Guantánamo Public Memory Project

The Human Cost of Legal Exception: Haitian Refugees at Guantánamo


Two Haitian refugees eat rice on board a U.S. Coast Guard cutter. USCG photo by RESSLER, ROBIN PA2

While the current notoriety of Guantánamo Bay is focused on its use as a detention center for alleged terrorists against the United States, this is not the first time in history the island has been used to indefinitely detain individuals.
In this photograph, a woman and her children are among the thousands of Haitians that passed through indefinite political detention centers on Guantánamo Bay. Starting in the early 1990’s, refugees from Haiti were detained at Camp McCalla and Camp Bulkeley. As many as 12,500 could be detained in the camps at any time, and in 1992 the camps almost reached their full capacity. At the height of the influx in 1992, some 34,090 Haitians had passed through the two camps. Conditions in the camps were deplorable. While U.S. officials allowed limited self-governance, decisions such as sanitation and food rationing were made by the military. With such conditions towards the end of the Haitian detention instability and rioting occurred, particularly in Camp Bulkeley – the camp used for Haitians with HIV/AIDS. The prolonged detention ended with most of the refugees being repatriated back to Haiti, some facing torture or even death.
Haitian refugees began leaving before the 1990s. Many fled repression from Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, whose corrupt regime ended in 1986 only to be replaced by a military junta in 1988. The irony of the refugee crisis is that the U.S. was instrumental in supporting the Duvalier dictatorship as a Cold War ally. The first of the refugees were the wealthy and elite, but by the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the Haitians who would be held in Guantánamo Bay were the poor.
The Haitians refugee crisis at Guantánamo Bay resonates today, and is an example of how Guantánamo serves as a legal exception that allows the U.S. government to detain terrorist suspects indefinitely. Upon leaving Haiti, these refugees were often intercepted by the U.S. Navy or Coast Guard and, due to the implications of illegal immigration and the perceived socio-economic threat of an influx of Haitians by American politicians, Guantánamo Bay became the perfect solution. Once there, they were not considered to be on U.S. land and therefore not subject to the protections afforded to persons on sovereign U.S. soil. Basics such as access to legal representation for asylum claims and protections under international human rights laws, which the U.S. has agreed to observe, were not guaranteed. Guantánamo Bay’s “Legal Black Hole” became the buffer to either force Haitians back to Haiti or risk being detained for upwards of ten to twenty years.
While the political, legal, and historic implications of the Haitian refugee experience, as represented by the photograph of the mother and child, are of vital importance, it deserves a deeper visual analysis because of the reality and the humanitarian crisis it depicts. What is immediately noticeable in this photograph is that it is a black Haitian mother and her children. In a space that has long been gendered politically in the U.S. media as overwhelmingly white American male space, this is a visceral reminder that the majority of experiences in Guantánamo Bay are not of that group. Note the conditions around the mother and her children. They are on a deck in direct sunlight with no shade with a large netted garbage pile behind them. It is not a place any mother wants to keep her children. By simply viewing the photo the human costs of sovereign legal exceptions becomes unflinchingly real.

Posted by Tiffany M. Lowe – M.A. Candidate at Rutgers University

Rutgers University
 is participating in the Guantánamo Public Memory Project‘s National Dialogue and Traveling Exhibit. Opening at NYU’s Kimmel Center for University Life Windows Gallery in December 2012 and traveling to 9 sites (and counting) across the country through at least 2014, the exhibit will explore GTMO’s history from US occupation in 1898 to today’s debates and visions for its future. The exhibit is being developed through a unique collaboration among a growing number of universities as a dialogue among their students, communities, and people with first-hand experience at GTMO.

2 Comments to: The Human Cost of Legal Exception: Haitian Refugees at Guantánamo

April 18, 2012 1:41 pmNewport wrote:

That truly is amazing. People are so rleieisnt even in the toughest times of their lives and they continue to thrive and make do with what they have, even if they have lost everything or almost anything. The lecture in class today about Haiti really hit home for me. I guess I had become one of those people who had let the knowledge of yet another natural disaster effect me for a few days and then moved on with my life because forgetting about it is much easier to do than to actually get up and do something. Yeah I contributed money and prayed for the victims, but I didn’t really think about all of the people who died and were injured and lost someone in that earthquake. I feel like the lecture today helped me to see how sad the situation there is. There are so many people who don’t have anything but the knowledge that they survived the earthquake and some of their families, friends, relatives, coworkers all could have perished in that disaster and they were lucky enough to survive. All of the pictures of the people who were standing on piles of rubble, looking at their world now and how it once had been was truly eye opening. I cannot possibly imagine the pain and the hurt of the people who lived there who barely caught a break before their world was destroyed yet again. In that situation however I would be doing the same thing that all of these people have been doing and that is making the best of it. I can’t say that I know what its like to go through that but I can say that I empathize with the people who are just doing whatever they can whether that be making a beauty salon or charging cell phones. It depresses me to think about the things that we talked about in class about the fact that many of the NGO’s are just making a big problem bigger by hurting the economy. I never thought of it that way. I just assumed that by handing out rice and water and other necessities to the people there was the best we could do. I never took the standpoint of it hurting their economic status. I understand now that what we need to do down there is more intensive than just funneling money to ourselves and organizations that send things. I know that being a poor college student I can’t really afford to do much because just going down there and helping would be over my budget. All I can hope for is that other people who are pretty well set and have extra time on their hands would consider doing more for the people and at least maybe give a little time to help these people. It just is the right thing to do. People were talking in class today about why they should care about these people and what happening and Sam is right. The whole, do unto the least of these is what you would have done unto me thing comes right back in our faces. would we not want other countries to help us in our times of need? Of course we would, so why would we not care about something terrible that has happened to another country especially one that is right outside of our boarders. Its amazing how ignorant people can be even if the problem is pushed right in their faces. Yes we have our own problems but what about these poor people living in tents for possibly years? Who is going to stand up for them?


Creative: Picture Projects & Tronvig Group