When most people hear the words ‘concentration camp’, what immediately comes to mind are the numerous camps established by the Nazis before and during World War 2. However, they have a longer history than that1.
In September, 1900, during the Boer War (1899-1902), British Major-General J.G. Maxwell announced the establishment of camps to house and protect the families of Boers who had surrendered to the British voluntarily. This was followed on December 20th of the same year by a proclamation from Lord Kitchener stating that those who voluntarily surrendered would be allowed to live with their families in these camps until the end of the war. The following day Kitchener stated in a memorandum to general officers that interning all women, children and men unfit for military service and ‘blacks’ living on Boer farms will be “the most effective method of limiting the endurance of the guerrillas… The women and children brought in should be divided into two categories, viz.: 1st. Refugees, and the families of Neutrals, non-combatants, and surrendered Burghers. 2nd. Those whose husbands, fathers and sons are on Commando. The preference in accommodation, etc. should of course be given to the first class. With regard to Natives, it is not intended to clear … locations, but only such and their stock as are on Boer farms”. Discriminatory rationing was also introduced, with those in the first group receiving more substantial rations than those in the second group2.
During 1901, English philanthropist, Emily Hobhouse visited several of the camps and was appalled at the conditions and in June 1901, upon returning to England, delivers her report to the SA Distress Fund. This report includes an assessment of reasons for the high fatality rate, those being: “Numbers crowded into small tents: some sick, some dying, occasionally a dead one among them; scanty rations dealt out raw; lack of fuel to cook them; lack of water for drinking, for cooking, for washing; lack of soap, brushes and other instruments of personal cleanliness; lack of bedding or of beds to keep the body off the bare earth; lack of clothing for warmth and in many cases for decency …”. She concludes that the whole system is cruel and should be abolished.By the end of June, 1901, the official camp population is 85,410, with 777 deaths reported for June alone2.
Hobhouse again sailed to South Africa on the SS Avondale Castle, but was prevented from going ashore by the military commandant of Capetown, and was forcibly removed from that ship and placed the Roslin Castle and deported. By the end of October 1901, the official camp population is 113,506 and the deaths at 3,156 for October alone. By the end of the war in May, 1902, 1,676 mainly old men, 4,177 women, and 22,074 children under 16 had died in these camps2.
These concentration camps were therefore initially started as a way to protect some people from reprisals but very soon thereafter, were seen as a way of punishing the Boers by inflicting hardship on their families, thereby making them less likely to continue their guerrilla war. When someone raised concerns about the treatment of people in these camps, they were prevented from visiting them. Sound familiar?
Shoot forward about a hundred years, and as a way of discouraging people smugglers by subverting their ‘business model’ Australia puts their human cargo in concentration camps (euphemistically called detention centres) on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru. This ‘business model’ epithet is simply a furphy used by both sides of the political divide to justify their bastardry. All it has done, is change the routes used by people smugglers4,5.
The Morrison government keep rabbiting on about how they have stopped the boats, even to the extent that Morrison said he was given, by a constituent, a pathetic little trophy in the shape of an Indonesian fishing boat with ‘I stopped these’ engraved on it6. However, there is a suspicion that Morrison gave this to himself, because the former head of Border Force, Roman Quaedvlieg, has a similar one given to him by Morrison, upon which is engraved ‘We stopped these’7. This assertion that the boats have stopped is simply a lie8. As a cover for this bastardry, they maintain that it was to stop people drowning at sea. However, does this mean we have to incarcerate men, women and children, apparently interminably? Of course it doesn’t9. The reason we incarcerate these people, is so the government can appeal to some of the voters it has lost to One Notion over the last few years. Some of the children have been in immigration detention on Nauru for their entire lives, having been born there10. On top of this, 12 asylum seekers have died while in offshore detention11.
The Australian government is not as unsophisticated as the British from the Boer War. They don’t starve the people in the camps. They simply take away all hope; the hope that in running away from bullets, bombs or persecution, the asylum seekers could simply survive and hopefully find a better life. Interminable incarceration inflicted on them by Australia is precisely what some of them ran away from. While the death rate is nothing like that in the South African concentration camps, there still is a death rate vastly greater than that in the general populace. This interminable incarceration has had severe effects on the rate of mental illness among inmates, to the extent that some children have descended into a state where they are catatonic, are attempting self harm, or are considered to be at risk of suicide12,13,14. Look at your own children, and think: could I do that to them?
Much as the British did over 100 years ago, the Australian government has attempted to prevent details of the condition of the camps and the inmates being broadcast, even to the extent of attempting to pass legislation preventing doctors from speaking out, at the risk of spending up to 2 years in gaol. While the government backed down with regard to medical professionals, under threat of a High Court challenge, this punishment still applies for ‘unauthorised disclosure’ of details of the camps or their inmates for teachers, lawyers, security staff, social workers and other staff15.
This inhuman treatment of people who simply need help is aided and abetted by the stupid in our society and in our parliament, who seem to think that we are in danger of being swamped by Asians or Muslims, or whatever group is in the news at the time16. Such dogwhistle politics, which is used to their own perceived benefit by the Coalition, is a disgrace, and the first person to use it in the last few decades was John Howard. Howard’s protégé, Tony Abbott, when he attained power in 2013, ardently followed his mentor, while Turnbull and Morrison simply followed suit, bringing it out at every opportunity17.
Banishing asylum seekers to concentration camps seemingly in perpetuity, and then attempting to prevent the spreading of information regarding their condition under the threat of imprisonment, is disgusting. In addition, this attempted secrecy is impossible to maintain given that this is the 21stcentury, where communication is pervasive. It is ironic that the people who most want to keep this all a secret, the Coalition parties, are those that least understand this century, so in the long run they are doomed to fail.
This inhuman treatment of asylum seekers is to this nation’s detriment and eternal shame.
- Schloenhardt, A. & Ezzy, L., 2012. Hadi Ahmadi – and the myth of the People Smugglers’ Business Model. Monash University Law Review 38 (3), 120-147.