News ID: 322747
Published: 0622 GMT July 06, 2022
MacEwan University historian Aidan Forth:

Refugee camps remain a racialized technology of social, military control

Refugee camps remain a racialized technology of social, military control

By Mohammad Memarian

IRAN DAILY: After reading your book, the reader couldn’t help but see a direct link between modern-day refugee camps and the concentration camps of the British Empire and other imperial forces. What separates them besides more than 100 years?


AIDAN FORTH: My book argues that “refugee camps” and “concentration camps” were not conceptually differentiated until the second world war, when Adolf Hitler transformed the latter into menacing technologies of racial genocide. Until then, the terms were used interchangeably: Both referred to disciplinary institutions, often set up during times of war or other crisis, to control and care for populations deemed suspect, dangerous, or otherwise unwanted. In the 1930s, for example, camps administered by the League of Nations in colonial Iraq sheltering victims of the Armenian and Assyrian genocides were called both “refugee camps” and “concentration camps.”

Some of the first formal concentration/refugee camps appeared during the South African or (Anglo-Boer) War (1899-1902), the opening conflict of the twentieth century, when British colonial forces detained a quarter million Boer and black African “refugees” (a term some victims of the war contested) who had been displaced by British scorched earth warfare. Of these, nearly fifty thousand women, children, and non-combatant men perished from exposure, malnutrition, and epidemic diseases. The spectacle of innocent children dying in British camps caused a media sensation in Britain and across the world, and it taught colonial officers and humanitarian activists a series of important lessons.

On the one hand, camp officials implemented sanitary reforms the protection of clean water supplies, the quarantine of new arrivals, the institution of calibrated ration scales and regular medical attendance that substantially curtailed the spread of infectious disease, and thereby rendered the camps reasonably safe, though still unpleasant, centers of military security and humanitarian containment. Camps could thus be normalized as legitimate rather than scandalous institutions of liberal and imperial statecraft. Another lesson Britain learnt was that while the encampment of white Europeans South Africa’s Boers, the descendants of Dutch farmers proved a political liability, native black Africans could be held in camps, under much worse conditions, and with far less public comment. The specter of white bodies behind barbed-wire offended racial sensibilities in Europe, but dark-skinned populations could be encamped with relative impunity. Adhering to international standards of medical care and social welfare, today’s refugee camps provide much better living conditions than the camps of the British empire, and their mortality rate is much lower as a result. Yet they remain, nonetheless, a racialized technology of social and military control.


That “... camps concentrated populations deemed not (yet) ready to exercise freedom” still rings true for the refugee camps the world over. When even 21st century refugees, many of whom are well-educated in western-style academia and have participated in some kind of democratic elections, are deemed undesirable by states governing these camps, dare we say that a colonialistic spirit is pretty much still alive today?


Let me speak to a recent example from Canada, where I live. In the last few weeks, several hundred Afghan refugees have arrived in my home city of Edmonton. These are families who worked for the Canadian government as translators, informants, and guides before the Taliban regained control of Kabul in the summer of 2021. Like Britain, Canada is a multicultural society and has a long history of welcoming newcomers (including me). Most Canadians I know are tolerant, open-minded, and eager to help the victims of war and other humanitarian disasters. At the same time, however, the specter of the “refugee” is powerful. Cause and effect are often easily confused. Victims of Taliban terrorism are too readily conflated with terrorists themselves, especially by relatively uninitiated locals for whom Afghanistan remains a distant, violent, and mysterious place. Readers of the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said will immediately recognize the degree to which “orientalist” discourses continue to frame dominant western attitudes toward a middle eastern and west Asian “other.”

Associations between refugees, poverty, and crime are thus strong enough that local refugee aid organizations, who perform admirable work, have been keen to remind the Canadian public, on radio stations and other media, that these particular refugees are highly educated, fluent in English, and are allies of Canada and its liberal institutions. Since Afghan refugees have risked their lives supporting Canadian interests, they should thus be welcomed. This is an important reminder, but the fact it is needed in the first place speaks to dominant attitudes that associate victims of violence with the very violence they are fleeing. And in valorizing this one particular group of “exceptional” refugees, the implication remains that other demographics are less fit for acceptance and integration into Canadian society.

