Concentration Camps: From the Boer War to Yarl’s Wood

Immigrants are not to blame

Yarl’s Wood “immigration removal centre”, in Bedfordshire, is one of 11 similar centres in the UK. In fact is nothing less than a concentration camp. Targeted groups of people are forcibly imprisoned in the camp to await deportation. There have been suicides, some of the women detainees have been victims of rape and there has been a number of hunger strikes.

The facility was set up by the previous Labour Government in 2001 in part as an attempt to prise the anti-immigrant vote away from the Tories by pandering to the irrational prejudice of people who wanted politicians to come down hard on “illegal immigrants” and “asylum seekers”. These two groups have been constantly demonised in the media along with “benefit scroungers” and “the work-shy” to deflect attention away from the failure of capitalism to meet the needs of all society and the social repercussions of its periodic economic crisis and trade depression. The centre is now run by Serco for a profit who tries to showcase the prison as a holiday camp.

However Yarl’s Wood’s high security perimeter fencing topped with razor edge barbed-wire, patrolled by uniformed guards and with the forced removal in handcuffs of those being deported gives an altogether different picture to Serco’s glossy website advertising the facility with images of happy and smiling inmates and PR puffs about its generous charity work. Zadie Smith, writing in the GUARDIANwrote of Yarl’s Wood as ‘a prison that looks like a sports centre, nestled in a business park”.

Migrants are convenient scapegoats.. Non-Socialist workers mistakenly see migrants as a threat to wages and jobs while the capitalist state for its own political purpose divides migrants into “legal” and “illegal” categories with the later routinely imprisoned whether they are either escaping political persecution or desperately looking for work. The life of many migrants is insecure; some prone to the brutal treatment of traffickers and unscrupulous employers.

Workers cannot or will not think outside the capitalist box. They erroneously believe that capitalism can be managed by the right politicians to run in the interest of workers and employer alike. They fall for the simplistic rhetoric of petty corporals and well-heeled snake-oil salesmen in pinstripe suits drinking pints beer with a smug, cheery smile that the “answer” to poverty, poor housing and unemployment is to attack other workers. Workers who blame other workers for the problems they face as a class, no matter where they come from, is how racism starts and ends in concentration camps and final solutions. Capitalism only works in favour of the capitalist class and it is the interest of employers politicians serve be they Labour, Tory, Liberal Democrat, Green, UKIP or BNP.

Migration is not the problem. Immigration is not the problem. What is the problem is the existence of capitalism where the world is artificially divided into competing nation states. The problem is a world-wide social system with its exploitive wages system, labour market and the buying and selling of labour power. The problem is not other workers but the fact that the means of production and distribution is owned exclusively by the capitalist class for the purpose of making profit and not in meeting human need.

Concentration Camps from the Boer War to Yarl’s Wood

Concentration camps are not new. Concentration camps were formed by the British army to contain men, women and children of the two Boer republics following the British of South Africa invasion to secure the gold fields of the Rand.

This was not the first use of internment camps. The Spanish had used internment camps in the Ten Years' War that later led to the Spanish-American War, and the US had used them against guerrilla forces during the Philippine-American War. But the Boer War concentration camp system was the first time that men, women and children, had been systematically targeted.

The camps had originally been set up by the British Army for civilian families who had been made homeless due to the war. However, when Kitchener succeeded Roberts on 29th November 1900, the British Army introduced new tactics in an attempt to break the guerrilla campaign and the number of civilians incarcerated increased as a result. As Boer farms were destroyed by the British under their "Scorched Earth" policy - including the systematic destruction of crops and slaughtering of livestock, the burning down of homesteads and farms, and the poisoning of wells and salting of fields - to prevent the Boers from resupplying from a home base many tens of thousands of women and children were forcibly moved into the concentration camps.

The vast majority of Boers remaining in the 45 local camps were women and children as the men had been sent overseas as prisoners of war. The unsuitable shelter for the climate, poor diet, inadequate hygiene and overcrowding led to malnutrition and diseases such as measles, typhoid and dysentery which led to 26,000 deaths. Africans also became refugees as the war destroyed their homes and agriculture but they were segregated into 64 separate camps where many also died of disease and starvation.

Over a hundred years later concentration camps are back in the news where they have been set-up throughout Europe and along its periphery towards Africa to deal with so-called “illegal” immigrants”. These camps are administered in varying degrees of misery and squalor. Italy’s camps are about the worst in Europe and were criticised by amnesty International when it was discovered that the immigrants were placed in containers, exposed to extreme temperatures, under conditions of overcrowding

Ironically the Italian government (similar to the policy of concentration camps by proxy followed by successive Austrian governments during the last decade) financed three detention camps in Libya during the final years of Gaddafi’s regime which were a byword for torture, violence and brutality Libya’s current administration now want the EU to give them 5 bn euros to stop the migrants from Africa coming through into Europe although its current descent into civil war makes this “bounty” unlikely.

This is capitalism’s response to the problems associated with civil war, poverty, state violence and repression and unemployment driving tens of thousands of families to Europe. The migrants are blamed while capitalism and all the social problems it creates remain either unquestioned or ignored. Social control, protection of frontiers, pandering to racial ignorance is the policy of the capitalist state which capitalism’s own priority of profit instead of people; capital accumulation instead of meeting human need just spreads human misery over the six continents of the world.

Don’t blame Immigrants: abolish capitalism

Socialists do not blame immigrants legal or otherwise. They are not the problem but capitalism is. Capitalists are in competition with one another for market share and profits. If a business can cut its costs by paying lower wages and giving itself a competitive edge, then it will do just that. This forces competing businesses to follow suit. The result is the constant attempt by employers to drive down the wages of workers just as it is to use labour-saving machinery to displace workers, to de-skill and to move businesses abroad, what Marx called the class struggle.

Economically the way to resist employers is to organise into trade unions; class solidarity not class division; realising the problem is the capitalist class and its ownership of the means of production and distribution not the trials and tribulations of other workers. However, since the class struggle is political (about the private ownership of the means of production and distribution to the exclusion of the rest of society), the working class are compelled to become socialists and organise consciously and politically into a socialist party to replace capitalism with socialism.

Even if there were no immigrants or a pool of cheap labour from abroad the class struggle would still continue on a day to day basis. Immigrants themselves are generally victims of economic distress, high unemployment in their country of origin, possibly war or famine, and victimisation. The problem of immigration is capitalism not immigrants; the class system not individual or groups of workers. In scapegoating immigrants workers give a growing space to nationalism, bigotry, racism and xenophobia to be exploited by politicians for their own nefarious end.

For socialists there is one planet currently divided into competing nation states containing an exploiting world capitalist class and its State and an exploited world working class with an identical class interest. Within this class relation there is a class struggle which can only be ended with the replacement of an artificially divided world into a world without frontiers; a world in which there is no classes; no political or economic compulsion to emigrate and where production and distribution is for direct use by all of society. Until then the concentration camps filling up with migrant workers of the world will continue to grow and continue to give profit to those running them.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.