Terminology is important. Words matter. Commonalities do not make two similar things indistinguishable or interchangeable.
The bandied about term of “concentration camps” to define detentions centers that hold illegal immigrants spurs this discussion.
A detention center is not an internment camp. An internment camp is not a concentration camp. A concentration camp is not an extermination camp.
All of these detain a population. That does not make them the same.
An asylum seeker is not a refugee. A refugee is not a migrant.
All of these are people attempting to move to a different country. That does not make them the same.
Terminology matters — largely because ignoring distinctions fuels reactionary responses. The current situation in the Mediterranean is evidence of just that. For years, African migrants have been entering Europe illegally through this waterway. Desperate for a new life with the promise of economic prosperity, these migrants risk their lives undertaking this hazardous journey. In 2017, over 3,000 migrants lost their lives this way. Many attempt to enter Europe as asylum seekers. There is very little evidence that they are asylum seekers, which then breeds an unhealthy distrust of any type of migrant in general. The populist resentment toward these migrants has fueled a right-ward shift in European politics, increasing as citizens feels their governments ignore their concern.
Terminology matters — because the proper solution requires understanding the problem, in all its distinctions. If Gaza is the world’s largest “open air concentration camp” as the anti-Israel line goes, it means that Israel forcibly rounded up Palestinian civilians, forced them to live in temporary structures and probably has forced them to labor for the benefit of Israel. Yet, that is not what Gaza is. Gaza is a territory inhabited almost entirely by people native to the area; it is a territory ruled by a political party that refuses to pursue any real solution to ending its despair. It is also a territory that receives millions of dollars in aid annually from international organizations. It is not a concentration camp.
Terminology matters — because conflating terms fuels deniers. Anyone who has spent time tracking anti-Semitism knows that neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers jump at the first opportunity to spot a hole. Call a concentration camp an extermination camp and it’s proof positive to these haters of a “Holo-hoax.” This is then used to promulgate their twisted worldview and recruit more followers.
Terminology matters — because nuance matters. Maintaining distinctions doesn’t mean failing to address a problem. On the contrary, it is when conflation, hyperbole and rhetoric are employed that the possibility of finding tangible solutions diminishes. Empathy and humanity also usually fall to the wayside, as the conversation becomes more about political point-scoring.
As America grapples — as it has for decades — with finding a solution for its immigration woes, it behooves us to get the terminology right. The current fracas at the southern border is fueled by the misuse and manipulation of terms — asylum seeker, criminal, concentration camp — leading to unfocused, emotive discussions that provide little tangible result for the actual people affected.
Let’s try to get back to a substantive discussion with real solutions. It begins with getting the terminology right.
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