A concentration camp is a large detention centre for political opponents, specific ethnic or religious groups, or other groups of people. Some concentration camps are designed for the extermination of the interned (extermination camps), or to engage them in forced labor (labor camps), while others are designed merely for confinement. The term is most likely to be applied when those interned are civilians and are selected by their conformance to broad criteria without judicial process, as opposed to their being judged as individuals.

In the English-speaking world, the term "concentration camp" was first used during the Boer War to describe camps in which thousands of Boer civilians, and black workers from their farms, died as a result of diseases due to hunger, thirst, and bad sanitation. 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 and those established to support a similar anti-insurgency campaign in Cuba at roughly the same time (see below).

Over the course of the twentieth century, the arbitrary internment of civilians by the authority of the state became more common and reached an horrific climax with the practice of genocide in the death camps of the Nazi regime in Germany. As a result of this trend, the term concentration camp carries many of the connotations of extermination camp and is sometimes used synonymously. In technical discussion, however, it is important to understand that a concentration camp is not, by definition, a Nazi-style death camp.

What follows is a brief history of concentration camps established by various countries and regimes.

Table of contents
1 Cuba
2 The United Kingdom
3 The United States
4 Canada
5 Austria-Hungary
6 Germany
7 Fascist Italy
8 Ustaša regime in Croatia
9 Cambodia
10 Russia and Soviet Union
11 People's Republic of China
12 Bosnia and Herzegovina
13 North Korea
14 Sweden
15 Finland
16 France
17 Chile
18 See also


The word "concentration" in the context of forcible internment was first used during the Third Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898) by the then Spanish military governor, Valeriano Weyler. Weyler's policy of "reconcentracion" (in Spanish) resulted in the mass movement of rural populations to suburban areas of large cities, in an effort to cut off the widespread support the Cuban rebel government then enjoyed. The measure was a product of Spanish desperation at its army's mounting losses in men and territory to the rebels, and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths (largely of women, children and the elderly) to disease, overcrowding, and exposure. The policy left a bitter legacy in the Cuban political consciousness, felt even to this day, and the worldwide horror that such an atrocity inspired (fomented by the yellow journalism of the Hearst newspapers) rallied support in the United States for a war against Spain.

The United Kingdom

The term "concentration camp" was first used by the British military during the Boer War. British forces rounded up the Boer women and children as well as black people living on Boer land, and sent them to camps scattered around South Africa. Though they were not extermination camps, the Boer camps were noted for their poor nutrition and bad hygiene, and the associated high mortality rates (28,000 women and children died). The Boer situation was only relieved when Emily Hobhouse brought the conditions in the camps to the attention of the British public.

In the conduct of the Malayan Emergency, British armed forces established resettlement camps, later renamed new villages, having the characteristics of concentration camps. These were the forerunners of the strategic hamlets established by American armed forces during the Vietnam War. The chronic renaming is a clear consequence of the operation of a euphemism treadmill.

The British interned only 2,000 of the original 74,000 German and Austrian aliens that they rounded up after the start of World War II.

The 1970s internment of Irish nationals in camps by the government lead directly to Home Rule.

The United States

The first large-scale confinement of a specific ethnic group in detention centers began in the summer of 1838, when President Andrew Jackson ordered the U.S. Army to enforce the Indian Removal Act of 1830 by rounding up the Cherokee into prison camps before relocating them. Although these camps were not intended to be extermination camps, and people were not killed by official policy, many Indians were raped and/or murdered by US soldiers. A number died in these camps due to starvation and bad sanitary conditions. Ultimately, this culminated in the Trail of Tears where a large number of Indians were exterminated.

Throughtout the remainder of the Indian Wars, various populations of Native Americans were rounded up, trekked across country and put into detention, some for as long as 27 years.

The term Internment Camp is often used as an euphemistic equivalent in other historical contexts, such as the imprisonment by the United States of German-American people during both World War I and World War II, the internment of enemy aliens, and the exclusion and relocation (much of it forced) of American citizens born of enemy ancestry (including Japanese-Americans) during World War II. The relocation camps (such as Manzanar) in the 1940s did not involve extermination like Nazi death camps. Nevertheless, they remain a severe blot on the human rights record of the United States.

Some people claim that the housing of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay is a concentration camp. Even if this technically is correct, no government or neutral organization seems willing to characterize it as such; for instance, Amnesty International has criticized the US over allegations of mistreatment, but does not call Guantanamo a concentration camp.


During World War I, thousands of Ukrainians were put into concentration camps as "enemy aliens" to perform forced labor in steel mills, forestry, etc. This is partly because Ukraine was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, partly because capitalists wanted to exploit them for cheap labor, partly because of endemic racism in Canada. Other Slavic citizens of Austria-Hungary were also interned, such as Serbs, Czechs and Slovaks.

