It is a sad fact that it requires a major anniversary, two decades on from the arrival of the first prisoners in hoods and orange jumpsuits at Guantánamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray prison, for the media and the U.S. public to pay attention to Guantánamo and the 39 men who remain imprisoned there.
The 741 men who have been released have been almost entirely forgotten by the public. The truth is that the U.S. has largely washed its hands of those it tortured and imprisoned without charge or trial for years on end, outsourcing its responsibility to support the reentry of these men to other countries, usually in the Global South, in some cases with fatal consequences.
I work for the only project in the world that is solely dedicated to assisting people formerly imprisoned in Guantánamo to rebuild their lives — a project run by the human rights charity Reprieve. Many of the men we’ve assisted have been dropped by the U.S. into a country they’ve never been to before, where they have no contacts or networks and possibly don’t even speak the language.
Our research shows that almost one in three detainees who have been resettled in third countries have not been granted legal status documents. And even those who are granted residency find that rather than receive the support they need, they are stigmatized and kept under surveillance.
Often, host countries don’t allow the family of the former detainee to join him or even visit, after families have already been kept apart for so long. In one of the most heart-breaking cases I’ve worked on, the host country refused visit requests from the former detainee’s mother for five years, and by the time they finally acquiesced, she had died, having not seen her son for more than 20 years.
Deprived of citizenship or residency rights, people who were previously imprisoned in Guantánamo cannot get a job, access health care (including psychological support), education and other vital services. They may not be able to open a bank account, get a driver’s license, and if living in a country with checkpoints, can’t pass through them. Without this most basic passport to participation in society, they are effectively confined to the shadows.
The program that I work for, called “Life After Guantánamo,” tries to help survivors of Guantánamo living in these dire circumstances. Founded by Reprieve in 2009, the program has helped 130 men living in 29 countries.
Reprieve has legally represented more than 80 Guantánamo detainees and helped more people secure release from the prison than any other organization. Through the Life After Guantánamo program, we request that governments give people who were formerly held in the prison the tools needed to rebuild their lives, or, failing that, we seek to do so ourselves. With support, many detainees, whether repatriated to their home countries or resettled in host countries, have been able to start that process.
Yet even detainees with those comparative “success stories” continue to be haunted by the time they spent in U.S. custody. “It feels like I am still there, I just changed for the big Guantánamo,” one former prisoner told me. “When I close my eyes I am back in Guantánamo, so I can’t sleep,” confided another.
I visited one detainee after he’d been resettled who wouldn’t leave his new apartment. Although physically he was a free man, mentally he was still imprisoned. Detained in Guantánamo for 15 years since he was only 18 years old, he had become so institutionalized that he couldn’t cope with freedom. With support, he’s now learned the language of his new home country, formed friendships and is undergoing vocational training.
Many aren’t given that chance. In some cases, men are released from Guantánamo only to be immediately imprisoned again. Twenty-three men were transferred to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), expecting to live as free men, but were detained upon their arrival in horrific conditions when the UAE reneged on assurances given to the U.S. Most of them have been forcibly repatriated to Yemen, despite concerns about their safety. One man, Ravil Mingazov, could be repatriated to Russia where he faces persecution and, as confirmed by the United Nations, a “substantial risk of torture.”
When Senegal deported two former detainees to Libya, they immediately disappeared into militia-run prisons. Although they have since been found and released, they are at risk of being detained again. Former detainees resettled in Kazakhstan and Mauritania died of medical problems because they could not access health care as they had not been afforded basic rights.
Most resettlements were negotiated during Barack Obama’s presidency, and once Donald Trump took over, the U.S. appeared to completely disengage from what was happening to them once resettled, giving host countries license to mistreat and abuse them.
President Joe Biden can end the lottery that determines whether people formerly imprisoned in Guantánamo are given any chance at life. He can ensure that resettlements and repatriations are done safely, without former detainees being put at risk of imprisonment or persecution, that they are afforded citizenship or rights as residents and that their loved ones are able to join them. These demands should be central to the campaign to close Guantánamo, because Guantánamo can continue to imprison, and even kill, after men escape its four walls.
Disgracefully, the U.S. offers no compensation to these men for the unspeakable horrors they suffered in U.S. custody. The very least the Biden administration can do is ensure that once released from Guantánamo, former prisoners are actually given the opportunity to know freedom.