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Concentration camp facts for kids

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Japanese internment camp in British Columbia
An internment camp for Japanese people in Canada, 1945

A concentration camp (or internment camp) is a place where a government forces many people to live. Usually, those people belong to groups that the government does not like. The government may think these people are its enemies. In the past, governments have also put people in concentration camps because they belonged to a certain religion, race, or ethnic group.

Usually, people are sent to concentration camps without having a trial or being found guilty of a crime.

Sometimes, governments send people to concentration camps to do forced labor or to be killed. For example, the best-known concentration camps were run by Nazi Germany during World War II. The Nazis used concentration camps to kill millions of people and force many others to work as slaves. However, many other countries have used concentration camps during wars or times of trouble.

Camps in the 1800s

Native American "reservations"

Fort Marr
Fort used to imprison the Cherokee before the Trail of Tears

The first modern concentration camps in the United States were created in 1838. Around this time, the United States was getting bigger. However, Native Americans lived in the lands that the United States wanted to take over.

In 1830, the United States Congress and President Andrew Jackson had passed a law called the Indian Removal Act. This law said that all Native Americans had to leave the United States and move to "Indian Territory," west of the Mississippi River. However, many Cherokee people would not leave their lands. In May 1838, the United States government decided to force the Cherokee to leave the United States.

First, soldiers forced about 17,000 Cherokee people, and 2,000 of their African-American slaves, into concentration camps, where they had to live during the summer of 1838. 353 Cherokee people died in the camps from dysentery and other diseases. Finally, the Cherokee were forced to travel to the area that is now Oklahoma. (At the time, Oklahoma was not in the United States.) The government also forced other Native American tribes to leave their lands and move west.

Soon, many people from the United States started to move west. Now the United States was moving into Native American lands again. Starting around the 1860s, many Native American tribes fought back. These fights are now called the Indian Wars. The United States government reacted by forcing Native Americans to leave their lands again and move into concentration camps. The government called these camps "Indian reservations." (They were called "reservations" because some land had been put aside, or "reserved," for the Native Americans.) However, Native Americans were not allowed to leave their reservations. On some reservations, many people, especially children, died from hunger and sickness.

American Civil War camps

During the American Civil War in the 1860s, soldiers who been captured were sometimes put in camps. These camps were meant to be prisoner of war (POW) camps, with good conditions. However, as the war went on, both the Union and the Confederacy captured more enemy soldiers. The camps became very crowded, with terrible conditions. There was not enough food, and many men died from hunger. Also, there was also very little sanitation, which made it easy for diseases to spread. Many prisoners died from these diseases.

The deadliest prisoner of war camp during the Civil War was Andersonville prison. Andersonville was run by the Confederate States Army. At Andersonville, 12,920 Union Army prisoners died. This was over one out of every four prisoners at Andersonville. After the Civil War ended, Henry Wirz, the man in charge of Andersonville, was found guilty of war crimes and was killed.

Conditions at the Union's prisoner of war camps were also very bad. At four different Union camps, at least 15% of the prisoners in the camps died. At a camp called Fort Pulaski, Union soldiers starved 600 Confederate prisoners of war on purpose. 46 of them died. The Union soldiers did this to get revenge for how Union prisoners were treated at Andersonville Prison.

By the end of the Civil War, about 30,000 Union soldiers, and about 26,000 Confederate soldiers, had died in prisoner of war camps.


In the late 1800s, Cuba was a colony of the Spanish Empire. This meant Spain controlled Cuba. When Cuban people tried to rebel and fight for independence from 1895 to 1898, Spain created concentration camps and sent many Cuban people to live in them. This was called the "Reconcentrado" ("Reconcentration") Policy.

The people fighting for Cuban independence were guerrilla fighters. They did not wear military uniforms and could hide themselves in groups of civilians. They could also camp and hunt, without needing help from anybody to survive. To keep the guerrilla fighters from being able to do these things, the Spanish government decided to put Cuban people in concentration camps. The idea was that in the camps, Cuban people could be 'protected' by the Spanish Army until the Spanish Empire won the war. However, this idea did not work. At least 30% of the Cuban people in the camps died from hunger, disease, bad sanitation, and not having medicines. Also, the concentration camps did not help the Spanish win the war.

Camps in the early 1900s

The British Empire

Between 1900 and 1902, the British Empire, led by Lord Kitchener, used concentration camps. At the time, they were fighting the Boer people in the Second Boer War in South Africa. At first, the British were not able to beat the Boers. They reacted by putting the Boer fighters' family members into concentration camps. They did this so these family members could not give food or help to the Boer fighters. The British soldiers also burned down the Boers' houses and farms, and destroyed all the crops they could find. They did this so the Boer fighters would not be able to find food or shelter anywhere.

Around 26,000 women and children died in these camps from disease and starvation.

Russia & the Soviet Union

Russia used prison camps, especially in places in the Arctic or Siberia, a long way from the main cities. The first prison camp in Russia was built in 1918. However, after the Soviet Union was formed in the 1922, the Soviet government started sending many more people to forced labor camps.

These camps are called zone in Russian. They are also commonly called "gulags" (pronounced "GOO-logs"). "GULAG" is an acronym for the Russian words "Main Camp Administration." This was the government agency that was in charge of the prison camps while Josef Stalin led the Soviet Union. However, people who do not speak Russian often use the word "gulag" to talk about any forced labor camp in Russia or the Soviet Union.

