At the start of the 21st century, the following things did not exist. In the US, a large network of purpose-built immigration prisons, some of which are run for profit. In western China, “political education” camps designed to hold hundreds of thousands of people, supported by a high-tech surveillance system. In Syria, a prison complex dedicated to the torture and mass execution of civilians. In north-east India, a detention centre capable of holding 3,000 people who may have lived in the country for decades but are unable to prove they are citizens. In Myanmar, rural encampments where thousands of people are being forced to live on the basis of their ethnicity. On small islands and in deserts at the edges of wealthy regions – Greece’s Aegean islands, the Negev Desert in Israel, the Pacific Ocean near Australia, the southern Mediterranean coastline – various types of large holding centres for would-be migrants.
The scale and purpose of these places vary considerably, as do the political regimes that have created them, but they share certain things in common. Most were established as temporary or “emergency” measures, but have outgrown their original stated purpose and become seemingly permanent. Most exist thanks to a mix of legal ambiguity – detention centres operating outside the regular prison system, for instance – and physical isolation. And most, if not all, have at times been described by their critics as concentration camps.
We tend to associate the idea of concentration camps with their most extreme instances – the Nazi Holocaust, and the Soviet Gulag system; genocide in Cambodia and Bosnia. But the disturbing truth is that concentration camps have been widespread throughout recent history, used to intern civilians that a state considers hostile, to control the movement of people in transit and to extract forced labour. The author Andrea Pitzer, in One Long Night, her recent history of concentration camps, estimates that at least one such camp has existed somewhere on Earth throughout the past 100 years.