Canada accepts approximately 50000 refugees per year. Though it could no doubt welcome more, the Canadian public would not accept open borders or an indefinite increase. How, then, does Canada determine who gets in? Geopolitical interests tied up with a decades-long military intervention in Afghanistan, along with cultural and religious criteria, as in the case of recent Syrian refugees in Canada, who are disproportionately Christian, help set the criteria we use to distinguish “deserving” refugees from more seemingly menacing flows of middle eastern migrants. To me, echoes of a colonial past are all too obvious.


What are the cultural foundations for these modern-day camps? What kind of dualities are at work here? Does race still play a role?


The term “refugee” first entered the English-language to describe prosperous Protestant Christians (the ‘Huguenots’) fleeing France during the European Wars of Religion. No camps were used, however, because British citizens, themselves ardent Protestants, were eager to incorporate these groups into society. Even in the eighteenth century, one of the most violent periods of European history, refugee camps did not appear. Instead, Britain incorporated new groups, including monarchists fleeing revolutionary France, with open arms. Indeed, as the historian Caroline Shaw argues in a thought-provoking book, refugees in eighteenth-century Europe evoked positive images as romantic freedom fighters or loyal subjects fleeing foreign oppression. All of this began to change in the nineteenth century, however, as Britain and other European powers embarked on aggressive campaigns of imperial expansion. In India, Britain encountered “hordes” of starving famine refugees, whom it considered devious, unsanitary, and a drain on colonial revenues. In Africa, during the Boer War, authorities described black Africans displaced by British military operations as a “dirty, careless, lazy lot” who spread “disease, crime and poverty,” while even white-skinned Boers were “Afrikaner savages with only a thin white veneer.” It was in the racialized context of European empire, which turned upon cultural dualisms of white/dark, clean/dirty, healthy/diseased, industrious/lazy, discipline/disordered, rational/irrational, that authorities first turned to camps to segregate unwanted colonial bodies from the supposedly salubrious enclaves of white colonial settlements. Though camps are also products of the new mass scale of military violence and subsequent population displacements inflicted by imperial conflict and twentieth-century total war, racism was and remains a fundamental ingredient.


How much longer do you think “camps would be included in the humane arsenal of modern statecraft”? What has to change in order for camps to be a thing of the past?


I’m not terribly optimistic that camps are going away any time soon. Military conflict, political instability, climate change-driven famine and drought the root causes of mass population displacements will likely only intensify over the course of the twenty-first century. At the same time, the colonial mentalities that first generated camps in the nineteenth century have proven surprisingly durable. Though Donald Trump’s violent fantasies of shooting central American asylum seekers in the legs or digging snake-and-alligator-filled moats have not come to pass, the representation, by a resurgent far right, of racialized minorities as “criminals,” “rapists,” and “disease carriers,” and their detention in a vast network of camps lining America’s southern border, revives a longer discourse of colonial racism indigenous to Europe and the Anglo-American west. Nonetheless, the proliferation of camps in the past few decades has also led to a new awareness of the problem. Let me clarify here that I do not believe camps, for refugees or anyone else, are in any way humane; my book simply argues that British officials managed to convince themselves, and others in the international community, that refugee camps could be depots of humanitarian sympathy and relief rather than instruments of repression. Revisiting the imperial origins of refugee camps, their utility as tools of conquest and occupation, and their family resemblance with more menacing institutions like detention centres and concentration camps will, I hope, challenge the international community to disavow camps, prevent refugee crises from happening whenever possible, and to examine other solutions, like immigration, repatriation, and resettlement, when crises can’t be averted. There are now ten million refugees and internally-displaced people living in leaky huts and tents, deprived of rights, and cordoned off from the world of the living. This is an outrage that demands attention. The main reason this dire situation doesn’t generate action, however, is that the refugees encamped remain largely invisible to the world community. As I said earlier, effect can often be confused for cause, as many observers deem innocent refugees worthy of their own subjection.


Would one be wrong to assume that although today occupation is not an option, surveillance and control are easier than ever with advanced technologies -especially social media-, and an imperial power could easily take advantage of that and put us in virtual but all too real camps?


