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Internment is the imprisonment or confinement of people, commonly in large groups, without trial. It also refers to the practice of neutral countries in time of war in detaining belligerent armed forces and equipment in their territories under the Second Hague Convention.
Early civilizations such as the Assyrians used forced resettlement of populations as a means of controlling territory, but it was not until much later that records exist of groups of civilians being concentrated into large prison camps. The most notorious of such prison camps were the Nazi concentration camps.
An internment camp is a large detention center created for political opponents, enemy aliens, people with mental illness, specific ethnic or religious groups, civilians of a critical war-zone, or other groups of people, usually during a war. The term is used for facilities where inmates are selected according to some specific criteria, rather than individuals who are incarcerated after due process of law fairly applied by a judiciary.
As a result of mistreatment of civilians interned during recent conflicts, the Fourth Geneva Convention was established in 1949 to provide for the protection of civilians during times of war "in the hands" of an enemy and under any occupation by a foreign power. It was ratified by 194 nations. Prisoner-of-war camps are internment camps intended specifically for holding members of an enemy's armed forces as defined in the Third Geneva Convention, and the treatment of whom is specified in that Convention.
The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. defines concentration camp as: a camp where non-combatants of a district are accommodated, such as those instituted by Lord Kitchener during the South African war of 1899-1902; one for the internment of political prisoners, foreign nationals, etc., esp. as organized by the Nazi regime in Germany before and during the war of 1939-45.
The English term "concentration camp" was first used to describe camps operated by the British in South Africa during the 1899-1902 Second Boer War. Allegedly conceived as a form of humanitarian aid to the families whose farms had been destroyed in the fighting, the camps were used to confine and control large numbers of civilians as part of a Scorched Earth tactic. The term "concentration camp" was coined at this time to signify the "concentration" of a large number of people in one place, and was used to describe both the camps in South Africa (1899-1902) and those established by the Spanish to support a similar anti-insurgency campaign in Cuba (circa 1895-1898), although at least some Spanish sources disagree with the comparison.
Use of the word concentration comes from the idea of concentrating a group of people who are in some way undesirable in one place, where they can be watched by those who incarcerated them. For example, in a time of insurgency, potential supporters of the insurgents are placed where they cannot provide them with supplies or information.
The term concentration camp lost some of its original meaning after Nazi concentration camps were discovered, and has ever since been understood to refer to a place of mistreatment, starvation, forced labour, and murder. The expression since then has only been used in this extremely pejorative sense; no government or organization has used it to describe its own facilities, using instead terms such as internment camp, resettlement camp, detention facility, etc, regardless of the actual circumstances of the camp, which can vary a great deal.
In the 20th century the arbitrary internment of civilians by the state became more common and reached a climax with Nazi concentration camps and the practice of genocide in Nazi extermination camps, and with the Gulag system of forced labor camps of the Soviet Union. As a result of this trend, the term "concentration camp" carries many of the connotations of "extermination camp" and is sometimes used synonymously. A concentration camp, however, is not by definition a death-camp. For example, many of the slave labor camps were used as cheap or free sources of factory labor for the manufacture of war materials and other goods.
Indeed, in terming their camps "concentration camps," the Nazis were using a mundane term to mask something far more horrific then the word had previously meant, similar to their usage of the term 'Ghetto.' Previously, ghettos had been separate, usually walled-in Jewish Quarters designed to control Jews, but Ghettos in occupied Europe 1939-1944 were far more brutal with hundreds of thousands of Jews dying of starvation.
Although the term "concentration camp" has become virtually indistinguishable from "death camp" in the popular mind, the two are not identical. The British continued to use the term concentration camp in its original meaning long after the collapse of the Third Reich, with quite possibly the last being the forced but relatively peaceful relocation of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese squatters from the edge of the Malayan Jungle to "New Villages" during the Malayan Emergency to choke supply and support off for the Malayan Communist Party.
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