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Nauru Concentration Camp during Boer War: Analytical Essay

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The establishment of an offshore processing centre on Nauru was based on the Statement of Principles, signed on 10 September 2001 by the President of Nauru and the Australian Minister for Defence. The statement opened the way to establish a detention centre for up to 800 people and was accompanied by a pledge of A$20 million for development activities in Nauru. The initial detainees were to be people rescued by the MV Tampa, with the understanding that they would leave Nauru by May 2002. In August 2001, a diplomatic dispute broke out between Australia, Norway, and Indonesia after Tampa under Captain Arne Rinnan rescued 438 Afghans from a distressed international fishing vessel (for that act, Captain Arne F. Rinnan and the crew of the MV Tampa vessel received the Nansen Refugee Award for 2002 from UNHCR). The Afghans wanted to go to Christmas Island nearby. In order to prevent this development, the Australian government refused to let Tampa pass through their waters, insisting on its disembarkation elsewhere and deploying the Special Air Service Regiment on board the ship. Tampa was carrying cargo worth A$ 20 million and 27 crew members at the time of the incident. Subsequently, a memorandum of understanding was signed on 11 December 2001, boosting accommodation to 1,200 and the promised development activity by an additional $10 million (Stuart).​

There were riots and hunger strikes in the camp starting from 2003. The centre was closed in 2007 but it reopened in 2012. Under President Obama, the US agreed to take some 1,250 detainees from the Nauru camp. In 2015, several staff members from the detention centre wrote an open letter claiming that multiple instances of sexual abuse against women and children had occurred. The letter claimed that the Australian government had been aware of these abuses for over 18 months. There were cases when 'guards had traded marijuana for sexual favours with asylum seeker children​(Caville).

The main question of my paper is the following: Is there any substantial difference between the Nauru Regional Processing Centre and the concentration camps during the Second Boer War?

The practice of concentration camps by various states

Concentration camps were first practiced during the Civil war in America. Due to the lack of means to deal with big numbers of captured troops early in the American Civil War, both the Union and the Confederate Governments developed a traditional European system of parole and prisoner exchange. The Union and the Confederacy operated American Civil War Prison Camps to handle 409,000 soldiers captured during the war from 1861 to 1865. In 1901, the Record and Pension Office counted 211,000 captured northern residents. Most were immediately paroled in 1861-1863; however, the parole exchange system broke down in 1863 and more than 195,000 people ended up in prison camps (My Civil War).

The system of exchange worked as follows: 'a prisoner on parole promised that he would not fight again until his name was 'exchanged' on the other side for a similar man'. Then they could both rejoin their units. Prisoners were briefly confined to permanent camps while waiting for exchange. In mid-1863, the exchange system collapsed when the Confederacy refused to treat captured black prisoners as white prisoners. On both sides, the prison populations then soared. There were 32 major Confederate prisons, including 16 in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina's Deep South states. In regions with high disease rates, many Southern prisons were short of food, medicine, and doctors. Northerners often believed that their men were deliberately weakened and killed in Confederate prisons and demanded equally harsh conditions in Northern prisons, although shortages were not a problem in the North. During the war, approximately 56,000 soldiers died in prisons, accounting for nearly 10 percent of all deaths in the civil war. 'More than 45,000 Union soldiers were sent to Andersonville during the 14 months of the prison's existence. Of these, 12,912 died from disease, malnutrition, overcrowding, or exposure' (

The term 'concentration camp' was first used during Boer war, more than 115,000 people were imprisoned in these camps and at least 25,000 of them were killed. The British have introduced a policy of 'scorched earth.' Boer farms were burned to the ground, salted, and poisoned by every field. The men were sent out of the country to prevent them from fighting, but their wives and children were forced into the camps, which soon became overcrowded. These camps were built by British soldiers in the midst of the Boer war, during which the British rounded up Dutch Boers and indigenous South Africans and locked them up in cramped camps, where thousands died. In fact, in these camps, more men, women, and children died of hunger and disease than men actually fought in the Second Boer war from 1899 to 1902, a territorial struggle in South Africa. Soon, South Africa had more than 100 concentration camps, imprisoning more than 100,000 people. There were no resources to deal with the numbers. They could barely feed them. The camps were filthy and overrun with disease, and the people inside started to die off in droves. The children suffered the most. Of the 28,000 Boers that died, 22,000 were children. They were left to starve, especially if their fathers were still fighting the British in the Boer war. With so few rations to pass around, the children of fighters were deliberately starved and left to die (Pakenham).

Nazi Germany maintained concentration camps in the territories, which were controlled before and during the Second World War. The first Nazi concentration camps were built in March 1933, immediately after Hitler became Chancellor and Reich Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick and Prussian Interior Minister Hermann Goring gave his Nazi Party control of the police. The camps initially held approximately 45,000 prisoners. These camps were used to hold and torture political opponents and union organizers. Before the war began, in 1933-1939, most of the prisoners were German Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats, Roma, and persons accused by the Germans of 'asocial' or socially 'deviant' behavior as well as their family members. More than 1.3 million people were sent to Auschwitz out of which 1.1 million people died either from the gas chambers or harsh conditions of detention (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum).

