It’s been four months since six former Guantánamo Bay detainees landed in Uruguay to start a new life after years of imprisonment. But in recent weeks, reports indicate that the adjustment period hasn’t been smooth: Uruguayan officials have expressed worry about the former prisoners' ability to integrate into their new environments, and President Tabaré Vázquez remarked this week that the U.S. should pitch in to support them financially.
“Uruguay gave them asylum, but the government of the United States should provide for all the means so that these citizens of other countries can lead dignified lives in our country,” he said during an official event Tuesday, local media reported. Vazquez also said he would bring up the matter with U.S. President Barack Obama at this weekend’s Summit of the Americas.
Since the former detainees landed in Uruguay in December, media reports have chronicled a somewhat rocky transition. Vázquez aired those concerns as well: “I put myself in their place and it must be very hard to come from another part of the world, with other cultures, other religions, other customs, and be planted in a foreign country,” he said. “I’m also worried because their arrival, this placing of Guantánamo prisoners here, has impacted our society.”
Obama has released or transferred more than two-dozen Guantánamo prisoners in recent months as part of his aim to eventually shut down the detention center. Many of them have been unable to return to their home countries due to fears of persecution or instability, and so have found refuge elsewhere. Countries that have accepted the former detainees include Estonia, Slovakia, Ireland, Palau, Bermuda and Uruguay. U.S. lawmakers have prohibited their release on U.S. soil.
Vázquez's predecessor, former President José Mujica -- himself a former political prisoner under his country’s period of military dictatorship -- decided last year to accept the six detainees as refugees, saying the decision was out of respect for human rights.
'Left One Prison And Entered Another'
The former Guantánamo prisoners -- four Syrians, one Tunisian and a Palestinian -- were never charged with a crime and were cleared for release in 2009 after the U.S. determined they were not security threats. They spent five years awaiting a country to accept them before Uruguay stepped in. But the men have been at the center of some controversy in recent months: One of the refugees, Abu Wa’el Dhiab -- a Syrian national who had gone on several hunger strikes while detained to protest against his imprisonment -- said at a news conference in February that they had “left one prison and entered another.” Although he thanked the Uruguayan government for accepting them, he said there needed to be a better integration program for the former detainees.
Not long after, a labor union charged with helping the men resettle told a local magazine that the men had rejected some job offers. Mujica further inflamed the situation when he made a remark interpreted to be a criticism of their work ethic. He later said that detention had taken a heavy toll on the men: “They could be here for two years and they won’t understand a goddamn thing, because even if you want to teach them Spanish they lack the inner strength, the will to move on with their lives,” he told Reuters. “They have been turned halfway into vegetables.”
The Washington Post reported in March that many of the men still suffer from medical ailments, and that they have scuffled with resettlement officers over money and phone access. “They’re like 5-year-old kids,” said the union executive secretary, Gabriel Melgarejo, according to the report. “These people have to learn to live with their liberty.”
Michael Mone Jr., a Boston lawyer who has represented resettled former Guantanamo detainees, including one in Uruguay, acknowledged that it was a major challenge for the men to adjust to a new society after a decade in detention. “They bear the scars -- physically, mentally and psychologically -- of nine or 10 or 12 years of indefinite detention in Guantánamo,” he said. “And their integration back into society cannot be rushed.”
In many cases, men have to build up work skills from scratch, and deal with the stain of the Guantánamo label, he added. “The stigma of Guantánamo is very hard to shake, and it follows them wherever they go,” he said. “If you’re trying to apply for a job or trying to meet people, how do you explain that?”
J. Wells Dixon, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights who represented several Chinese Uighurs who had ended up in Guantánamo, said it was reasonable to expect a tough adjustment period. “They’ve gone from an environment where every aspect of their life is controlled by somebody else -- everything from ‘When am I going to get released?’ to more mundane things like, ‘Can I have a cup of water?’” he said. “They go from that to an environment where they are free and have control over the future of their lives. It can be a difficult transition.”
U.S. bilateral agreements with individual receiving countries determine conditions for Guantánamo resettlements. Under some agreements, the U.S. provides financial support -- in 2009 it provided Palau, an island nation in the western Pacific, with $600,000 for housing and care costs for former prisoners. Detainees’ experiences also vary by country: Mone said some places -- like Ireland, where one of his clients, Uzbek native Oybek Jabbarov, was released in 2009 -- already have strong infrastructures to assist with integrating refugees and asylum seekers, while others had far fewer resources.
'It Just Takes Time'
Dixon said many of his clients have successfully built lives over time in their new countries, learning the local language and securing work as security guards, pizza parlor employees and gas station attendants. One client was even pursuing a Ph.D. in pharmacology. With time, the resettled detainees in Uruguay would also adjust, he said. “It’s unreasonable to expect them to adapt to a new society immediately without experiencing some challenges. It just takes time.”
But, he added, the U.S. also had a moral obligation to provide financial support for the men detained for so many years without charge -- and to return property seized from them beforehand. “Ensuring adequate financial support and other support like access to medical care, education and employment -- these are the ways to ensure that a resettlement is successful. But the U.S. doesn’t always live up to that obligation,” Dixon said.
Mone was more cautious about the idea of U.S. financial support for former detainees. “It would be nice -- but not if there are strings attached,” he said.
Mone was also optimistic for the refugees’ futures in Uruguay, saying it would take a year or two before the public could know whether they’ve successfully adjusted to their new lives. “I’m so thankful for the people of Uruguay and President Vázquez for all they’ve done for these men,” he said. “They’re very lucky to have gone through such a generous and warm country.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Iceland was among the countries hosting former detainees released from Guantánamo Bay; it is not.