Guantánamo exists as a “state of exception” which has legitimated extraordinary policies, practices, executive measures, and laws since the US signed the lease agreement with Cuba in 1903. The lease gives Cuba sovereignty but grants the United States absolute jurisdiction over the land. This lease can only be revoked if both countries, namely the U.S., agree. This type of “legal black hole” has allowed the U.S. to use the land to hold those who fall between the boundaries of national identity and legal protection. Such populations have included Cuban workers after the revolution, Haitians with HIV seeking political asylum, and most recently “enemy combatants” of the War on Terror.
Australia, in recent years, has been faced with a situation similar to the 1990-1994 influx of political refugees to Guantánamo, with similarly frightening outcomes. According to The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/ this year alone has seen over 7,900 refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Iran enter Australian waters from Indonesia in search of political asylum. Offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) which began in 2001 ended with the Labor party’s involvement in 2007 but will continue, pending recommendations handed down in August of this year. This offshore processing has caused an outcry regarding detention standards and human rights concerns. In 2001, Nauru closed its borders and disallowed all visitors, including tourists and journalists, from entering. In 2003, about 400 detainees from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan fleeing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein remained on Nauru living in similar conditions that those who were deemed “terrorists” by the U.S. were suffering in Guantánamo.
Holding human beings with no promise of a future, and a past that they cannot return to, results in a feeling of inhumanity. Without work and little to do, authorities noticed in Nauru that detainees became lethargic and morose with anxiety manifesting in physical ways. These types of experiences were documented in the 2003 episode of This American Life entitled “The Middle of Nowhere” http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/253/transcript. Similar to those detainees from Cuba and Haiti on Guantánamo, the main complaints included sleeplessness, back pain, headaches, feelings of faintness, speech impediment, and self-mutilation. The imprisonment of Haitians at Guantánamo caused many to refuse to participate in any way in their own detainment. They refused food, shelter, life-continuing medication, and nutritious fluids as the only personal choice that could be made persisting in this rightless state.
States of exception exist in many forms throughout the world. These locations are dangerous territories for legal abuses and human rights violations. This type of model produces the same results in every case. We, as part of an international community in a globalized world, need to develop better ways for those seeking political asylum to achieve it. Putting populations in the position to face treacherous sea expeditions to reach land only to be indefinitely detained is unacceptable. There needs to be an effort to better manage refugee populations closer to their “home” countries and without the use of these states of exception outside of the public gaze.
What is the best way to deal with large immigrant and refugee populations?
Posted by Dawn Rewolinski – New York University