinese government, however, says its camps are meant to weed out Islamic extremism and radicalism. It says its methods are highly effective in its ‘war on terror’ in the Xinjiang region, and who is any other country to judge how it deals with its terrorism menace?
By contrast, in Assam, the situation does not seem to be as bad as in Texas and Xinjiang. Still, the government is not letting journalists in to assess the situation – but Harsh Mander of Amnesty International was allowed to make a visit under an NHRC mission. Mander reported “women wailing as if in mourning” at all hours of the day, and authorities that do not differentiate between detainees and jail inmates, Deccan Herald reported. Here too, like in the US, the separation of families, sometimes for years, seems to be the most dehumanising aspect of the camp.
These camps are more like Texas’ than Xinjiang’s, in that they are used to declare people from a certain minority (the Bengali-speaking minority, both Muslims and Hindus) ‘foreigners’, and eventually remove them from the country, no matter how long they might have lived there – exactly what is happening with ‘undocumented migrants’ in the US.
The Indian government says the camps will weed out illegal immigrants, leaving more state resources for genuine Indian citizens. ‘Genuineness’ here is to be judged based on possession of 50-year-old documents proving citizenship – a tough ask for many Indians, especially the poor and illiterate.
The Amnesty report mentioned that two detainees had died in the facility, and that it was already over-capacity – a condition that is bound to get worse as four million have already been left out of the draft NRC list.
What’s in a Name?
Keeping in mind that a concentration camp does not need to reach Nazi death-camp stage to be concerning, calling detention centres concentration camps is not always just about semantics – in the US, it is also an effort to draw attention to what could become a major human rights issue in the world’s most powerful nation. Millions may not have died, but the goal is to stop the slide before there is large-scale suffering.
In China, it is possible that the camps have already entered concentration camp territory, and mass atrocities are around the corner. Given the impenetrability of the ‘re-education centres’ to the media, the impunity enjoyed by Chinese authorities, the ideological nature of the detention, and the reports of torture that have already surfaced, it’s not a hard sell.
Given the scale of detentions that are likely to happen (four million people left off the draft NRC list) and the attendant overcrowding and health challenges, the press restrictions, and the attempts at dehumanising them (Home Minister Amit Shah referred to illegal immigrants at “termites” eating away at India), it’s not unthinkable that India too could find itself on the path to atrocity.
Ultimately, it’s up to public opinion to decide how far is too far – but if history is any indicator, millions can die before citizens recognise the signs and mobilise... and sometimes, not even then.
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