The USA’s new ‘concentration camps’

Detained: “Things can be concentration camps without being Auschwitz,” said one historian. © Getty

Thousands of migrants are being held in “concentration camps” at the US border. These are the words of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, sparking a row over language and history.

Here are the facts: every day, a record 52,000 adults are being held by the USA in around 200 detention centres. They are there because they tried to cross illegally into the US.

Around 13,700 children are also being held for attempting the same crossing.

For many of those children, the conditions are dire.

Reports have described a lack of beds or blankets; lights left on at all hours; no soap or toothbrushes to keep children clean. At least seven children have died in the last year.

Last week, New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, “The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border.”

Can that be true? Historian Andrea Pitzer defines concentration camps as “mass detention of civilians without trial”. By that definition, Ocasio-Cortez is right.

However, the term is extremely loaded. It is most often used to describe camps in Nazi Germany, during the Holocaust. Six million Jews died in those camps.

“You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this,” Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney tweeted at Ocasio-Cortez.

“What we’re doing is just not the same as what the Nazis or the Soviets did,” agreed the historian Lance Janda in PolitiFact.

Language matters

So, is the US running concentration camps or not? It is partly a matter of how you define them. If a concentration camp means holding people in poor conditions without a trial, then, yes. If it means repeating one of the most extreme crimes in history — the deliberate murder of millions of people — then, no.

But does arguing over definitions miss the point? Perhaps the real question is: can this situation ever be acceptable? For many, the answer is no. And the fact that it is the United States of America, the so-called “land of the free”, behind the policy that makes it worse.

You Decide

  1. Would you describe the USA’s detention centres as concentration camps?

Activities

  1. Write your own definition of the term “concentration camp”.

Some People Say...

“A presidency that creates concentration camps is fascist.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Immigration at the US border has spiked in recent months. US Customs and Border Protection said that 144,000 migrants were taken into custody in May, up 32% from April. The numbers are so high that border agencies are operating far beyond their capacity.
What do we not know?
Why the numbers are so high, or the best way for the US to respond to the crisis.

Word Watch

52,000
Based on figures from early June, according to a report by NBC News.
13,700
According to a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, talking to PolitiFact.
Nazi Germany
The first concentration camps were built in Germany in 1933, when Hitler came to power. They were originally used for slave labour. They did not become death camps until 1942.
Soviets
Under the dictator Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union established “the Gulag”, a system of forced labour camps. These held 18 million people in their history.

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