Camps, at their core, are crude instruments of information technology. Their purpose is to detain suspect or unwanted populations in order to identify and register them, monitor their movement and behaviour, and classify them along a spectrum of desirability. Those deemed desirable or reformable are often released, while the unwanted and undesirable face further detention and degradation. Today, advanced technologies have the capacity to extend the logic of the camp to society at large, or at least to particular groups marked as suspect or unwanted. Security check-points, video surveillance, identity cards, and advanced computer databases along with concrete walls and barbed-wire fences have essentially transformed places like the West Bank and Gaza strip into giant camps. Even more menacing is the case of China, which presides over the twenty-first century’s largest network of concentration camps for Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang province. Echoing the ways in which British officials in the Boer War depicted their concentration camps as humanitarian depots, Chinese state media depicts these camps as centers of education and empowerment that “liberate” those detained from their former way of life. Those incarcerated, however, have a different perspective. Outside the camps, meanwhile, Chinese Muslims face a dense network of surveillance. Readers interested in China may be interested in two remarkable books by the anthropologist Darren Byler, ‘Terror Capitalism’ (Duke University Press Books, 2021) and ‘In the Camps’ (Columbia Global Reports, 2021), which I reviewed in the LA Review of books.


If someone read your book and suggested that as far as camps go, the imperial rule has reversed; whereas before they concentrated the undesirables in camps, nowadays they exclude them from their territories, and in this way they have turned the whole of the underdeveloped world into camps, and they only take the reformed inmates in. Would you agree with that reader?


European colonialism replicated the inequalities of its own capitalist societies on a global stage. The division of the world into a prosperous, developed “north” and an underdeveloped south was a product of nineteenth-century imperialism. Indian economists like Romesh Chunder Dutt catalogued the “drain of wealth” that enriched Britain while impoverishing South Asia. Colonial trade policies contributed to the de-industrialization of textile manufacturing in Dakar (in current-day Bangladesh), while profits from the global slave trade provided seed capital for industrial development in Europe and America (along with the raw materials, like cotton, grown on slave plantations, to foster western economic development). These imperial legacies live on today in a divided and unequal world, even as former colonies have achieved independence. As western economics diverged from those in the rest of the world, the development of camps, and the racial mentalities that sustained them, coincided with the hardening of national boundaries in the early twentieth century. At home in Britain, colonial racism met is counterpart with the xenophobic 1905 Aliens Act that restricted Jewish and Eastern European immigration. In British settler societies, meanwhile, fears of an “Asian invasion” generated the “white Australia policy” of 1901 and the American and Canadian Chinese Exclusion Acts (1882, 1923) that likewise banned the entry of unwanted foreigners. In my own Canadian province of Alberta, a nineteenth-century campaign to attract settlers to the extensive prairies was soon followed by condemnation of the “menace of negro settlement,” by local chambers of commerce. The “wrong” settlers, black farmers from the American Midwest, had apparently heeded the call.

More overt forms of colonial racism have now been dismantled, and Britain, Canada, Australia, and the United States are now vibrant (though not always harmonious) multiethnic societies. Nonetheless, colonial legacies live on. Australian immigration policies, some of the harshest in the world, have led to the indefinite detention of refugees and asylum seekers at offshore detention facilities like Nauru and Manus Island. Here, bona fide refugees endure appalling conditions that have been condemned by Amnesty International and the United Nations. In 2018, for example, a 26-year-old Iranian asylum seeker tragically committed suicide in his tent at the barbed-wire processing center following the acute mental and psychological trauma he suffered during his long-term detention. Nauru is but an extreme example of a wider set of practices. The modern state’s impetus to consign distressed, displaced, and potentially “dangerous” populations to camp-like settings remains part of our contemporary moment. Camps still exist, not only at Nauru, but in Lesbos, in west Jordan and southern Turkey, at Calais. But even immigration policies like Canada’s “points system,” which assesses would-be immigrants according to stringent financial, occupational, and educational criteria, are designed to filter out all but the most “desirable.” In New Zealand, meanwhile, a similar system denies entry for the vast majority, while permitting an ultra-wealthy global elite to build luxurious “billionaire bunkers” in hopes of surviving nuclear apocalypse, climate catastrophe, or lethal pandemics. Is the entire underdeveloped world a giant camp? The image is compelling, possibly overblown, but not without merit.



* Aidan Forth is associate professor of history at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Canada, and author of ‘Barbed-Wire Imperialism: Britain's Empire of Camps, 1876-1903’, published by the University of California Press in 2017.


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