In June, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made headlines by referring to the migrant detention centers on the US-Mexico border as “concentration camps.” She added that “never again” has to mean something, and that the Trump administration was falling short of this ideal. Her comments, which she recently doubled-down on, insinuating that these camps are comparable to those used by the Nazis to exterminate two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population, caused an understandable level of outrage and condemnation.
While the detention centers at the border are certainly inhumane, and the Trump administration seems to be doing the bare minimum to change their conditions, likening them to the evils of Auschwitz and Birkenau is both ahistorical and morally reprehensible.
Many of Rep.Cortez’s defenders argue that the term “concentration camp” is applicable to more than just systemic death camps. Although this defense is dubious in regards to the Congresswoman’s statements (her use of the saying “never again” left no room for misinterpretation), it is true that concentration camps do not have to be, strictly speaking, for the purpose of genocide. Merriam Webster defines “concentration camp” as follows:
“A place where large numbers of people (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, refugees, or the members of an ethnic or religious minority) are detained or confined under armed guard.
The facilities at the southern border do not clear the threshold to fairly be labeled as concentration camps. Migrants detained there are being held because they violated American immigration law, and the vast majority of them do not meet the requirements under international law to be considered refugees, regardless of how dire the situations they were escaping typically are. There is, however, a country in the world today that does operate real concentration camps.
The Chinese government has established over 1,000 of what they call “re-education camps” in the far-western region of Xinjiang, where the UN estimates more than a million people are being held against their will. Almost all of the prisoners are members of the Uighur ethnic group – a people who mostly practice Islam and have more in common culturally with South and Central Asia than with Beijiing. The reasons for their incarceration, according to the official statements of the Chinese government, are either job training or extremism prevention. But neither of these explanations accurately portray the reality.
Concisely put, the Chinese Communist Party is attempting to eradicate the unique culture of the Uighur people, and cleanse them of their Islamic faith in particular. Although Chinese law technically requires officers to avoid targeting people for normal religious activities, in practice Uighurs are regularly detained for arbitrary things such as growing a beard, traveling abroad, contacting relatives living abroad, having WhatsApp on their phone, and even for failing to engage with mass media and entertainment programs. In 2017, arrests in Xinjiang accounted for 21% of those in all of China, despite the region only making up 1.5% of China’s total population.
Inside the camps, Uighurs are made to totally renounce Islam and embrace the archetypal Chinese Communist Party identity. They are forced to eat pork, drink alcohol, verbalize their disagreements with Islam, sing propaganda songs, and provide false confessions to serious crimes like aiding terrorism. Those who refuse to follow orders are tortured. Solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, starvation, forced stress positions, beatings, and even killings have been reported from those who have made it out. The children of detainees are frequently sent to orphanages, even when there are other relatives available to care for them. In these orphanages, the kids are indoctrinated in many of the same ways their parents are.
Uighurs who are lucky enough to avoid internment are subjected to constant surveillance, police checks, DNA tracking, and forced sterilizations. It is common for “neighborhood monitors” to stay in Uighur households and grade them on traits like “reliability.” Low grades often result in being sent to the camps.
During the holy month of Ramadan, restaurants were forced to stay open and fasting was prohibited. Police increased household searches as well, to ensure that Uighur families were not secretly observing holiday. As one might expect given the risks, mosques across Xinjiang were empty during this time.
Beijing has secured an all-encompassing level of control over the lives’ of its Uighur citizens. They are never alone, and they know that even the most benign expression of their culture could have catastrophic consequences.
The majority of Western nations have publicly condemned China’s policies in Xinjiang, but many more, most notably the majority of Muslim countries, have praised them. Neighboring Kazakhstan has sent back Uighurs who attempt to claim asylum there. Pakistan, the second most populous Muslim nation on Earth and China’s neighbor to the southwest, has consistently reinforced the Chinese Communist Party line on Xinjiang. Mohammad Faisal, for instance, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, condemned the foreign media for “trying to sensationalize the matter by spreading false information.” Mohammad bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, claimed in relation to the camps that “China has the right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-extremisation work for its own national security.” Even Turkey, who was previously somewhat vocal about their disapproval of China’s policies in Xinjiang, has retreated into silence.
The United States has also been noticeably quiet on the situation. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence have both spoken out several times about human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and a select number of Senators have pushed for actions like sanctions against high ranking officials. In terms of ensuring that President Xi and his enablers face real consequences, however, the Trump Administration has – shamefully – done nothing.
President Trump is in the midst of a momentous trade war with China that, if mishandled, could destabilize the global economy. It would be foolish to unnecessarily inflame a dispute which has already negatively impacted so many lives; both American and Chinese. But what is happening in Xinjiang is the most egregious example of systemic human rights violations on Earth today. It is unacceptable for the US to tip-toe around something as serious as this in order to secure better trade terms.
The camps in Xinjiang are not death camps. The goal of the Chinese government is not to physically eliminate the Uighur people, as the Nazis did not-so-many years ago with the Jews. Their goal is to eliminate the identity that is “Uighur.” While leaving the Uighur people alive, the Chinese intend to either indoctrinate or scare enough of them into living the bland, obedient existence that the Party wants for all of its citizens. After another generation or two, if nothing is done, what were once a proud people with a rich heritage will forget everything they used to be, and that is when the Chinese will have finally won.
There is no excuse for inaction anymore. The United States, the Western world, the Muslim world, indeed, the entire world, has the moral duty to act on the Uighurs’ behalf. That is, if we do truly mean something when we say “never again.”