After Gitmo

What happens when the Uighurs get to Palau?


The Republic of Palau, an island nation near the Philippines, agreed Wednesday to “temporarily resettle” up to 17 Uighur detainees currently held at Guantanamo Bay. What happens when they get there?

They’ll be eased back into society. Neither the State Department nor the Palau government has released details of what the detainees can expect when they arrive. But in the past, Gitmo transfers have been promised—and sometimes even received—housing, access to health care, language classes, and vocational training. It’s also likely that the former detainees will be able to live and work in Palau as legal residents—though not as citizens—and that their families will receive visas to join them there. The president of Palau, however, has emphasized that the status of the Uighurs is “subject to periodic review.”

Of course, the lifestyle of transferred detainees doesn’t always live up to the promises. In 2006, five Uighur detainees were sent to Albania, where they were supposed to receive housing, jobs, and other support. Instead, they were dropped into a heavily guarded refugee center on the outskirts of the capital for more than a year. They were told they needed work permits to leave the center but that they would need to learn Albanian to get these permits. Eventually, they were given housing paid for by the government. One of them currently works in a pizza shop. Another successfully filed for asylum in Sweden, where he now lives with his sister. *

Some detainees have returned to especially rough circumstances. One of the seven Gitmo detainees repatriated to Russia in 2004 was subsequently reimprisoned and denied medicine for a liver disease. Another sought refuge in the Netherlands in 2007. Two prisoners released back to Tunisia were interrogated and sent to prison for past convictions. For others, circumstances are still up in the air. Binyam Mohamed, who was sent back to Britain from Guantanamo, has a temporary residence for two years, after which he must reapply or go somewhere else.

The gold standard of detainee re-entry is Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation program. In a former desert resort near Riyadh, detainees swim, play soccer, make art, and learn about moderate Islam. After six weeks, they take an exam. If they pass, the government helps them find a job, a car, and a place to live. The government will even pay for weddings to help encourage family stability. Of the 121 Saudis repatriated from Gitmo, only six have been rearrested.

Bonus Explainer: What is a Uighur, anyway? The Uighurs are a Muslim minority from the autonomous Xinjiang region of China. Since 1996, the Chinese government has cracked down on Uighur “separatists,” some of whom have carried out bombings on buses, police stations, and commercial buildings, including during the Beijing Olympics. In 2001, 22 Uighurs were living together in Afghanistan when the coalition bombing began. They fled to Pakistan, where locals turned them in to the authorities. After six months in prison in Kandahar, they were transferred to Guantanamo Bay.

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Explainer thanks Devon Chaffee of Human Rights First and Stacy Sullivan of Human Rights Watch.

Correction, June 11,2009: The article originally stated that one Uighur’s asylum petition in Sweden was still being appealed. In fact, the case is closed. (Return to the corrected sentence.)