UN washing its hands of destitute Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Dubai

In a move widely seen as a major departure from its stated obligations and assigned responsibilities, the United Nations has virtually washed its hands of a group of 12 Sri Lankan Tamils, including a four-year old girl and three women, detained at an aluminium warehouse at the port of Jebel Ali, South of Dubai, despite having accepted them as genuine refugees nearly a year ago.

They are now facing the risk of deportation, with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reportedly informing them that it has decided to terminate all its dealing with them, allegedly on the grounds that there were no takers.

According to latest reports, a UNHCR executive who had identified herself as Nashreen has informed them on August 27 that no country “would accept Sri Lankan refugees and hence the United Nations had decided to stop all further activities” regarding the relocation of the same. The UNHCR executive has also allegedly suggested that the refugees go back to Sri Lanka - their country of origin, grossly ignoring the fact that their lives would be in danger on their return.

It is reliably learnt that the UN personnel are making moves to send these refugees back to Sri Lanka soon.

These helpless refugees are understandably worried because six members of their group who were not accepted as refugees had already been deported.

Disappointed with UNHCR double-stand: Solicitor

Commenting on this pressing issue, their legal representative, Kulasegaram Geetharthanan from Jein solicitors said he was “very disappointed by the contradictory information provided by the UNHCR regarding this matter”.

“We are in official correspondence with the Federal Department of Justice and Police FDJP of the Switzerland and the Secretary of State of the United Kingdom, urging them to look into this matter directly. To our disappointment they confirmed that they have not received any formal request from the UNHCR yet. However, the UNHCR has told the asylum seekers in Dubai and the Media that they are taking every possible attempt to re-locate them and have already made official requests to all the countries,” he said.

“They (UNHCR) also added that most of the countries refused their request on the first round and they are making application again. This information seems to be totally misleading and contradictory. The UNHCR in London is very reluctant to respond to our quarries. We contacted them on a number of occasions, but they are unable to provide us with a formal response yet. This casts doubt whether the UNHCR is failing in their responsibility,” Geetharthanan said.

This group of 12 Tamils are the remainder of a larger group of 46 who undertook a dangerous voyage to Australia to seek asylum in October 2012. Unfortunately, the ill-fated vessel they boarded broke down in the mid-sea and started taking in water before a Dubai bound Singapore-registered vessel rescued and dropped them off at the port of Jebel Ali, South of Dubai.

In November 2012, UNHCR recognized 39 of the 46 as refugees while six were deported to Colombo. Of them twenty-seven refugees have been accepted by the United States, Sweden and Finland for settlement and one young man is technically stateless because he was born while his Sri Lankan mother was illegally in India and she’s no longer alive.

A clear case for journalist Lokini

Among the 12 is also a former Tamil Tiger TV presenter, Rathimohan Lokini, who has given interviews saying how terrified she is that she could be raped and killed like another well known colleague, Isaipriya, who was identified among the half naked female bodies in trophy photographs taken by the victorious soldiers at the end of the war.

Geetharthanan said a panel of Senior Judges in the UK, when deciding the new Country Guidance case for Sri Lanka has made it well clear that journalists who supported separatism in Sri Lanka “are at high risk of persecution”.

“This is a conclusive evidence of the fate of the Tamil Journalist, Lokihini in Dubai. In the light of this new Upper Tribunal decision, the UNHCR must put pressure on the safe countries to reconsider their decisions and allow safe re-settlement for these Tamil refugees,” he said, adding that the countries signatory to the Refugee Convention should also bare in mind that their failure to prevent torture and crime against humanity also amounts to a compliance of such crime.

“The safe Countries have a responsibility to protect this Tamil Refugees from being deported to Sri Lanka where they will be persecuted with no doubt,” he stressed.

Living under appalling conditions

In communications with the JDS, these refugees claim that they have been living under terrible conditions without basic facilities such as food, lodging, medicine and clothing.

“Neither the Dubai authorities nor the UNHCR has offered us any help to improve our living conditions. We are living in an Aluminium factory next to the Dubai Harbour which has no basic needs. This Aluminium factory has no facilities for families. We have no means to protect us against the metal dust. Our bodies are covered with these dusts and we are finding it hard to breathe. Some of us have developed eye and skin problems due to heat,” a refugee said in her communication with the JDS.

Another stranded Tamil refugee said that lack of medical care for basic diseases such as nasal congestion, fever and diarrhoea has caused endless suffering, adding that they don’t have appropriate clothing for basic living.

“We are using the clothes left behind by those who earlier stayed with us. Those too are no longer in a condition to be used. We have been washing, drying and reusing the same clothes for the past eight months. Clothing and medication for my wife, child and other women are a serious problem. We do not have the right food to feed our child. My four-year old daughter has to eat the same food given to us everyday. She always asks for milk and biscuits, but we are unable to provide them. My wife and child are often suffering from trauma and depression,” he said in a painful note.

He said that they have repeatedly told all their problems to the Dubai government and the UNHCR, but of no avail.

“Instead, we have been told that the reason for countries not accepting us is because they are not mandated to deal with our personal problems,” he said, expressing disappointment and despair with the ruthless way the authorities deal with them.

Another affected person in the group said that they undertook the voyage knowing fully well the risks it involves, simply because they could no longer live in Sri Lanka without fear of torture, intimidation and persecution.

“But we are living here like prisoners in an Aluminium factory. Our future looks very bleak. The UNHCR and Dubai government should help us without any further delay” he said, appealing the international community to approach their problems objectively at least now.

UAE should not deport them under any circumstances: HRW

Issuing a statement to halt a previous deportation bid in April this year, the Human Rights Watch said that for the UAE “to return recognized Tamil refugees to a grave risk of torture in Sri Lanka would signal a total disregard for their well-being – and the most basic principle of international refugee and human rights law”.

“Sri Lanka’s treatment of Tamils they deem politically suspect is dismal and under no circumstances should the UAE deport this group there,” said Bill Frelick, refugee program director at Human Rights Watch in a statement.

The HRW has previously documented the Sri Lankan authorities’ torture of people with suspected links to the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), including people returned from countries such as the United Kingdom as failed asylum seekers.

“Returning recognized refugees to their countries of origin is a violation of international refugee and human rights law, which prohibits sending anyone back to a place where their life or freedom would be threatened or where they would face a real risk of torture or other ill-treatment,” it said.

The list of stranded refugees in Dubai:

1. Ramanan Gunaseelan - 21.12.1977
2. Meera Ramanan - 05.08.1986
3. Tharanika Ramanan - 24.12.2008
4. Umakesan Varatharaja - 13.08.1990
5. Arulvasan Theiventhirampillai - 26.09.1983
6. Kandeepan Nadarasa - 01.04.1982
7. Arulrexon Amirthanathan - 20.03.1970
8. Judekanisiyas Loransreji - 10.05.1984
9. Sakthivel Paramasivam - 05.05.1985
10. Kanakaraj Karthikesu - 03.10.1977
11. Thilakavathi Karthikesu - 09.11.1947
12. Rathymohan Lokiny - 28.05.1984