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Functioning of Nauru concentration camp

'Since 2013 the Australian government has operated a policy of refusing to allow settlement of any refugees attempting to reach Australia by boat. Instead, refugees and asylum seekers are routinely sent to Nauru and Papua New Guinea where they are at risk of violence. They also have restricted access to food, medical care, and sanitation, and have not been issued with local documentation, which means their freedom of movement within those countries is restricted'. These extremely harsh conditions of detention lead to many cases of death and diseases and moral breakdown among detainees (UNHCR, a).

In November 2012, an Amnesty International team visited the camp and described it as 'a human rights catastrophe a toxic mix of uncertainty, unlawful detention, and inhumane conditions'(Mallinson). The conditions are so unbearable that the refugees prefer to kill themselves rather than continue living in the camp. More than '60 percent had suicidal thoughts and 30 percent had attempted suicide, including children as young as nine(UNHCR, a) and 'among 12 deaths that have occurred to date under the so-called “offshore processing” approach, half of which have been confirmed or suspected suicides, are various refugees and asylum-seekers who should have been transferred to Australia' (UNHCR, b). A nurse visited the Nauru camp and described it as a 'concentration camp' ( Conditions of detention aren't suited for refugees. A lot of people are cramped in a small room, and toxic mold is covering the walls of the tents, because of which skin and other diseases are spread among the detainees. The Nauru camp guards do not pay attention to these facts (UNHCR, c).

Comparison of Nauru Regional Processing Centre with the US, UK, and Nazi concentration camps

Nauru Concentration camp and the US, UK, and Nazi concentration camps share a lot of substantial similarities. In all the cases there are human rights abuses, deaths, and illnesses. The guards in Nauru abuse their power and harass detainees, especially women and children. Like under the British practice, the detainees are contained in small filthy rooms covered with mould. There is not enough provision of food to feed the refugees, nor enough clean water for basic use. Children do not receive education due to the lack of teachers, needs, and rooms in the camp. Similar to Nazis, refugees in Nauru are mentally drained by the guards and have suicidal thoughts, and are regularly threatened if they refuse to do what the guards ask from them (Bacon, Curr, Lawrence, Macken, O'Connor). Several detainees set themselves on fire in order to bring attention of the international community (Business Human Rights Resource) and continue to make similar actions in hopes to achieve the same objective. In the Nazi concentration camps, every 4th person may have committed suicide, “it is estimated that the suicide rates in the camp were most likely 25,000 per 100,000 per year or higher and, therefore, enormous!” (Lester), in the Nauru camp out of 37 deaths 16 were suicides (Asylum Insight). The detainees were controlled the majority of time, they had a schedule that they must follow: 'Refugees and asylum seekers described conditions in these detention camps as “prison-like,” with regular searches of their tents by guards and regular confiscation of “prohibited” items including food and sewing needles. Food was distributed at set times, and no one was allowed to bring any food into the tents, even for young children. Until early 2015, asylum seekers could take one two-minute shower a day. There were long lines for toilets that quickly became so dirty that staff refused to clean them. They could use the internet once a week at most, and could not leave the camp' (Human Rights Watch).

In all the cases people cannot move freely, they are imprisoned in their camps. In Nauru people's documents are being taken away, so they cannot escape or return to their home country. They are trapped in this camp for years. There is a high rate of sexual assault and abuse of women and children. More than 40% of women in Nauru camp have experienced physical or sexual violence. Due to frequent rapes happening in the camp some women became pregnant; however, their demands for abortion were declined due to abortion being forbidden in Nauru (Bacon, Curr, Lawrence, Macken, O'Connor). The freedom of expression is close to non-existent. Refugees aren't allowed to exit the camp and are forbidden to use the internet or any other source of self-expression.

Reaction and opinion of the International Community

The Nauru government is in no position to refuse refugees, and besides, the massive stimulus of hundreds of millions of Australian dollars, and jobs for an under-employed workforce, outweighs the fierce hostility that many – not all – in the Nauruan community hold for the refugees imposed upon their island. Australia pays to Nauru sums which are equivalent to 25 percent of Nauru’s gross domestic product. That is why Nauru supports this agreement. Nauru and Australia need each other, they need the detention centre and those detained therein: one for economic survival, the other for deterrence of refugees seeking sanctuary in Australia (ABC News).

In order to alleviate this situation, the US offered to resettle Australia’s refugees from Nauru and Manus Island on the understanding that in exchange Australia would “do more” to help other refugees. The agreement was sharply criticized by President Trump who reduced the number of refugees taken (Isaacs).

UNHCR visited the Nauru camp multiple times and made reports concerning harsh conditions imposed on the detainees. UNHCR criticized Australia for not providing help for the refugees. Agencies like International Health and Medical Services and the Offshore Service for Survivors of Torture provide medical help for refugees working under contracts with the Australian government (Human Rights Watch).


There is a difference in terms of scale between the centre in Nauru and previous camps, including those used by the British in the Second Boer war. This centre is smaller than the camps used in America during the Civil War or in Nazi Germany. However, according to a number of criteria of inhuman conditions of detention, including the level of mortality, the numbers of suicides, and mental breakdowns, camps in Nauru and in South Africa show similar characteristics. This gives reason to conclude that the centre in Nauru fits well into the practice of concentration camps of the late 19th and mid-20th centuries. This means that the practice of confinement in Nauru does not correspond to the contemporary standards of human rights and should be revised.


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