Fact check: Are some countries putting unvaccinated people in 'internment camps?'

In a Dec. 8 radio interview, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., said some unvaccinated people in other countries are being put "basically into internment camps." PolitiFact checks his claim.

Posted Updated

Madeline Heim
, PolitiFact reporter
In a Dec. 8, 2021 appearance on Janesville radio station WCLO, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson ran through his familiar talking points when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, including that adverse effects of the vaccine are being reported to the nation’s tracking system, that vaccinated people can still spread the virus, and reiterating that he has chosen not to be vaccinated.

Then he added this jaw-dropper:

"I’m going to actually utilize my own freedom, my own health autonomy, and I’m going to choose not to get the vaccine, and now we are demonizing those people. Around the world, they’re putting them basically into internment camps," Johnson said. "What is going on?"

The unvaccinated being sent to internment camps?

Let’s check that out.

Australian quarantine facility is not an internment camp

When asked for clarification on his remark, Johnson’s office told a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter he was referring to a COVID-19 quarantine site in Australia that requires residents returning from international travel to stay 14 days and be tested for the virus to ensure they aren’t bringing it back into the country with them.

In making the comment, Johnson spoke generally about people who choose not to be vaccinated — not travelers. So listeners would be left to think anyone who does not get vaccinated might be rounded up.

In addition, Johnson claimed this is happening "around the world," yet only provided a single example.

Even setting those points aside, the claim is awry at best.

Here is some background on the facility his staff said he was referring to: Located at a former mining camp in Howard Springs in the Northern Territory, it’s one of several such sites across Australia for Australians returning home from abroad. (The country remains closed to almost all travel by others.)
Australia has utilized such supervised mandatory quarantines to keep coronavirus cases low. According to the New York Times, Australia has seen an average of about six cases per 100,000 residents in the past week, compared with the United States’ 36 cases per 100,000 residents.
People at the quarantine site are required to test for the virus three times during their stay. They are given three meals a day, as well as drinking water, tea and coffee, free television and air conditioning, according to the Northern Territory’s information page. After 14 days on site, they are allowed to return home.

That would set the facility a far cry apart from what most people recognize as internment camps.

One general definition of an internment camp, as reported by Dictionary.com, is a guarded compound for the mass detainment of civilian citizens, especially those with ties to an enemy during wartime, without hearings or trials.
Americans may be most familiar with the case of the World War II-era detainment of Japanese Americans. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government grew suspicious of people of Japanese descent and began rounding them up for the camps, some on as little as two days’ notice.
Most who were sent to the camps lived there for close to three years. The camps were enclosed by barbed-wire fences and patrolled by armed guards who were under instruction to shoot anyone who attempted to leave, Britannica reports.
(It’s worth noting that three people who broke out of the Howard Springs site in late November were arrested — that is, taken into custody, not shot.)

David Inoue, executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, the nation’s oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization, said equating medical quarantine with incarceration is "just ridiculous."

While Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps because of their ethnicity and for an undetermined amount of time, Inoue said, the Australian policy involves people who are choosing to travel and who are aware of the scope of the quarantine requirements involved.

Those sent to the World War II-era camps could only bring one suitcase, Inoue said, and in some cases were shipped to colder regions without winter coats, arriving at barracks that were not properly insulated against the elements.

Any requirement for unvaccinated travelers to quarantine would be a consequence of their choice to remain unvaccinated, he said, not a consequence of something they cannot change, like their ancestry.

In response to a request for more details about the remark from Politifact Wisconsin, Johnson’s office issued a wide-ranging statement that – among other things – noted that countries like Australia, Austria and Germany have arrested citizens for not wearing masks outside, in violation of requirements.

But the statement did nothing to support his claim that unvaccinated people were being sent to internment camps.

PolitiFact ruling

Pants on Fire

Johnson claimed that "around the world," people who refused to get vaccinated were being placed "basically into internment camps."

Such camps throughout history have been used to corral those whom nations deem political prisoners or enemies, forcing people to live there for years. In comparison, the quarantine facility Johnson cited is for Australian residents returning home from abroad who stay there for two weeks, then get to go home.

In addition, Johnson spoke generally of those who are not vaccinated being sent to camps, but the example he cited was a facility for travelers. And while he said the practice was occurring "around the world," he was only able to provide one such example.

We rate this claim Pants on Fire.