- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2006

TIRANA, Albania — Authorities are looking for a new home for five Chinese Muslims who have been held in a refugee camp in a diplomatic limbo since being transferred to Albania from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, last month.

Albanian officials say they see no viable future for the men in one of Europe’s poorest countries, where no one speaks their language and the culture is fundamentally alien to their central Asian background.

The five ethnic Uighurs, from western China, arrived here a month ago after the U.S. administration brokered a deal for them to be given political asylum. The Bush administration released them after determining that they did not pose a terrorist threat but will not allow them to resettle in the United States and fears they will be tortured or executed if they are returned to China.

Beijing considers the men terrorists for advocating independence and is demanding that they be repatriated. Albanian officials insist that the men will not be sent to China in spite of intense pressure from Beijing but say they should not remain permanently in Albania.

“Their future is not here,” said Argita Totozani, the national commissioner for refugees. “There is not a Uighur community. They don’t speak any Albanian. They don’t speak any Chinese. There is no integration possibility for them here.”

The United States hoped that the men — who had asked to go to a European country after being told they could not live in the United States — would readily assimilate in Albania, which shares their Muslim faith. But the Uighurs’ distinct language is not spoken in Albania.

Albanian officials made it nearly impossible to interview the men, even when arrangements were made in advance with their attorney.

Mrs. Totozani said arrangements to meet the five should be made through Ali Rasha, the director of the refugee camp where they are being held. But Mr. Rasha said he could not help, insisting, “I don’t have the authority.”

Regardless of religious persuasion or cultural background, Albania is a grim place to live. Fewer than 100 people have sought long-term resettlement here in the past 10 years, according to Albanian and U.N. officials.

“Albania is a transit country,” said Hossein Kheradmand of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. “People don’t come here for asylum because of the economic situation. They come from the east and try to cross Albania to get into Western Europe. When they are intercepted by police because of illegal entry, then they apply for asylum.”

The per capita income of Albania’s 3.5 million people is a little more than $2,000 a year, according to the World Bank. The official unemployment rate is 16 percent, but in reality, it is probably higher than 30 percent.

The CIA Web site reports that more than 50 percent of the country’s road network remains unpaved. And there are only eight phone lines per 100 people, the lowest line density in Europe.

The five Uighurs were apparently swept up by bounty hunters in Pakistan and delivered to U.S. forces in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the United States.

“After these men were determined not to be enemy combatants, the United States reached out to over 100 countries to try to arrange for their resettlement,” a senior State Department official said in an exchange of e-mails. The official said an “administrative decision” had been made not to offer them asylum in the United States.

The administration has not publicly explained why the men cannot resettle in the United States, but Mrs. Totozani said her government understood that “because of the atmosphere and the September 11 story, the Americans would not really want Guantanamo Bay ex-prisoners to be part of their society.”

An American attorney is actively looking for a new home for the men, Mrs. Totozani said.

“They are trying to find a resettlement somewhere else — in America or Canada,” she said. “I’ve heard they have relatives in Canada. There is a good community in Canada for Uighurs.”

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