By Srishti Saha, Masters in Interdisciplinary Data Science, ‘21

Last week, the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute and the Forum for Scholars and Publics held an event that asked “Are Concentration Camps Back? And What Can We Do About It?” The panelists included Claudia Koonz, Peabody Family Professor Emeritus of History; James Chappel, Hunt Family Assistant Professor of History; and Roxana Bendezú, founder of Migrant Roots Media. The discussion was moderated by Robin Kirk, Senior Lecturer of Cultural Anthropology and Co-Director of the Duke Human Rights Center@FHI.

The pressing question of whether concentration camps are back was central to the discussion. Dr. Chappel defined concentration camps as areas of “mass detention of civilians outside the normal legal system”. He explained how concentration camps were distinct from the prisoner-of-war camps and death camps (the latter, designed exclusively to kill, were used in the Holocaust).

This concept is not localized to authoritarian policies but is also present in liberal countries like France, Great Britain, and the United States. It is important to note that although concentration camps may call up some images of the Holocaust and death camps, they are not the same thing. The concept differs in the way that concentration camps have a different purpose than the ‘death camps’ that were created for the sole purpose of killing people.

Dr. Koonz stated that around 65 million people are leaving their native country, of which 22-25 million people are classified as refugees. She went on to say that half of the world’s refugees live on the border of a conflict zone, and now an average war lasts for 37 years, as compared to 4 years at the beginning of the 20th century. With changing warfare like the use of drones, aerial attacks and suicide bombers, civilians are hit the hardest. Another significant reason for migrations is climate change. Dr. Koonz mentioned that the need of the hour is a major policy change, and offered three ways to provide support for refugees: providing cash cards and monetary resources instead of tents, giving higher subsidies from organizations like the World Bank, and providing work permits to asylum-seekers. She emphasized that the problem is bigger now than it has ever been and needs our attention.

The speakers also investigated the situation of the refugees on the southern border of the United States. The UN predictions claim that approximately 540,000 people will have fled Central America by the end of 2019. Roxana Bendezú asked why people would leave their homes without anything, “Is it really for an ‘American dream,’ or is it really because they are just escaping?” This question unfurled a series of remarks and stories of refugees moving across the United States border due to US involvement in their home countries. Of the many who have travelled to the US border, tens of thousands of migrants are currently being held in detention facilities on US soil.

These refugees have rights that aren’t being recognized. Countries like the US or even France and Britain also have exceptions to their laws of universal protection. This is the reason you will see concentration camps spring up when bodies appear that are inconvenient to policymakers and domestic populations. However enlightened or universal our legal codes might be, in practice, modern societies are shot through with exclusions, and often racial ones. Minority populations, therefore, are always at risk. As Dr. Chappel stated, “There’s always a sense that those who don’t belong are here are at our invitation, and that their rights can be taken away.”


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