Former Detainees in the News: Uighurs in Albania and Palau

This past week, we saw two separate looks at former detainees of Uighur ethnicity and the challenges they face as former Guantanamo detainees.[1] [2]

The Uighurs are of a Chinese ethnic minority that has been subject to persecution in China.  As a result, no released Uighur detainees have been returned to China and have instead been sent to Albania, Bermuda, El Salvador, Switzerland and Palau.  As previously examined in the Center’s National Security Deserves Better: “Odd” Recidivism Numbers Undermine the Guantanamo Policy Debate, the Uighurs in Bermuda have been resettled successfully.

We also now know that at least one other Uighur former detainee, Abu Bakker Qassim, has been somewhat-successfully resettled in Albania.  Qassim initially had difficulty learning the Albanian language and reconciling his idea of Albania with the reality.  However, he has managed to bridge the gap by becoming a pizza-maker.  Qassim notes that while he had never even heard of pizza before he arrived in Tirana, Albania, his work has greatly improved his grasp on Albanian.  However, Qassim notes that it isn’t easy for him to make ends meet; he only works part-time, and the state aid he receives isn’t enough to support him, his wife and infant daughter.  The stigma of Guantanamo remains with him, making it difficult to find a better job.  Because Qassim is not an Albania citizen, he cannot obtain a passport.  Without a passport, however, Qassim must remain in Albania or return to China and face almost-certain persecution and arrest.

The challenges faces by Qassim are mirrored by the Uighur former detainees in Palau.  Six Uighurs in total were sent from Guantanamo Bay to Palau in late 2009, in what was intended to be a temporary stop before a permanent home was found for the former detainees.  However, the years have passed and Palau has been increasingly unable to support its charges.  Although the US and Palauan governments aided the former detainees in obtaining minimum-wage jobs, they struggle to pay for utilities and food.  Even the President of Palau, Tommy Remengesau, has expressed regret over the situation, noting the unfairness of their situation.

The recent shuttering of the U.S. State Department Guantanamo Closure office has made these six question whether they will ever leave Palau and settle in a permanent home.  Like Qassim in Albania, these six are not Palauan citizens and therefore cannot obtain passports in order to leave.  Ambassador Daniel Fried, who had run the Guantanamo Closure office up until its end, has stated he will continue to negotiate for permanent settlement of the Uighurs, even though he was reassigned to a position overseeing sanctions for Iran and Syria.

In 2008 a Washington federal court judge ordered all Uighurs to be released.  However, three Uighurs remain at Guantanamo Bay, because as with the former detainees in Palau, the U.S. has been unable to find a country to accept them.  Many countries fear the Chinese response to acceptance of Uighur former detainees.  As a world power, the U.S. is seemingly in a position to accept all of the Uighurs and withstand China’s response.  However, the public outcry that has accompanied any talk of bringing detainees to the U.S. to be held in prisons, never mind bringing detainees here for release, has completely shut down any likelihood of this happening.

Both the U.S. courts and the U.S. government have accepted that the Uighurs were never a threat to U.S. interests or forces.  However, if the U.S. government won’t stand and accept these clearly innocent men in our country, it is hard to imagine how we will convince any other country to do so.

Kelly Ross, Research Fellow

Center for Policy & Research


[1] Michelle Shephard, Uighurs who went from Guantanamo to paradise running out of money and patience, The Star  (Toronto), Feb. 7, 2013,  http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2013/02/07/uighurs_who_went_from_guantanamo_to_paradise_running_out_of_money_and_patience.html.

[2] Nate Tabak, Former Guantanamo Detainee Now Making Pizza in Albania, PRI’s The World, Feb. 7, 2013, http://www.theworld.org/2013/02/uighur-guantanamo-detainee-albania/.

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