Uighurs in Paradise?

Why everyone’s favorite Guantanamo detainees might hate Palau.

Rock Islands in Palau 

KOROR, Palau—Shortly after news broke on Wednesday that the tiny Pacific Island nation of Palau had agreed to take in some of the 17 Chinese Muslims held by the United States in Guantanamo Bay, Stuart Beck, Palau’s permanent representative to the United Nations, sought to give Americans a sense of what awaited the beleaguered Uighurs in their new home.

What they will encounter in Palau,” Beck rhapsodized to the New York Times, “is paradise.”

As someone who lives there, I can confirm that it’s a tropical wonderland richly deserving of its status as a scuba diving Mecca. But for the Uighurs, life in Palau may be no better than it’s been for former Guantanamo detainees in places like Albania and Tunisia. In describing their new home, Beck left something out: The Uighurs will very likely run afoul of Palau’s nasty chauvinistic streak, which most grievously affects the marginally skilled foreign workers who make up one-quarter of the country’s 20,000 inhabitants.

If you don’t believe me, try buying a house here. Just kidding! As a foreigner, you’re constitutionally banned from owning land. Instead, why not open a business? Just make sure it’s not a travel agency, scuba diving shop, grocery store, or any other type of retailer or wholesaler, since these are the exclusive domain of Palauans. (Of course, for the right price, you might find a local “owner” to partner with, but make sure it’s someone who won’t suddenly become a strict interpreter of Palauan statutes.) Legislation passed by the Senate and awaiting House action would also rule out work as an airport greeter, taxi driver, and tour boat operator—and, cherry on top, a separate bill also passed by the Senate would bar foreigners from fishing without a Palauan chaperone. Marrying a local could help, but bear in mind that citizenship is granted only if you have Palauan blood. (Last year, voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have allowed foreign-born children adopted by Palauans to become eligible for citizenship. The ballot included 22 other amendments, all of which passed.)

Making things worse for Palau’s foreign underclass (which may soon include the Uighur detainees) is a series of unjust labor laws. For Palauans, the minimum wage is $2.50 an hour. For foreigners, it’s $1 less—and often disregarded. Work contracts are also one-sided: When a foreigner quits his job before the end of what is typically a two-year term, he is forbidden to work again in Palau for five years. If his employer breaks the contract, there is no penalty.

The problem runs deeper than bad law, however. Palau was subjected to foreign rule for more than 100 years. In 1899, 15 years after the arrival of the first Spanish colonizer, the Germans bought the islands and enlisted the locals to mine phosphate and plant coconuts. After World War I, the Japanese claimed Palau, ratcheted up the forced labor, then, in the aftermath of World War II, ceded the bombed-out archipelago to the Americans.

In 1994, Palau gained its independence, along with a massive infusion of U.S. aid (PDF). But like a newly muscle-bound kid who’s endured years of stolen lunch money and bloody noses on the playground, Palau has turned into something of a bully. Whether farmers, cooks, waitresses, house cleaners, or prostitutes, Palau’s poor foreigners are footing a historical bill.

We can only guess what might become of the Uighurs. Palauan President Johnson Toribiong’s office has yet to provide details on where they might live or how they’ll spend their time here. Perhaps they’ll get vocational training at Palau Community College. If not, they could with some luck wind up making $400 a month working at a grocery store or a restaurant. In any event, these men, who’ve suffered terribly at the hands of the United States for seven years shouldn’t expect their post-Gitmo lives to be paradise.