Second World War Internment in the UK and the USA

Second World War Internment in the UK and the USA

Katherine Mackinnon recently considered the history of immigration detention on this blog, which shows, in many ways, how little has been learnt from Britain’s previous experiments with detaining foreigners. Remarkably, the story of Second World War internment in the UK, and to a lesser extent in the USA, is still little known or understood.

The history surrounding the detention of refugees could not be more relevant considering the current debates about the treatment of foreigners in the UK and the USA. In the past few months, serious questions have been raised about the quality of medical care and the number of deaths in modern day detention facilities, along with the abuse of detainees as ‘slave labour’.

It is easy to forget, particularly with the focus on heroic stories such as the Kindertransport, that thousands of refugees who wanted to help Britain defeat the Nazis were interned during the war. The fact the Dubs scheme for the rescue of unaccompanied refugee children was shut down this year shows that fear of refugees has changed very little in the past century, and ultimately leads to a lack of protection for those who need it most.

My recently published book, Internment During the Second World War: A Comparative Study of Great Britain and the USA, puts the policy of internment into context by considering immigration policies in the run up to the Second World War, talks about the experiences of civilian internees in camp life – many of whom were refugees – and shows how the memory of internment is still only just beginning to make inroads into public memory. 

In Great Britain in the Second World War, all male ‘enemy aliens’ over the age of sixteen were interned, despite some efforts to determine whether they might actually be a threat, as were several hundred women and children. The vast majority were refugees from Nazi occupied Europe. In America, there was no such distinction in the internment of the Nikkei (those of Japanese ancestry), and children with even a fraction of Japanese blood were removed from their homes.

Men arrested in Great Britain were usually held in a local police station until they could be transported to a transit camp. For women interned early on, their home was often Holloway Prison. Once Rushen camp was established on the Isle of Man, women and children were more likely to be taken to a transit camp and then to the Isle of Man. Most of the male internees were taken to race tracks, schools, barracks and unfinished housing estates, before travelling to the Isle of Man.


In America, those who were arrested immediately after Pearl Harbor found themselves in camps managed by the Immigration and Naturalisation Service on behalf of the Department of Justice. The initial arrests were mostly of men, and when women and children were rounded up this happened by mass evacuation. Notices were displayed in prominent places in Japanese neighbourhoods and the Nikkei were only allowed to bring as much as they could carry to Assembly Centers.

The British government did not wish the internment camps to be run as prison camps, but rather aimed to give the internees some control over their daily activities and minimal responsibilities.

There was much time to be filled and the internees used their ingenuity to create art, knit clothing, and put on a variety of social and cultural events such as recitals and cabaret. Renowned academics created ‘universities’ in the male camps, while the female camp had schools for the children and education classes for the women.

In America, internees were moved from Assembly Centers to Relocation Centers, which were in particularly remote and inhospitable places. The camps were built from scratch, and construction followed a standard pattern of barracks built in blocks contained within a barbed wire fence. There were gaps between the walls and floorboards which offered little protection against the elements.


Riots erupted in several American camps including Santa Anita, Manzanar, and Tule Lake and several internees were killed.

In Britain, eventually it was decided that internees useful to the war effort should be released. In the early days this included engineers, dentists, doctors, and agricultural workers, along with any internee who would be willing to join the Pioneer Corps, a largely logistical unit in the British Army. In America, it became possible to apply for leave clearance, though the bureaucracy was formidable and Nikkei were not allowed to move back to the West Coast. The other major way of exiting the camps was for Nisei males of military age who, if considered loyal, were drafted into a segregated unit in the US military. Some Nisei defied the draft and demanded that their constitutional right to freedom should be reinstated before they received their constitutional right to bear arms. For their protests they were rewarded with prison terms and hard labour. Those who were drafted lived by the ‘Go for Broke!’ motto of the 442nd Regiment, which became the most decorated regiment in US military history for its size. In Britain, internees were able to serve as logistical support in the Pioneers until 1943, when they were able to disperse throughout the Armed Forces.

Only in recent decades has internment become accepted as part of the narrative of the Home Front, and significant developments have been made in how the camps are commemorated. In both nations there have been attempts to engage the public with the artefacts of internment. For the Nikkei in particular, the collective desire is to ensure that America never forgets what happened during the war, and as a social group they continue to stand up for the rights of fellow American citizens.

As those who survived the ordeal grow fewer in number over the years, it becomes the responsibility of the next generation to pick up the baton of historical memory and build on the solid foundation of the work in which their predecessors engaged.

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