[Published here September 2, 2021]
Kabirat Olokunde, a Nigerian migrant worker, planned to spend her birthday with friends in the city of Abu Dhabi. Instead, she turned 28 in a frigid prison cell, one of about 700 Africans imprisoned by Emirati authorities without charge.
In unparalleled mass arrests, the workers were jailed with “no legal justification” on the night of June 24-25, and later started being deported, said ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor.
“I celebrated my birthday in chains, with no mattress,” Olokunde said by phone from the Nigerian city of Lagos, where she was deported on Aug. 3.
“I still have the trauma in me,” added the single mother, who had been working as a bus attendant and caretaker at an international school in Abu Dhabi.
She was deported without access to her belongings, and is now jobless and unable to support her son, siblings and parents.
The Abu Dhabi government communications office, and the Nigerian embassy in Abu Dhabi, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the rights groups’ report, published on Thursday.
The Gulf monarchy, a regional trade and tourism hub and one of seven emirates which form the United Arab Emirates (UAE), tolerates little criticism.
Human rights groups have previously documented the imprisonment of hundreds of activists, academics and lawyers in the UAE, often following unfair trials on vague charges. The UAE has dismissed those accusations as false and unsubstantiated.
The UAE is home to nearly 10 million people, more than 80% of whom are expatriates who send remittances home to their families, according to the United Nations.
Workers from developing countries often live in shared residencies in Abu Dhabi with separate wings for different nationalities, like La Gym, where Olokunde was arrested.
African and Asian workers have highlighted stigmatisation and racism in the past, but the two rights groups said the June raid was a marked escalation.
“The scale of this racially motivated deportation is completely unprecedented,” said Michela Pugliese, a migration researcher at Euro-Med Monitor.
“The victims and other migrants who aspire to work safely in the UAE have had this right unjustly revoked. Its consequences will be felt for years to come.”
The investigation, based on interviews with more than 100 migrant workers, found that Abu Dhabi’s Rapid Intervention Forces (SWAT), Criminal Investigation Department and police carried out mass arrests in at least four apartment buildings.
The subsequent forced deportations were illegal, Pugliese said, as many of the workers had valid residency permits and work visas and were denied due process or access to their personal property.
About 100 individuals remain in detention, and more African workers have been arrested in recent weeks, Pugliese added.
The two human rights groups said they sought clarification from the UAE interior ministry on the reasons behind the arrests and deportations, but received no response.
Migrant workers told researchers that the arresting units used excessive force against them, including stun guns, and touched women’s bodies inappropriately.
Olokunde said she was arrested in shorts and a bra, and was not allowed to dress before being transported to the jail.
When she and other women went on a hunger strike to demand justification for their arrest, they were chained for seven days, including her birthday, Olokunde said.
Two workers who spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation said they slept on the floor in large, group cells, but were not given masks to protect against COVID-19 infection.
In jail, the report said, detainees were denied access to health care and sanitary pads while women had their periods.
The rights groups said detainees were not granted access to lawyers or told why they had been arrested – but some were indirectly accused of prostitution, which is a crime in the UAE.
During her single, brief interrogation, Olokunde said she was asked, “How much do you charge for a massage?”
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), migrants are entitled to challenge their arrest in their country of residence.
“The abuses outlined demonstrate that migrants have had their rights to due process violated, and their detention conditions could amount to ill-treatment,” said Rothna Begum, HRW’s women’s rights researcher in the Middle East.
“It is horrific that the UAE authorities appear to be conducting a secret campaign of mass arrests of African migrants, without any clear legal basis for such arrests or detention,” she added.
Kenneth Rubangakene, a 31-year-old Ugandan clerk who had lived in Abu Dhabi since 2017, also said he was taken from his La Gym apartment to prison.
He said guards scanned his fingerprints and retinas without explanation, chained his hands and feet for three days, and imitated the sound of a couple having sex, asking if he had ever heard that noise at La Gym.
“They told us Africans are spoiling their country, they want to get rid of Africans from the street, we Africans are stupid,” he said.
He was deported from Dubai International Airport on July 29, according to a printed booking confirmation that Rubangakene shared with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which he said was given to him by prison guards.
“It was so shameful at the airport. You are arriving in a prison uniform, in prison sandals,” he said.
The Ugandan embassy in Abu Dhabi did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Rubangakene said he has about 6,000 dirham ($1,634) stuck in a bank account in the UAE that he cannot access, as his bankcard – along with teaching certifications he would need to apply for new jobs – all remained in his room.
“I came back with nothing. I’m starting from zero,” he said.