During World War II, Canada followed the U.S. lead in interning residents of Japanese and Italian ancestry.


During the First World War, internment camps were set up, mostly for Serbs and other pro-Serbian Yugoslavs. Men, women, the children and the elderly were displaced from their homes and sent to concentrations camps all over the Empire such as Doboj (46,000), Arad, Györ, Nezsider.


Concentration camps rose to notoriety during their use in World War II by Germany. The Nazi regime nominally maintained both kinds of concentration camps, work camps and extermination camps. The distinction between the two, in practice, was very small. Prisoners in Nazi work camps could expect to be worked to death in short order, while prisoners in extermination camps usually died sooner in gas chambers or in other ways. Guards were known to engage in target practice, using their prisoners as targets.

The first Nazi camps were within Germany, and were primarily work camps. The worst excesses, including the murder of Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, Polish intellectuals, Soviet Prisoners of War and others, were to come later in the war at the area of General Government. (See Holocaust, genocide.) It is estimated that around ten million people were murdered in Nazi concentration camps.

Major Nazi Concentration Camps

Name of the campDate of establishmentDate of liberationEstimated number of prisonersEstimated number of deaths
Auschwitz1940January 27, 1945 2,000,000
Belzec1941  600,000
Bergen-Belsen1940April 15, 1945 70,000
BuchenwaldJuly 1937April 12, 1945  
Chelmno1941  340,000
DachauMarch 22 1933April 29, 1945  
Flossenbürg 1938April 23, 194596,00030,000
Gross-Rosen summer 1940February 1945125,00040,000
Majdanek1941  1,380,000
MauthausenAugust 8, 1938May 5, 1945195,000 
Natzweiler-StruthofMay 21, 1941November 23, 194440,00025,000
NeuengammeDecember 13, 1938May 4, 1945106,00055,000
Ravensbrück1938 194590,000
Sachsenhausen1936April 22, 1945200,000100,000
Sobibór1942  250,000
TreblinkaJuly 23, 1942October 1943 800,000

Fascist Italy

Major Fascist Italian Concentration Camps

Name of the campDate of establishmentDate of liberationEstimated number of prisonersEstimated number of deaths

Ustaša regime in Croatia

Name of the campDate of establishmentDate of liberationEstimated number of prisonersEstimated number of deaths
JasenovacAugust 23, 1941April 22, 1945  over 78,000
Stara Gradiška19411945  
Pag1941 8,500


Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime.

Russia and Soviet Union

In Imperial Russia, labor camps were known under the name katorga.

In the Soviet Union, concentration camps were called simply camps, almost always plural ("lagerya"). These were used as forced labor camps, and were often filled with political prisoners. After Alexander Solzhenitsyn's book they have become known to the rest of the world as Gulags, after the branch of NKVD (state security service) that managed them. (In Russian language, the term is used to denote the whole system, rather than individual camps.) The Gulag system was exposed by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his work The Gulag Archipelago. An estimated forty million people died in the Soviet concentration camps.

A special kind of labor camps, sometimes called sharashka, were for forced engineering and scientific labor. They are treated in Solzhenitsyn's book The First Circle. The famous Soviet rocket designer Sergey Korolev worked in a "sharashka"; so did Lev Termen and many other prominent Russians.

People's Republic of China

Concentration camps in the People's Republic of China are called Laogai, which means "reform through labor". The communist-era camps began at least in the 1960s and were filled with anyone who had said anything critical of the government, or often just random people grabbed from their homes to fill quotas. The entire society was organized into small groups in which loyalty to the government was enforced, so that anyone with dissident viewpoints was easily identifiable for enslavement. These camps were modern slave labor camps, organized like factories. However most persons arrested for political reasons were released in the late-1970s at the start of the Deng Xiaoping reforms.

There are accusations that Chinese labor camp produce products are often sold in foreign countries with the profits going to the PRC government. Products include everything from green tea to industrial engines to coal dug from mines. However, these products make up an insignificant amount of mainland China's export output, and it has been argued that the use of prison labor for manufacturing is not itself a violation of human rights and that most prisoners in Chinese prisons are there for what are generally regarded as crimes in the West.

The use of prison labor is an interesting case study of the interaction between capitalism and prison labor. On the one hand, the downfall of socialism has reduced revenue to local governments increasing pressure for local governments to attempt to supplement their income using prison labor. On the other hand, prisoners do not make a good workforce, and the products produced by prison labor in China are of extremely low quality and have become unsalable on the open market in competition with products made by ordinary paid labor.

