Internment of the Spanish Exiles in France

Meaghan Kendall
Aug 11, 2018 · 7 min read

Installment 3 of: ‘The Making of the Modern Internment Regime’

Internees at the French Internment Camp of Argelès-sur-Mer (unaccredited photographer, copyright Louis Stein 1979)

The Spanish Civil War began in 1936, when the newly-elected Republican government was threatened by a coup led by General Francisco Franco. Franco sought to replace the Republic with a military government that had a fascist orientation and valued the conservative ideals of the Catholic church. Franco’s coup utilized violence and fear. It relied on the support of the Catholic Church to justify its actions and proclaimed that Spain needed to be “purified” by repressing the anti-clerical left (Graham 2012:32).

Republican party propaganda poster [left] and Fascist party Propaganda poster [right] (copyright CEHI 1939)

In April 1939, Franco and his troops were successful in winning the Civil War. They began to take the remaining Republicans as prisoners and, in many instances, to execute them without trial (Palencia 1945:170). Spaniards began fleeing to France to avoid the terror inflicted by the new government.

Known as the “Retirada,” the exodus of the Spanish Republican exiles involved a difficult traverse across the Pyrenees mountains. They suffered hypothermia from the cold, struggled for food, and walked all day and night to reach the French border in order to claim asylum (Soo 2013:26).

Video on the journey endured by the Retirada

The first wave of Spanish refugees began traveling to France at the beginning of the war in 1936. In January 1939, when Franco’s victory was imminent, the largest group of exiles, around 500,000 people, entered France (Rickett 2014:17). The Spaniards believed the French shared their interest in protecting democracy, fighting against right-wing authoritarianism, and that they would aid them in their time of need (Soo 2013:26). However, France was also struggling with internal conflict between the left and the right.

Average number of Spanish Refugees entering France each year from 1936–1939 (number estimates from Rickett 2014:17)

The struggles of the Spanish Civil War mirrored internal struggles within France at the same time. Even though France did not descent into civil war, the conflict in Spain reflected the anxieties of a polarized French society (Soo 2013:32). France was also concerned with the spread of communism throughout Europe. Because the Spanish Republicans had been aided by the USSR during the war, may in France deemed them “reds.” To help suspected communists was to invite criticism from the conservative right (Soo 2013:33). As a result, the French government chose to not properly prepare for the refugees and expected that most of these exiles would be returned back to Spain.

Argelès-sur- Mer, St. Cyprien, and Barcarès

When the mass influx of Spanish Republicans arrived in the winter of 1939, the French established camps to house the refugees. The initial settlements for them were set on public beaches, out of the way. Having camps on beaches allowed for the water to become a natural boundary, and it provided a flat area that was easier to monitor. The first camp was Argelès-sur- Mer. However, it did not take long before it became overcrowded with Spanish exiles. To relieve the strain, two more beach camps, St. Cyprien and Barcarès, were established for refugees to be redistributed (Stein 1979:57). The camps had to be set up quickly, and there was not enough time for shelters to be built.

Spanish refugee in the sand at Argelès-sur-Mer (copyright Robert Capa 1939)

1939 (February 1) The first internment camp, Argelès-sur-Mer, is established

1939 (February 7) St. Cyprien is set up to relieve overcrowding of Argelès

1939 (February 9) Barcarès is set up to relieve overcrowding of Argelès and St. Cyprien

When the beach camps were first created, the refugees had to sleep in holes in the sand, sometimes using twigs as blankets to make it through the cold nights. For the first five days, there was no food or clean water (Palencia 1945:86). The wind was also violent on the beaches, blowing sand into people’s eyes and clothes. It took several months for wooden shelters to be built for protection. Conjunctivitis from the sand and dysentery from the lack of water sanitation were common diseases in the camp (Soo 2013:60). For those who were sick, the camp did not provide adequate medical treatment. There was little to no medication, and bandages would be reused from one patient to the next (Stein 1979:60).

“The refugees were being given equal treatment with the livestock they had brought with them — that is to say, left to fend for themselves most of the time.” (Louis Stein)*

The guards who controlled the exiles were colonial Senegalese troops. The troops were instructed to be violent with the refugees as a way of utilizing fear to force the Republicans back to Spain. Within in the camp, guards would play propaganda on loudspeakers to convince the refugees that Spain was safe and a better alternative to staying in French territory (Stein 1979:60). Outside the camp, French officials prohibited the distribution of left-wing newspapers. Any advertisements that supported the Spanish refugees were forbidden as well. These actions were taken to keep the truth of the internees’ treatment hidden. (Stein, 1979:58).

