How a punishment of convenience became modern-day policy

Government statutes that allow detention centres can be traced back to a curious notion of humanitarian protection.

Story Brad Collis

high fence

Over the past century, millions of people have found themselves forcibly corralled behind barbed wire for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time – for being in someone’s way.

This near-ubiquitous containment policy has come in various guises – protection zones, concentration camps, detention centres. They continue to exist today as policies of government, legitimised in many people’s minds because they’re created and run even by democracies such as the US and Australia.

The question being probed by historian Professor Christina Twomey is just from where this legitimacy came, especially given that concentration camps were some of the 20th century’s grimmest symbols of totalitarianism and human rights abuses.

Her research focuses on the origins of concentration camps, which have a surprisingly recent history – colonial wars of the late 19th century. Professor Twomey’s early findings are that, despite their brutal legacy, such places of confinement may have had their genesis in the humanitarian  ideal of protection. Although they often morphed into a system of state-sanctioned abuse, the notion of protecting people can still be seen in official language used to justify civilian incarceration, such as various governments’ refugee and asylum-seeker policies.

We still have politicians who say of people in detention centres that it’s for their own good – echoes of that initial protectionist ethos, which clearly also has community traction, otherwise there would be a much stronger public pushback.
Professor Christina Twomey

Dr Iain R. Smith, Emeritus Reader in History from the University of Warwick, in the UK, says Guantanamo Bay and the internment of refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants are features of our contemporary world that have both domestic and colonial precedents.

“So what were those initial protective interventions, and did they deliver a legacy neither intended nor anticipated?” Professor Twomey is asking.

“We’re trying to unravel the evolution of detention as a policy … and we’re not talking here about the genocidal camps of the Holocaust or prisoner-of-war camps, but the concentration and confinement of civilians as a policy of political or administrative convenience.”

Professor Twomey’s research, supported by an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship grant and the Monash University School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, has narrowed the origins of the policy to the late 1890s, when three colonial powers were fighting insurrections: the  Spanish in Cuba, the British in South Africa and the Americans in the Philippines.

It offers the intriguing premise that this approach to managing civilian populations during a conflict originates from attempts to manage indigenous peoples in settler societies such as Australia and the US.

The US Army, for instance, was used to enforce the relocation of Native Americans onto reservations from the 1860s. An officer with the 7th Cavalry, James Franklin Bell, was later the general in charge of the American forces in the Philippine–American War of 1899–1902 – and it was  he who created “zones of protection” in which to confine indigenous Filipinos.

“In trying to identify the early decision-makers behind the conception of concentration camps, Major General James Franklin Bell is a definite ‘person of interest’,” says Professor Twomey.

Christina Twomey

Christina Twomey

There was also Spain’s General Valeriano Weyler, who conceived his “policy of reconcentration” to manage civilians during the Cuban uprising – this is the origin of the term “concentration camp”. General Weyler’s strategy is said to have been influenced by his  admiration for Major General William Sherman, a US Civil War general who also employed scorched earth tactics and the removal of civilian populations.

In hindsight, it’s not surprising that the British military similarly seized on this new strategy for managing civilians when the Second Boer War (1899–1902) broke out. The British government claimed that it created concentration camps in South Africa for the ‘protection’ of  Boer women and children.

A lineage of incarceration

So the circumstantial evidence points to today’s detention centres having a policy lineage that traces back to the idea of protecting people by putting them out of harm’s way. Similar language was used to justify the confinement of indigenous people on reservations and settlements, in places such as the US and Australia.

That this confinement policy took root in the world’s largest democracy may also help answer Professor Twomey’s underlying question of how modern bureaucracies can still justify a seemingly pre-programmed response to confine civilians who have committed no crimes other than being where no  one wants them to be.


Australia, South Africa, the UK and the US will be at the centre of Professor Christina Twomey’s project, which will investigate how ideas about civilian concentration circulated between powers in different colonial arenas. She hopes that a clearer understanding of how protection and concentration overlapped in the first place may provide insights into the policy formulas still being used to manage population movement.

“Because even though camps and concentration policies have been surrounded by controversy from the beginning (a trigger for early human rights movements), they continue to be seen as acceptable government practice,” she says.

“We still have politicians who say of people in detention centres that it’s for their own good – echoes of that initial protectionist ethos, which clearly also has community traction, otherwise there would be a much stronger public pushback.”

Professor Twomey is in the final year of a four-year project that examines the rationale of the ‘protection’ of vulnerable groups that was a feature of civil debate as colonialism drew to a close. “Her research project is a fresh and ambitious exercise in transnational, comparative history into a subject that has hitherto been largely confined to national case studies,” says Dr Smith. “It’s a substantial contribution to ongoing research into the diverse phenomenon of forced civilian concentration.”