Behind the word ‘camp’

26/6/19 Not everything can be compared: Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Democratic Representative of the 14th New York District in the US House of Representatives, was targeted by a torrent of attacks because of the denial of this principle. These included requesting an apology for ’insulting the dead of the Shoah’ and asking for her resignation from Congress. She indeed stated that detention centres for foreigners are concentration camps (a term currently used before WWII for all the sites where foreigners where detained), yet never called them extermination camps. Fifteen years ago, on another continent, the Migreurop network encountered such misunderstanding when it used the word "camp" to designate the places where, in and around Europe, foreigners are locked up in the name of migration policies.

We affirm our solidarity with Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, with all those around the world who, because they oppose the war on migrants, are prosecuted and sometimes convicted of crimes of solidarity (Scott Warren in the United States, Loan Torondel in France, Pia Klemp and Carola Rackete, SeaWatch3 captains, in Italy, Elena Maleno in Morocco and so many others), and above all with migrants. Free movement for all!

Not only is the word camp semantically and analytically appropriate to refer to the contemporary forms of confinement and exclusion of foreigners, it also important within the activist critique of these practices. Yet its use continues to be debated [1].

On Aug. 12, 2004, Otto Schily and Giuseppe Pisanu, the German and Italian Interior Ministers, called for the creation of “portals“ in North Africa for migrants wishing to reach the European shores. Thus the issue of camps for foreigners once again became a matter of concern for all those who, in various capacities (European officials and elected representatives, national leaders, associations, NGOs, activists, etc.), deal with the European Union migration and asylum policy [2]. The 2004-2009 programme adopted by the Heads of State and Government on this subject (the so-called “Hague Programme”, Nov. 5, 2004) potentially implies serious setbacks for asylum seekers, and establishes a securitising and utilitarian approach for all migrants. Yet a semantic quarrel based on an ethical dispute is threatening the common front needed across all those who defend the rights of foreigners. This dispute concerns the use, particularly by the migreurop network, of the term “camp”, suspected of conveying dubious amalgams.

However the network’s members, who wrote the European appeal against the creation of camps at European borders (Oct. 12, 2004), do not draw a parallel between the current plans of the EU, i.e. the confinement of foreigners on the territory and at the margins of the EU, and the WWII extermination camps – neither in their writings, nor in their speeches. Such an amalgam would prevent any understanding of the nature of contemporary camps. It does not however mean that any historical comparison must be avoided: mechanisms at work in today’s camps are, for example, comparable to those of the “beach camps” where France detained Spanish Republicans at the end of the 30’s.

With others, we have already denounced the non-respect of rights (especially those of asylum seekers) and the living conditions of the Sangatte refugees. Today we have decided to use the word camp for two reasons:

 1. The euphemistic use of terms such as “centre” does not reflect the reality of such human gatherings, which owe nothing to the will of the exiles, but rather to a systematic policy of preventing the movement and settlement of people fleeing war, persecution or poverty. Even before 20th century totalitarian experiences in Europe, the word camp has been used to describe the de facto house arrest (and thus the deprivation of rights) of populations for political reasons. This understanding of the word camp explains why it never occurred to anyone to claim that the UNHCR’s running of “refugee camps” could be an offense to the memory of the victims of the Shoah... The media have actually taken up the concept in their reporting in order to either support or denounce these current situations and projects: they refer to camps and do not use quotation marks, unlike when they reproduce official expressions such as “points of contact” or “transit centres” for which quotation marks are used to point out their hypocrisy. So much so that the European Commissioner for Immigration, Antonio Vitorino, issued a lexical reminder, explaining that the term camp was too explicit and politically incorrect [3].

 2. Migreurop feels all the more legitimate in mobilising the concept of camp in the public debate that, for many years, research on this theme has been a very fruitful field of contemporary historiography [4]. While controversies have sometimes been very heated about the characterisation of the specificities of the Nazi regime and its extermination camps, no one has ever thought that the word camp should be reserved for studies on the concentration camp phenomenon under Nazism. Similarly, it is now an uncontested fact of contemporary history research that the use of camps is not the prerogative of totalitarian or even dictatorial regimes, but is frequent in democracies believing to be the target of external dangers [5].

That is why, by using the term camp, we are not only proposing a militant critique, but also demonstrating lexical rigour. However, this is not our main objective: when migreurop publishes a Map of the camps for foreigners in Europe and at the EU borders [6], our goal is to demonstrate, together with the co-signatories of the European Appeal against camps at European borders, that such projects are neither the future nor the past, but the present of a EU that places the confinement of foreigners at the heart of its asylum and immigration projects.


In a Monday-evening live stream on June 18, 2019, Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, of New York, called the U.S. detention facilities for migrants “concentration camps.” On Tuesday, she tweeted a link to an article in Esquire in which Andrea Pitzer, a historian of concentration camps, was quoted making the same assertion: that the United States has created a “concentration camp system.”

Hackles were immediately raised, tweets fired, and, less than an hour and a half later, Representative Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, tweeted, “Please @AOC do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history. 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this.”

In support of AOC, one of the most politically powerful and moving text was I’m a Jewish historian. Yes, we should call border detention centers “concentration camps” by Anna Lind-Guzik, who adds “It isn’t just accurate. It’s necessary”

Also not to be missed ‘Some Suburb of Hell’: America’s New Concentration Camp System Andrea Pitzer, NYR Daily 21/6/19