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Guantánamo’s Refugee Dilemma

The US must ensure that former Guantanamo prisoners, after years of detention without charge or trial, do not face further persecution upon release.

Moroccan Yunis Abdurrahman Shokuri became the first prisoner to be released from Guantánamo in over three months on September 16. As in the case of other former prisoners, however, his release and journey home have not meant freedom. Never charged or tried at Guantánamo, Shokuri was blindfolded and shackled by US officials on his journey to Morocco. Upon arrival in Morocco, he was held incommunicado for two days before the authorities revealed he was being held at the notorious Salé prison pending an investigation into terrorism-related charges and has been refused bail.

Shokuri is one of the few prisoners to be returned to his country of origin since the beginning of 2014. While this is a “welcome home” in a country deemed safe by the United States, the majority of former prisoners have been released to third countries due to wars, civil strife and the risk of persecution in their home countries.

Of the 114 remaining prisoners in Guantánamo, 53 have been cleared for release. Of these, 43 are from Yemen; Yemenis make up over 60 percent of the total prisoner population. A moratorium imposed by President Barack Obama in 2010 on releasing prisoners to Yemen due to the security situation was lifted in 2013. Many of the Yemenis cleared for release have been stuck in limbo for years. The last prisoner to die at Guantánamo, Yemeni Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, in 2012, was first cleared for release in 2006; the United States had nowhere to release him.

The increasingly volatile situation in Yemen saw the moratorium reinstated de facto in early 2015, even before Saudi-led airstrikes escalated the situation in March. The war has limited prisoners’ chances of returning home. It has also limited opportunities for them to communicate with their families, as internal and external threats have led many Yemenis to seek refuge either abroad or elsewhere in the country.

But the United States did not use this window of opportunity to return any prisoners to Yemen; the first Yemeni prisoners released from Guantánamo since 2010 were sent to Georgia and Slovakia in November 2014. Since then, a number have been released and resettled in third countries. Demonstrating the arbitrary nature of detention under the so-called war on terror, the situation in Yemen did not prevent the United States from returning two long-term Bagram prisoners to the country in August 2014.

Although prisoner releases are a welcome move on the path to closing Guantánamo permanently, attention is not always paid to the conditions prisoners find themselves in upon release, either in their own or third countries. A former Yemeni prisoner, Asim Thabit Abdullah al-Khalaqi, one of three released to Kazakhstan at the end of 2014, died allegedly of kidney failure in May 2015. It was reported that inadequate medical care at Guantánamo and since his release contributed to his death.

A report by Seton Hall University shows that the United States only captured 5 percent of its Guantánamo prisoners. They were not “enemy combatants”: Pakistan and the Northern Alliance sold 86 percent of the men to the United States for a bounty, sometimes of up to $5,000. Of the current prisoners, only three were captured by the United States. Now, as then, their fate lies in the resolution of the battles of others. Like the refugees in media images from Europe, they too, are affected by the turmoil in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The release of Guantánamo prisoners to third countries has always been treated as resettlement. A small number of prisoners who have been released have, however, managed to successfully seek asylum elsewhere. The exception is six men who were granted asylum, at the behest of the host state, by Uruguay in December 2014. They are four Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian.

The prisoners were initially grateful for their freedom and the welcome, but their situation quickly deteriorated as the Uruguayan government broke its promise to provide individual homes for the men, who had to share one apartment for six months. The government also broke its promise to bring their families over and provide medical insurance. A sustained protest outside the US embassy has led to some improvements, however, and the refugees are being better settled.

In March 2015, the new Uruguayan government nonetheless announced it would not take any more Guantánamo prisoners, and in September, Syrian Abu Wa’el Dhiab, the only refugee not to accept a deal with the Uruguayan government and who is seeking asylum elsewhere, recommended that remaining prisoners not look to go to Uruguay, saying that it is better to stay in Guantánamo.

Elsewhere, the problems posed by resettlement for prisoners have been even starker. In November 2014, Tunisian Hisham Sliti was released to Slovakia. In June 2015, Al Jazeera showed footage on its Arabic news channel, filmed by another resident, of Sliti’s home at a center for asylum seekers being raided by Slovakian police, who later led him away. Pictures showed broken household items. The police have denied Slovakian media claims of abuse, but Amnesty Slovakia has called for an independent investigation into the incident.

In returning individuals, such as Yunis Shokuri, to home countries where they face further persecution, the United States has on at least two occasions broken its own obligations under international law with respect to the principle of non-refoulement: that individuals may not be returned to a state where there is a risk of persecution.

The safety of prisoners upon release has long been a concern. With a possible rush by the Obama administration to release as many prisoners as it can before 2017, this issue must not be overlooked. The stigma of imprisonment at Guantánamo, in spite of years of detention without charge or trial, places all who are released in a vulnerable position.

The right to rehabilitation, a right of all victims of torture, is all the more critical for prisoners released after almost 14 years of arbitrary detention and torture only to come up against a language barrier, poverty, poor health and isolation without friends or family in a “safe” but strange country. Where health care and psychological care are concerned, this should be a priority.

US officials seem to believe that the release of prisoners from Guantánamo absolves the US government of all further responsibility. The challenge is not simply finding countries to accept prisoners it cannot send home. At the very least, the United States must ensure that safeguards are in place so that former prisoners do not face further persecution and are released to situations in which they are provided with adequate medical and psychological care for the years of trauma they have survived.