September 19, 2019

A Better Analogy for Detention Centers

“Is it right to call the migrant detainment centers on our southern border “concentration camps,” as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did recently? Her comments were meant to evoke the Holocaust, and to call forth our indignation at our government’s mistreatment of refugees. But historical parallels should be drawn carefully; what’s happening in Clint, Tex., is not equivalent to what took place in Sobibor, Treblinka or Auschwitz.

There is another historical analog that seems more apt: the internment camps in Vichy France that housed refugees from occupied Europe in the 1940s.

We know a lot about these camps thanks in part to Varian Fry, an American journalist who helped save thousands of writers and artists blacklisted by the Gestapo, and Daniel Bénédite, his close associate. In 1940, they reported on French internment centers that held paperless refugees from Nazi Europe as well as “undesirables.” Fry’s archives at Columbia include a record of their findings, based on visits to the camps and interviews with hundreds of refugees.

In some obvious ways, those camps were far worse than our detainment centers. Refugees lived in unheated barracks and used open latrines, the contents of which blew about in rough weather. Typhus and dysentery were rampant. To the extent that refugees were fed, they got watery soups, served with a weak coffee substitute and hard brown bread. In warmer weather, bugs and vermin swarmed. The scale of those camps dwarfed our own detention centers. And many thousands of inmates were deported to Germany for extermination.”

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