“Some suburb of hell” — America’s new concentration camps

Children’s shoes and a cuddly toy left at the Tornillo Port of Entry after a protest by several US mayors against the Trump adminstration’s family separation policy, near El Paso, Texas, Jun 21, 2018. (photo: Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images)
Every country thinks it can do detention better when it starts these projects. But no good way to conduct mass indefinite detention has yet been devised; the system always degrades.

By Andrew Pitzer | The New York Review of Books | Jun 21, 2019

Concentration camps . . . don’t typically result from the theft of land, as happened with Native Americans, or owning human beings in a system of forced labor, as in the slave trade. Exile, theft, and forced labor can come later, but in the beginning, detention itself is usually the point of concentration camps. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, the mass production of barbed wire and machines guns made this kind of detention possible and practical in ways it never had been before.

On Monday, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to US border detention facilities as “concentration camps,” spurring a backlash in which critics accused her of demeaning the memory of those who died in the Holocaust. Debates raged over a label for what is happening along the southern border and grew louder as the week rolled on. But even this back-and-forth over naming the camps has been a recurrent feature in the mass detention of civilians ever since its inception, a history that long predates the Holocaust.

At the heart of such policy is a question: What does a country owe desperate people whom it does not consider to be its citizens? The twentieth century posed this question to the world just as the shadow of global conflict threatened for the second time in less than three decades. The dominant response was silence, and the doctrine of absolute national sovereignty meant that what a state did to people under its control, within its borders, was nobody else’s business. After the harrowing toll of the Holocaust with the murder of millions, the world revisited its answer, deciding that perhaps something was owed to those in mortal danger. From the Fourth Geneva Convention protecting civilians in 1949 to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, the international community established humanitarian obligations toward the most vulnerable that apply, at least in theory, to all nations.

The Twenty-First Century is unraveling that response. Countries are rejecting existing obligations and meeting asylum seekers with walls and fences, from detainees fleeing persecution who were sent by Australia to third-party detention in the brutal offshore camps of Manus and Nauru to razor-wire barriers blocking Syrian refugees from entering Hungary. While some nations, such as Germany, wrestle with how to integrate refugees into their labor force — more and more have become resistant to letting them in at all. The latest location of this unwinding is along the southern border of the United States.

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