In America, the government has been accused of establishing a concentration camp system on the country's southern border. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Representative tweeted, "This administration has established concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants, where they are being brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying. This is not hyperbole. It is the conclusion of expert analysis." Ocasio-Cortez referred to an Esquire article wherein Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps argued that the USA was running concentration camps on its border. Conservatives have since created a semantic war over the term "concentration camp" with some arguing it minimizes the struggles of those who have previously been detained in such camps. This argument, therefore, weaponizes historical suffering and attempts to shut down arguments about the humanity of America's detention centers. Others have simply argued that things are not that bad in the centers, and this weak argument should be dismissed for the simple fact that it is untrue.
Pitzer defines concentration camps systems as mass detention of civilians without trial. This is precisely what is happening in America. The detention centers are not death camps but this is not for lack of death itself. Since Trump took power,24 immigrants have died in the custody of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A report by the Department of Homeland Security found violations of detention standards in four centers. There were issues around "overly restrictive segregation, inadequate medical care, unreported security incidents, and significant food safety issues". Detainees were found to be fed expired food, putting them at risk of diseases while bathrooms in two facilities were moldy and unhygienic.
The South African Corroboration
History records the beginning of concentration camps in Africa at the turn of the 19th century. The British, possibly inspired by the Spanish in Cuba, brought concentration camps to South Africa. They relocated "more than 200,000 civilians, mostly women and children behind barbed wire into bell tents or improvised huts." Between June 1901 and May 1902, 27 927 Boers died in the concentration camps, a number said to be twice that of men who died in combat on both sides during the South African War of 1899-1902. An important point needs to be made - the racism at the time meant African lives lost were simply not counted. However, it is estimated that around 14 000 Africans died from disease and malnutrition. The camps were poorly run, unsanitary and badly provisioned. The same adjectives are just as apt for American detention centers, so where is the argument?
American media outlets have reported a putrid stench in the centers. The New York Times reported, "Children as young as 7 and 8, many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, are caring for infants they havve just met," and, "Most of the young detainees have not been able to shower or wash their clothes since they arrives at the facility." To add insult to injury, the Trump administration's legal team went to court ato argue that the detained children are not entitled to soap. The land of the free has worrying understandings of hygiene, quite like British in the 1900s.
The German Kaiser's Holocaust
On 14 January 1905, General von Trotha stationed in South-West Africa received orders to set up Konzentrationslager (concentration camps). By February 1905, an eager von Trotha was loading the Herero people into trucks and marching others in human caravans to concentration camps. He created five camps but records from most of these camps were destroyed in 1915. The Herero were housed in "pathetic structures constructed out of simple sacking and planks, in such a manner that in one structure 30-50 people were forced to stay without distinction to age or sex". Food was scarce. Heinrich Vedder, a Rhenish missionary was to then say, "Like cattle, hundreds were driven to death and like cattle they were buried."
In America, no one is being driven to death or being buried like cattle but reports recently emerged that attorneys, Warren Binford and his team who visited one center in Texas found "more than 250 infants, children, and teens inside the complex of windowless buildings, trying to care for each other with what they described as inadequate food, water, and sanitation."
In the 1950s, the British were at it again. In their bid to neutralize the Mau Mau, they targeted some 1.5 million Kikuyu believed to have taken the Mau Mau oath. Caroline Elkins, in her book, Imperial Reckoning said the battlefield was not in the forests but a vast system of detention camps. Women and children were detained in eight hundred enclosed villages surrounded by spiked trenches, barbed wire and heavily patrolled by armed guards. It was the nasty underbelly of pax Brittanica.
While America has semantic battles about who is using the right word to describe the inhumane treatment of immigrants, it is blinding itself to its own unfortunate slide into barbarity. The country which calls itself the land of the free is giving the world an encore of a song sung before in Cuba, sung before in South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Germany and even in the U.S. itself. In denial, America pretends to have composed a new tune altogether but enlightened by its colonial history, Africa can clearly tell that these are concentration camps.
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