Who invented the concentration camp? The obvious answer is the Nazis. But the Nazis got their idea from somewhere else. And it’s a rather surprising source. 

It is terrible. The way they treat the people there . . . it is difficult to see. They are treated worse than animals.

At the start of the 20th century, the British Empire engaged in a brutal war against white farmers of Dutch descent for the prize of South Africa’s riches. Because the Boers proved such tenacious fighters, the British decided on a two-pronged attack. First, they rounded up the Boer women and children and a large number of black Africans and put them into segregated concentration camps. Second, they burned the Boer farms. 

That all done, the British went on to win the Boer War. In the process, roughly 20,000 black Africans and 28,000 Boers died in British concentration camps, of which 22,000 were children. 

The Germans took note, and soon thereafter created their own concentration camps. Not in Germany or Poland but in Namibia—next door to South Africa. Years later that initial foray into cruelty bore its horrific fruit. 

It’s hard to reconcile the horrors of concentration camps with our cherished views of British justice, freedom, playing fair and acting the gentleman. But the gut-wrenching photos from the camps tell their own story. One particularly haunts me. A little Boer girl, maybe five years old, stares expressionless, her head out of proportion with her tiny emaciated body. How could any civilised nation perpetrate an atrocity like this?

I pondered this history as I talked with my seatmate on a flight from Goroka to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. 

“Where are you heading?” I asked him. “I’m off to work.” “Do you work for a mining company?” I asked, eyeing his fluoro vest. “No, I work in the personnel management field,” he replied. “So are you based in Port Moresby?” I continued. “No.” “Oh, so you’re making a connecting flight in Moresby?” “Yes.” “And where to from there?” “I’m not permitted to say,” he replied with a nervous chuckle. So we talked about other things. 

We were minutes out of Port Moresby when I returned to the question of my seatmate’s destination. “I’m not supposed to tell anyone,” he repeated. That, of course, only made me push harder—I am, after all, a lawyer. After a few more probing questions, he blurted out: “I work on Manus.” “Doing what?” “I’m a contractor in the refugee camp,” he said quietly as he leaned into me, his big brown eyes full with meaning. “It is terrible. The way they treat the people there . . . it is difficult to see. They are treated worse than animals.” He went on to describe the appalling conditions.

Could the Australian camps on Manus and Nauru really be the concentration camps of the Pacific, as my seatmate indicated and as America’s National Public Radio alleges? Was the BBC right to report that the camp on Manus is a “pit of human misery?” Was The Age wrong to report: “Australia’s policy towards asylum seekers is one of deliberate and calculated barbaric cruelty”? Was the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner mistaken last month in describing the camps as “immensely harmful” and calling for the detainees’ transfer “to humane conditions with adequate support and services”? I don’t believe so. Not just because of the consistent stream of reports from credible human rights organisations but because when a colleague from ADRA and I tried to visit Manus, we were barred from doing so. And not just us. At the behest of successive Australian governments, PNG has instituted an internal visa program that acts to prevent independent visitors from viewing firsthand what is occurring. If there’s nothing to hide, why go to so much trouble to cover up the truth? 

Which leads me to Emily Hobhouse. Emily was a strong Christian woman who took it upon herself to visit the concentration camps in South Africa. And what she saw shocked her conscience. She wrote: “[I] hope that the good sense, if not the mercy, of the English people will cry out against the further development of this cruel system . . .” At first she was met with ridicule and hostility. But an investigation into her reports verified them as accurate and, as a result of her Christian activism, the system was completely overhauled. 

My hope is that Seventh-day Adventist Emily Hobhouses will rise up this Adventist Church World Refugee Day (June 18) to protest the way asylum seekers are being treated in our region. There is no higher Christian virtue than speaking up for the defenceless. Now is the time. ​

James Standish is editor of Adventist Record.