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 were released have been almost completely forgotten by the public. The truth is that the U.S. has mostly forgotten about the 741 men it imprisoned and tortured for years, outsourcing its responsibility to help these men reenter the country, often in the Global South. In some cases, this can have 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 threeDetainees who are detained in third-country resettlement have not been issued legal status documents. Even those who have been granted residency are subject to surveillance and stigmatization.
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. They are effectively restricted to the shadows without this basic passport to participation in society.
The program that I work for, called “Life After Guantánamo,” tries to help survivors of Guantánamo living in these dire circumstances. Reprieve founded the program in 2009 and has helped 130 men 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. Many detainees were able to begin that process, whether they were repatriated to home countries or resettled in their host countries with the support of our organization.
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. He was physically free but was still imprisoned mentally. 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 sent to the United Arab Emirates to live in freedom. Instead, they were imprisoned upon arrival in horrific conditions after the UAE violated U.S. assurances. Many of them were forcibly repatriated back to Yemen, despite their assurances. concernsConcerning their safety. Ravil Mingazov (one man) could be repatriated from Russia to face persecution and, if necessary, execution. confirmed by the United Nations, a “substantial risk of torture.”
When Senegal deportedTwo ex-detainees from Libya disappeared into militia-run jails immediately. They have been released and found, but they could be detained again. Former detainees were resettled in KazakhstanAnd MauritaniaThey died because they couldn’t get health care, as they didn’t have 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 repatriations and resettlements are done safely and without former detainees facing persecution or imprisonment, and that they are granted citizenship or rights as residents. And that their loved ones can 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.
The U.S. does not offer compensation for these men for the terrible experiences they endured in U.S. custody. This is a shame. 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.