Concentration camp: A camp where persons (as prisoners of war, political prisoners, or refugees) are detained or confined; Internment center by a government to confine political prisoners or members of national or minority groups for reasons of state security, exploitation or punishment.
Concentration camps in the Western world, I thought, were sites of human rights violations that were abandoned in the early 20th century––rendered extent with the demise of dictators like Stalin and Hitler. Many would be surprised,as I was, to learn that there exists a contemporary site that has been used and reused by the United States to detain people without legal protections.
For eighteen months, from 1991 to June 1993, more than 250 Haitian refugees were detained in a makeshift tent town on the United States Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay. Sometimes called the Guantánamo HIV Camp, it was used to house HIV positive Haitians that were fleeing political upheaval in their home country. Boats filled with Haitians were redirected to the refugee-processing camp on the Bay where, under a 1987 immigration law, HIV-positive immigrants were barred from entering the country.
The INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) tested each refugee for HIV/AIDS before allowing them to pass in to the country and apply for political asylum. With no regard to public health statutes or common human decency, the afflicted refugees were crowded into a barracks surrounded by armed United States Marines. There they lived in squalor for months with no privacy and no protection from the infectious diseases that their immune systems were too weak to battle. Despite warnings from other government departments about the potential impacts of an infectious disease on the camp, the INS refused to close the camp or treat the sickest of inmates.
It wasn’t until a June 8, 1993 United States District Court ruling declared the camp unconstitutional, that a few of the imprisoned refugees were allowed to enter the United States–most were repatriated. The legal battle was waged by a “grassroots” campaign that advocated for these men, women, and children by bringing their cause before U.S. courts.
To me, what was most striking about the detaining of Haitian refugees was the treatment that they received while they were imprisoned. These political escapees were treated as though they had committed atrocities against the United States. A section from Liz Ratner’s paper in The Nation titled, “The Legacy of Guantánamo,” gives a fabulous example of the inhumane treatment:
When asked by reporters why it (INS) ignored the refugees’ medical plight, an INS spokesman . . . responded with unrepentant candor: “They’re going to die anyway, aren’t they?” Such brutal disregard typified the refugees’ treatment at Guantánamo . . . Under their watch, the refugees endured hunger and humiliation, and a strict curfew, and were manipulated into Depo-Provera injections (a form of female birth control with potentially serious side-effects).
The details of the forced shots of birth control evokes the memory of Nazi medical testing during the Holocaust and for this reason alone, the refugee camp on Guantánamo could be considered a concentration camp. When combined with the general inhumane treatment, poor living conditions and lack discretion on the part of the United States Government, the Haitian Refugee Camp located on Guantánamo Bay was most certainly a modern day concentration camp.
Posted by Steven Porter – Undergraduate student at The University of Minnesota – Twin Cities