An insider's view from the 1950s to the 1990s is detailed in the books of Harry Wu, including Troublemaker and The Laogai. He spent almost all of his adult life as a prisoner in these camps for criticizing the government while he was a young student in college. He almost died several times, but eventually escaped to the US. Critics have argued that he far overstates the present role of Chinese labor camps and ignores the tremendous changes that have occurred in China since then.

See also: Human rights in China

Bosnia and Herzegovina

During the 1990s, there existed at least the following detention camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina, sorted in alphabetical order:

  • Batkovica (Bosnian Serb army)
  • Čelebići (Bosnian Muslim army)
  • Dretelj (Bosnian Croat army)
  • Hrasnica (Bosnian Muslim army)
  • Igman (Bosnian Muslim army)
  • Keraterm (Bosnian Serb army)
  • Kozarac (Bosnian Serb army)
  • Luka Brčko (Bosnian Serb army)
  • Ljubuški (Bosnian Croat army)
  • Manjača (Bosnian Serb army)
  • Mostar (Bosnian Croat army)
  • Omarska (Bosnian Serb army)
  • Tarčin-Silos (Bosnian Muslim army)
  • Trnopolje (Bosnian Serb army)
  • Visoko (Bosnian Muslim army)
  • Zenica (Bosnian Muslim army)

Numerous atrocities were committed against prisoners, subject to ICTY prosecution.

more should be written

North Korea

Location of Concentration Camps
North Province of Hamkyong-Life Imprisonment Zone
1. Onsong Changpyong Family Camp No. 12 (relocated in May 1987)
2. Chongsong Family Camp No. 13 (relocated in December 1990)
3. Hoeryong Family Camp No. 22
4. Chongjin Singles' Prison No. 25
5. Kyongsong Family Camp No. 11 (relocated in October 1989)
6. Hwasong Family Camp No. 16
South Province of Hamkyong
7. Yodok Offenders and Family Camp No. 15
 (sectors for re-education and life imprisonment)
North Province of Pyong'an
8. Chonma Family Camp No. 27 (relocated in November 1990)
South Province of Pyong'an
9. Kaechon Family Camp No. 14
10. Pyongyang Seungho Area Hwachon dong Offender's Camp No. 26 (relocated in January 1990)

North Korea is known to operate five concentration camps, curently accommodating a total of over 200,000 prisoners, though the only one that has allowed outside access is Camp #15 in Yodok, South Hamgyong Province. Once condemned as political criminals in North Korea, the defendant and his or her family are incarcerated in one of the camps without trial and cut off from all outside contact. Prisoners reportedly work 14 hour days at hard labor and/or ideological re-education. Starvation and disease are commonplace. Political criminals invariably receive life sentences, however their families are usually released after 3 year sentences, if they pass political examinations after extensive study.

Concentration camps came into being in North Korea in the wake of the country's liberation from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II. Those persons considered "adversary class forces", such as landholders, Japanese collaborators, religious devotees and families of those who migrated to the South, were rounded up and detained in a large facility. Additional camps were established later in earnest to incarcerate political victims in power struggles in the late 1950s and 60s and their families and overseas Koreans who migrated to the North. The number of camps saw a marked increase later in the course of cementing the Kim Il Sung dictatorship and the Kim Jong Il succession. About a dozen concentration camps were in operation until the early 1990s, the figure of which has been curtailed to five today due to increasing criticism of the North's perceived human rights abuses from the international community and the North's internal situation.


Several, in total eight, internment camps were used in Sweden during World War II.

This is only 7. One is missing, or the total above is wrong.

In May 1941 a total of ten camps for 3000-3500 were planned, but towards the end of 1941 the plans were put on ice and in 1943 the last camp was closed down.

The navy had some special detainment ships for communists and "troublemakers". Is this the Dalarö boat? If so, that's only 1, not plural.


In the aftermath of the Finnish Civil War of 1917-1918, some 75,000 suspected Reds were incarcerated in concentration camps. While 125 Red prisoners were convicted of treason and executed, an estimated 12,000 died of disease and starvation. (This was not entirely due to sheer sadism, since World War I was still raging and the entire country was wracked by food shortages.)

When the Finnish Army temporarily occupied eastern Karelia during the Continuation War, several concentration camps were set up for Russians civilians. The first camp was set up October 24 1941 in Petrozavodsk. Camps were also set up in other parts of the occupied territories. The ultimate goal was to move the Russian speaking population to German occupied Russia in exchange for any Finnic population from these areas.

Population in Finnish camps:


Le Natzweiler-Struthof was the only concentration camp on French soil during the Second World War. The three departments of Alsace-Lorraine (Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin and Moselle) were annexed and incorporated into the Third Reich.

As the network of concentration camps in occupied Europe grew, this newly annexed part of the Nazi empire found itself home to a concentration camp of its own.


Under Pinochet's dictatorship, the Santiago stadium served as concentration camp for political opponents.

See also