Six former Guantanamo Bay detainees brought to Palau for resettlement have received a warm official welcome, but a plan to deport Bangladeshi workers could halve this Pacific Island nation's already-tiny Muslim community, making integration harder.
The ex-detainees, who are Muslim ethnic Uighurs from a region in
China's far west, already face tough challenges to adapt to their
new lives in Palau after eight years in the U.S. military camp in
Cuba, although they will be provided housing, job training and a
President Johnson Toribiong himself welcomed the group when they
arrived before dawn Sunday on a secret flight, and he will treat
them to a personal tour of the Rock Islands, a diving attraction
that is country's top tourist destination, later this week as part
of their orientation.
But Toribiong has also announced plans to send home between 200
and 300 Bangladeshi Muslim migrants whose work visas have expired,
and last month he banned anyone else from the South Asian country
from entering Palau. No timetable has been set for deporting the
Palau's Muslim community of about 500 is made up almost
completely of Bangladeshi migrant workers. Reducing their number by
half could make the Uighurs' transition to island life that much
"They need a community of Muslims," Mujahid Hussain, the only
Pakistani in Palau, said of the Uighurs.
"They need to sit together and pray together. So if they send
home a lot of the Bangladeshis, that's going to be a problem,"
Hussain, 36, told The Associated Press on Monday.
Announcing the decision to repatriate the Bangladeshis whose
visas have expired, Toribiong said last week it has nothing to do
with the Uighurs but is a reflection of his administration's
commitment to the rule of law.
"We follow the principles of justice and fairness," he said,
adding that Bangladeshis with valid work permits have nothing to
The Uighurs (pronounced WEE'-gurs) have been kept out of the
public eye and away from media since they arrived.
They hail from one of the most landlocked regions on earth and
are making the jump from the prison-like conditions of Guantanamo
to another alien environment - the leisurely pace of a palm-fringed
Muslims here say they will accept the newcomers.
"All the Muslims, they are our brothers," said Mohammed Main
Uddin, 26, as he gathered with about 50 others recently for
traditional Friday prayers at the small tin-roofed building sitting
atop bamboo stilts that serves as one of just two mosques in Palau.
The Uighurs will be welcome as long as they "follow the Muslim
rules" on tolerance and peace, said Uddin, a sweet potato farmer
who moved to Palau from Bangladesh four years ago.
The Uighurs brought here were among 22 Chinese Muslims picked up
by American forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001 on suspicion
of terrorism. They were taken eventually to Guantanamo, where they
were held without trial as "enemy combatants."
The Uighurs were approved for release after a federal court
ruled they were not enemy combatants, but they spent months in
legal limbo as U.S. officials tried to find somewhere to send them.
China calls them terrorists and has demanded they be returned.
Uighur activists say they would face persecution and possibly death
After protracted negotiations, the six agreed to accept Palau's
offer of resettlement. Seven others are still at Guantanamo. One of
them did not receive an invitation to resettle in Palau over
concerns about his mental health.
Lawyers for the remaining Uighurs at Guantanamo say that among
their clients' concerns about going to Palau is the lack of an
existing Uighur population.
Palau is an archipelago of about 200 islands 800 miles (1,290
kilometers) east of the Philippines. It has just 20,000 residents,
most of them of Micronesian origin with strong clan and family
ties. The country is overwhelmingly Christian, with church pews
filled on Sunday mornings. The community is close-knit, and, like other outsiders, the
Uighurs are likely to find it hard to fit in.
"Some Palauans want (the Uighurs) to come here and some
don't," says Johnson Salii, 41, a taxi driver. "Palauans are good
people, so they will make friends with them."
Bangladeshis began arriving in Palau about a dozen years ago
seeking steady work and a reprieve from the conflict and poverty
plaguing their homeland. They mostly work as farmers, laborers and
night watchmen, and they are at the bottom rung of Palauan society.
Most of them make the minimum wage for foreigners of $1.50 an
hour - a dollar below the rate for Palauans. Like other immigrants
in Palau - Palau hosts as many as 6,000 Filipinos - they don't mix
much with the locals.
"The tourists come here for the natural beauty," said Harun
Rashid, a 40-year-old gas station attendant who moved to Palau 13
years ago. "We are like tourists also, but we work here."
An influx of Bangladeshi immigrants in 2004 and 2005 more than
doubled Palau's Muslim community, before the government moratorium
on new arrivals.
"Language barriers and fraud among recruiters have resulted in
social tensions and problems for the Palauan government, which does
not have formal diplomatic ties with Bangladesh," the U.N. refugee
agency said in a 2007 report. It did not elaborate, and there have
been no reports of fighting between Palauans and migrants.
The United States is paying Palau a little less than $100,000
for each Uighur to cover housing, educating and food costs,
Toribiong has stressed the Uighurs' resettlement is temporary,
saying it could last "a few months or a few years."
Though they won't get Palauan passports, Toribiong says, the
Uighurs will be free to leave Palau - if they can find a country
that will take them.
Copyright 2015 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.