Le Vernet and Château Royal de Collioure

Le Vernet and Château Royal de Collioure contained refugees who the French deemed the most dangerous. Internees were under repressive control and subjected to harsh regimes. Both prisons contained only men. They were mostly Spanish Republican soldiers and members of the International Brigades, who served in the Republican army during the war (Sanchez 2018). These combatants were suspected of being likely threats to the French government. However, most of the soldiers were only considered as threats because of their potentially communist beliefs (Warren 1941:2).

Entrance to Le Vernet camp (copyright DR 1940)

“Le Vernet was a mixture of ignominies, of corruption, and of no interference.” (Arthur Koestler)**

Le Vernet was initially constructed for military use before being converted into a concentration camp. It had a double barbed wire fence and armed guards who watched the internees constantly. The men were underfed and under-clothed for the winter (Sanchez 2018). Nights were brutally cold at times, and the lack of sufficient medical treatment left many refugees suffering from hypothermia. The guards treated the internees in this way to make them weaker and easier to control (Warren 1941:25).

Holding cell in Château Royal de Collioure

Château Royal de Collioure was a thirteenth century medieval castle that was reused to house Spanish exiles who were suspected of being communists, anarchists, or criminals. They were held in cells underground, in complete darkness (Serrano 2018). The “most dangerous” prisoners were put into isolation cells and unable to communicate with anyone. The French officials made the detainees work all day, both in the castle and within the town of Collioure. Prisoners would break stones, do roadwork, and repair old buildings (Serrano 2018).


Also known as Camp Joffre, Rivesaltes was first a military a camp until the mass exodus of Spanish Republicans made it necessary to open more internment camps to house refugees. Rivesaltes was divided into sections known as îlots that separated the internees into distinct groups. Barbed wire fences divided these îlots, essentially creating camps within the camp. Men were located in separate îlots than women and children. Once a boy turned fourteen, he would be sent to the îlot with the men (Palencia 1945:77).

Barracks and latrines in Rivesaltes Camp

The exiles were weakened by the conditions of the camp. The scarce food supply generated fights between fellow internees, desperate to eat (Cailloce 2015). The weather was also unbearable. Strong mountain winds, extreme temperature variation, and Malaria infested marshes made living a daily struggle. Putting the refugees in camps with miserable conditions was an intentional choice (Cailloce 2015). French internment guards dehumanized refugees by not providing enough food, water, or medical treatment. All because the refugees were not wanted in French territory. Here too the French guards attempted to encourage the exiles to go back to Spain. By refusing to provide them with enough supplies to meet their basic needs, French officials hoped that the Spaniards would choose to leave by themselves.(Stein 1979:59). However, repatriation was not an option for many of the refugees. They had no choice but to endure internment and, eventually, coerced labor, if they wished to survive.

Spanish exiles Manuel Azaña, María Zambrano, and Xavier Benguerel (copyright EFE)

Block Quote Sources:

*Louis Stein, as cited in (Stein 1979:68); **Arthur Koestler, as cited in (Koestler 1941:68)


Cailloce, L. (2015). Rivesaltes, mémoire de l’internement. [online] Available at:

Graham, H. (2012) The War and Its Shadow: Spain’s Civil War in Europe’s Long Twentieth Century. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.

Koestler, A. (1941) Scum of the Earth. London: Jonathan Cape.

Palencia, I. (1945) Smouldering freedom; the story of the Spanish Republicans in Exile. New York: Green and Company.

Rickett, R. (2012) Refugees of the Spanish Civil War and those they left behind: personal testimonies of departure, separation and return since 1936. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Sanchez, F. (2018). Spanish Prisoners in Le Vernet.

Serrano, M. (2018). Spanish Prisoners in Château Royal de Collioure.

Soo, S. (2017) The Routes to Exile: France and the Spanish Civil War Refugees. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Stein, L. (1979) Beyond Death and Exile: The Spanish Republicans in France, 1939-1955. London: Harvard University Press.

Warren, L. (1941) ‘Camps for Aliens in France Squalid.’ The New York Times.

Warren, L. (1941) ‘Refugees Suffer in French Camps.’ The New York Times.

The Making of the Modern Internment Regime

The 60-year history of a French internment camp and the development of the present refugee regime.

Thanks to Daniel Bertrand Monk.

Meaghan Kendall

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The Making of the Modern Internment Regime

The 60-year history of a French internment camp and the development of the present refugee regime.