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“We cried and begged”

UAE tramples on the hopes, dignity, and rights of African migrant workers

On September 22, 2021

On 24 and 25 June 2021, Abu Dhabi authorities conducted midnight raids on several apartments housing African migrant workers. An estimated 800 workers, primarily from Uganda, Nigeria, and Cameroon, were rounded up – most in their bedclothes, some even naked – and put onto buses without explanation.

In the audio story above, John* recounts the horrific night in painstaking detail. A security guard for nearly eight years, John’s visa and work permits were valid. He had never committed a crime. Yet, he was detained for two months. Some migrants were undocumented, and others on visit visas – legal under UAE laws – and they were reportedly deported first. But many, like John, had valid documentation and were actively employed.

While it is evident that the detention and deportations were not related to migrants’ varying legal status, the authorities’ motives remain unclear. In a statement denying any transgression of justice or racial motivation, the UAE claimed the workers were linked to a sweeping catalogue of crimes including “prostitution networks, human trafficking, indecent acts, extortion, and assault...” The statement also claimed that workers were only deported after “due legal process,” contradicting the testimonies of over 100 workers interviewed by ImpACT International and Euro-Mediterranean Human Right Monitor, BBC, and the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF).

Among the many rights violations John and others describe are the al-Wathba prison’s reprehensible conditions. Though Abu Dhabi is known for enforcing significantly more stringent Covid-19 regulations than other emirates, authorities exposed detainees to unconscionable risks: crowding migrants 62 to a cell, depriving them of hygiene products, and even – some migrants allege – faking Covid-19 tests to enable them to travel. They did not receive soap, toothpaste, nor a change of clothes until over a month after their detention. They drank only dirty tap water and were forced to compete over a handful of panadol in lieu of actual medical care.

“We asked if those crimes were written on our African faces [...] most of us had legitimate papers and employers, and no criminal records.”

All their personal belongings, including mobile phones, were confiscated, and migrants were not allowed to contact their families. Embassies were aware of the situation to some extent, as they provided exit documents for many of the workers, but did not visit the prison. Cameroon’s Dubai-based consul-general told TRF that repeated requests for information were ignored, and that upon visiting al-Wathba he was not permitted entry.

A clear case of race-based discrimination and violent overreach of authorities, the case has implicitly created even more problems for African migrant workers.  Companies will hesitate to employ Africans, landlords will worry about renting out property to them, and the entire group will be associated with crimes, despite no evidence to support the claims.

John is now trying to determine if there is an Interpol case lodged against him. But the request for information that he filed – and paid for – was cancelled by the UAE. He and others are also attempting to collect final payments and settlements from their former employers.

“People lost money, their valuables, their jobs, their dreams, families destroyed for no reason…people lost their hope for no reason.”

*Name changed

John reflects on his ordeal

At 3 am on Friday, 25 June, the SWAT (police) raided apartments occupied by African migrants in and around Abu Dhabi City.

While we were sleeping, a large number of police and men dressed in army gear broke into our flat, banging and breaking down all the doors. As soon as they moved in, they destroyed all the CCTV cameras from the lift lobbies and stairwells, plus the ones in the flats. They also switched off all the street lights in the neighbourhood. They got us out of bed and handcuffed us without telling us what was happening.  They laid us on the floor, heads down, and some of the police officers even walked on our backs, some stepping on our heads with heavy boots. They shocked us with taser guns and kicked us when we tried to ask what was happening. We did not resist, but they would still jump on us for pleasure.

They took only Africans and left the others in the building.

“ [They] made us sign a document in Arabic that we couldn’t understand.”

We were moved very fast through stairwells while we continued to be kicked and slapped by the officers. When we reached downstairs,  fleets of vans and buses were waiting for us. They took our pictures in front of the building before we boarded. They drove us up to Khalidiyah police station, the CID headquarters, where we stayed in the buses for about half an hour. When we asked what we had done, they told us to shut up or we’d face more rough treatment. Most people were beaten severely and others injured. The situation felt helpless.

They later drove us to al-Wathba prison, right in the middle of the desert. We reached around 6 am in the morning. There were already over 500 Africans there, and we were made to kneel as they registered us. People came almost naked, most men in only boxers without shirts, and ladies in transparent night dresses and underwear. Some were pregnant. Many were even literally naked, and the officers just stared and made fun of us.

The women were handcuffed and moved to a separate cell. One detainee managed to take a photo of her arrest.

After a long time in queue, the ladies were separated from the group and taken to their own cell section. We were taken to a hall with about 10 officers and they stripped us by force as they laughed and tore at our clothes if we asked them to take it easy. They embarrassed all of us. Then they put us in different cells, locking us in rooms with about 62 people each. There was insufficient bedding and the AC was at maximum, like a factory AC,  blowing so strongly. We were freezing (this is peak summer in the country) and we all huddled on one side together to get some warmth,

After about two days, we started to refuse food so we could get the attention of the officers in charge but it was all in vain. We tried it about thrice, refusing meals for the whole day and more, but nothing worked. So we decided to bang on the iron door and make noise. Then the officers came in a group of about 30, armed with weapons and paraded us outside. They lied to us – saying they were only going to handcuff us to take us to investigations so that they could begin releasing us. But when they finished cuffing all of us, they locked us in and walked away.  We were all chained together, hands and legs, for three days. Some people pooped on themselves. We couldn’t sleep or eat properly, no shower or use of bathrooms. We begged and cried. After a few days, we were taken to meet the CID in chains in a group of 10 and they told us they were accusing us of prostitution, human trafficking, and alcohol consumption. We asked if those crimes were written on our African faces as they had not caught anyone in any of these acts, or connected to anything like that, and most of us had legitimate papers and employers, and no criminal records. They never bothered to answer and made us sign a document in Arabic that we couldn’t understand.

They took us back to our cells. After two weeks passed, they gave us the first bar of soap for bathing but continued to deny us medicine and even toothpaste. They only threw food at us – one kubz (bread) for breakfast and dinner and rice for lunch. The water coolers were dirty with black ants as they had not been in use for a long time. We complained but nothing was done and we had to just consume the dirty water to survive.

The situation was hostile, frustrating, as we cried and shouted every day asking to at least speak to our embassies and companies. It was all in vain and we never had a chance to even see any embassy official. We lost all hope until about six weeks later when they came and gave us toothbrushes and told us we will be deported because our brothers and sisters who looked like us committed crimes in the UAE. They said it was a decision from one of the Sheikhs that everyone – regardless of whether they had committed a crime or not – should be deported.

They started to take out a few people day by day.  I was personally released after two months. We were taken to their office in chains and given clothes that were not ours, which were very dirty and smelly, and they escorted us to the airport with only our mobiles. The rest of the valuables we had, including money, were not recorded by the officers.

We hoped to hear from our government to fight for us but not a single one of them has ever contacted or asked about us. We tried to reach out to them but it was all in vain. After a transit for about eight hours in Kenya, we reached home, hungry, tired but excited all the same to finally escape it all.

We contacted friends from our companies, asking them to look out for the valuables we left in our rooms but everything had already been stolen and sold by the building landlords. We lost everything, including all our money, except a few old clothes. When our friends asked the landlords, they were told that the government had fined them about US$8000 for accommodating Africans and so they decided to get their money back.

We suffered for only being Black in a country where we had lived for years while respecting each and every law of the society and government. They destroyed our dreams, stole our money, exploited our sacrifices and efforts, made us work over 12 hours a day, just because we are Africans.