Gulag prisoners doing forced labor around 1931-1933

People sent to the gulags included:

  • People who disagreed with the Soviet government
  • People who were not communists
  • People who practiced certain religions
  • People from ethnic groups that the government thought were not loyal to the Soviet Union
  • Members of the Communist Party and the Red Army that Stalin did not like
  • People who the government thought were traitors
  • Criminals
  • People who the government saw as enemies or threats
  • People who had not done anything wrong

Camps during World War II

Nazi Germany

During World War II, Nazi Germany created many concentration camps, slave labor camps, and extermination camps (death camps). Nazi Germany's leader, Adolf Hitler, thought that certain groups of people were inferior (not as good as others). He even thought there were groups of people who did not deserve to live - he called them "life unworthy of life." These three groups were Jews, Roma people, and people with disabilities. Hitler wanted his Nazis to kill every Jew, Roma, and disabled person in Europe.

Hitler also wanted to get rid of other groups he did not like, including people who he thought might challenge or fight the Nazi government. These people included socialists, communists, people of certain religions, and members of resistance movements (groups who tried to fight the Nazis any way they could).

The Nazis sent many of these people to concentration camps to work as slave labor. After a few years, some camps were set up just to kill people. These are now called "extermination camps" or "death camps." At these camps, people were killed in gas chambers, shot, worked to death, and marched to death. Many people also died from disease and starvation in the camps.

More than half of the Jewish people who died in the Holocaust died at Nazi concentration camps. Just in the Auschwitz camps, at least 1.1 million people died (about 1,000,000 Jews and about 75,000 non-Jewish people, like Poles). Towards the end of World War II, the Nazis killed up to 20,000 people a day in the camps' gas chambers.

Independent State of Croatia

With Nazi Germany's support, the Ustaše government of the new Independent State of Croatia (ISC) created concentration camps and extermination camps.

Japanese-American internment camps

"Persons of Japanese ancestry arrive at the Santa Anita Assembly Center from San Pedro. Evacuees lived at this center at - NARA - 539960
Manzanar internment camp in 1942

During World War II, the United States forced over 110,000 Japanese-Americans into internment camps.

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In February 1942, the United States government ordered that nobody with Japanese ancestry could live on the West Coast. The government, led by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, thought that Japanese-American people might be spies for Japan, or might try to hurt the United States.

About 80% of the Japanese-American people who lived in the continental United States were forced to leave their homes and live in internment camps. More than three out of every five of these people were born in the United States, and were United States citizens.

After Canada declared war on Japan, it also forced people with Japanese ancestry into internment camps.

In the 1980s, the United States government admitted that Japanese-Americans were not a danger to the country during World War II. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a law that apologized for the internment camps. The law said "there was no ... reason for the internment ... [and] the internment was caused by racial prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of [government] leadership[.]"


During World War II, Italy's fascist government (led by Benito Mussolini) was Nazi Germany's ally. Italy had taken over Yugoslavia, Greece, and France. The Nazis told Italy to put Jews from these areas in concentration camps and then send them to the Nazis' death camps. However, Italy refused. The Italian military and police would not help kill or deport Jews.

However, in 1943, after Mussolini had lost power, Nazi Germany took over northern and central Italy. They also put Mussolini back in power. The Nazis created concentration camps to hold Italian Jews and other prisoners until they could be sent to death camps. In one of these concentration camps, called La Risiera di San Sabba, the Nazis tortured and murdered about 5,000 people. Many of these people were "political prisoners" - people who disagreed with the government.

Soviet Union

When Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union invaded Poland at the start of World War II, the Red Army deported at least 1.5 million Poles at gunpoint. They were forced to get into cattle wagons, which took them to Siberia. Whole families were deported to concentration camps, including children and the elderly.

During the war, the Soviet Union also used gulags to hold prisoners of war from Nazi Germany and its allies.

Camps in the late 1900s

Latin America

During the 1970s and 1980s, many military dictatorships in Latin America set up concentration camps to imprison, torture, and kill their political opponents (people who disagreed with them). For example:

  • Argentina created more than 300 concentration camps during the Dirty War. Jorge Rafael Videla was the dictator of Argentina for most of this time.
  • Chile, led by Augusto Pinochet, created 17 concentration camps. They used these camps to torture prisoners. After being tortured, many prisoners "disappeared." This meant the military killed them, and their bodies were never found. While Pinochet was in power, 28,000 people were tortured; 2,279 people were executed; and 1,248 people "disappeared."
  • Cuba, led by Fidel Castro, used concentration camps from 1965 to 1968. These were forced labor camps for people who Castro thought were bad for Cuba. Castro's government thought they could "re-educate" these people (change their thinking and behavior) by making them work. People who were sent to the camps included homosexuals, people without homes or jobs, Jehovah's Witnesses, other religious missionaries, and people who disagreed with the communist government.

Soviet Union

The Soviet Union kept using forced labour camps after World War II. In fact, the people they sent to the gulags after the war included Soviet soldiers and civilians who had been taken prisoner by the Nazis, or used as slave workers in Nazi Germany.

By 1956, between 15 million and 30 million people had died or been killed in the gulags.

In 1973, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian author, wrote The Gulag Archipelago about his experiences in a Soviet work camp.

The Soviet Union kept using gulags until the late 1980s. It closed its last forced labor camp in 1988.

Camps in the 2000s

Since January 2002, the United States has run the Guantánamo Bay prison camp. Some people have called Guantánamo a concentration camp or a gulag. These people have included Fidel Castro, the leader of Amnesty International, and other activist groups like CounterPunch.

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See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Internamiento para niños

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