Palau, a country of 20,000 people that relies heavily on the United States for defense and aid, agreed to take six Uighurs on a temporary basis. The former U.S. trust territory, which became independent in 1994, didn’t have much to lose. It is one of the few countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, instead of Beijing, and to sweeten the deal, Washington promised $600,000 to help pay for the men’s stay.
But Palau says it has done enough.
“The funds have run out. My government is not in a financial situation to deal with them here,” Remengesau said. “Culturally it just doesn’t fit. Their religion is different from 99 percent of the people of Palau. It hasn’t been an entirely stable situation for us. They’re not happy. If they had their choice, they would rather be somewhere else.”
Even Palau has felt Beijing’s wrath, he said, noting that construction of a beachfront resort being developed by Chinese investors abruptly stopped as soon as the Uighur deal was announced. It is a major eyesore, boarded up and vacant, along the main street of Koror, Palau’s biggest town, and just a short walk from a bustling hotel built by Taiwanese developers.
Former President Johnson Toribiong, who was voted out of office in November in part because of allegations that he misused the funds intended for the Uighurs, said he never intended for Palau to be a final destination.
“I assumed that I would be able to take care of them and by the end of my term find them a permanent place to go to,” he said.
Last month, Palau’s government confirmed that one of the men, Adel Noori, had left the island. According to a local newspaper, Noori made his way to Turkey via Japan. Officials in Palau and Washington say they cannot comment because of security concerns.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the United States is working diligently to seek permanent homes for the remaining Uighurs and is “coordinating closely with Palau on matters related to the remaining individuals temporarily resettled there.”
But officials on Palau say they are not even sure who to contact in Washington. Special envoy Daniel Fried, who negotiated the Palau deal and was in charge of finding placements for cleared detainees at Guantánamo, was transferred to a new job in January. No replacement has been named, which has been widely seen as more evidence that President Obama’s zeal to close Guantánamo – a major campaign promise before his election in 2008 – has waned under congressional opposition.
“We need a timetable, and a plan of action. That’s where the frustration comes,” Remengesau said. “We are looking for a happy ending. These are human beings. They deserve respect.”
For now, the five Uighur men eke by, most working as security guards and making about $500 a month, which is about the poverty level even by Palauan standards. Prospective employers are reluctant to hire them, and if they speak English at all, it is mostly what they picked up in prison. The only other Muslims on Palau are a small number of Bangladeshis.
“When we were released we were very happy,” said Abdulghappar Abdulrahman, another of the Uighurs. “But now it is like being in Guantánamo again.”
Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington in Washington, D.C., and Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Washington, contributed to this report.