Thank you to all who donated to our UAE Extraction Campaign - to help lesbians trapped in slavery/servitude in UAE.
By Melanie Nathan, Executive Director, African Human Rights Coalition
Behind the wealth and opulence of United Arab Emirates, and the seeming beauty of fused modernity, is the horror of enslaved and abused minorities from African countries. Some trafficked here to United Arab Emirates, others desperate for employment and solutions from abuse and persecution in their home countries, with many finding themselves "out of the fire and into the frying pan". A perfect storm for fleeing lesbians! The stories of enslavement and sexual abuse, are horrific. The stories of some forced into illegal activity - including fraud rings - are disturbing. Helpless for solutions, hope dwindles, with years going by into the unknown...
New anti-homosexuality legislation like Uganda's recently enacted "KILL THE GAYS BILL" and pending legislation in Ghana, Kenya, and Namibia make these abuses ripe for more victims. We are currently working with several Africans caught up in this horror. Here is the abridged reflection on the extraction of one:
With regard to the one case I am reporting here, there are aspects of what occurred that I cannot discuss at this time, however, I want to provide a general reflection on the extraction of one of the lesbians from UAE, where she was enduring a life tantamount to slavery. Some years ago, Sanda (not her real name) left her home in Uganda to pursue a job she was offered in United Arab Emirates (UAE). At the time she had been exposed as a lesbian in her home country, Uganda, and was in extreme danger. She had tried to find a pathway to safety, but the choices were minimal and grim. This offer seemed like a perfect way out of the deadly situation at home.
Desperate to leave the persecution she was experiencing in Uganda; she gave no regard for the fact that UAE criminalizes consensual same-sex relations and platforms the persecution of LGBTI people, and hence not a safe place for a lesbian. But it was a way out! And Sanda was desperate. In Dubai, UAE, at first things seemed to go well and then her working situation became an abusive one. She was outed as a lesbian at work and suddenly found herself, yet again, in terrifying danger. She was fired from the job and given six weeks to leave the country. But she had nowhere to go. Going back to Uganda was not an option. It was impossible to get a visa to another country. Six weeks was not nearly enough time to find a solution. She tried reaching out to various organizations and agencies, to include the UN, but to no avail. As time went by, she had more difficulty trying to survive, the reality for a marginalized woman in this situation in UAE.
Day to day, getting through making it to the next day, without any recourse or any human on earth who seemed to care, brought deep feelings of hopelessness. The life of an outed lesbian from Uganda in UAE seemed destined to end in an enslaved existence – and for how long? What were the alternatives? As time went by, the fines incurred by overstaying the permitted time increased to such an exorbitant amount, that it became even more impossible to leave. Sanda was trapped. Where could Sanda go? Sanda could not go home to Uganda and nor could she do anything that would risk detention and deportation. This drove her deeper into secrecy and slavery. Her fear was exacerbated by the unknown - she was concerned that her past employer had reported her to authorities for being a lesbian. This unknown would plague all aspects of an extraction plan.
Even if she had the money to pay air tickets, lodging, passport renewal fees, there are few countries she could get into where a visa is not required. In each instance it was clear she would be rejected for any visa. The United Nations provides little hope for a lesbian stuck in UAE: The UNHCR process in that country is unclear, which I cannot explain here, and likely to be very drawn out with uncertain results. She had no answer as to whether she would qualify in UAE for a refugee mandate and in the moment of decision making it seemed like little hope. The longer she stays, the more danger she faces, as fines increase and her servitude becomes even more slave-like. She is hopeless and reaches out to many organization, none of which respond. Let me point out at this point - there are others, as we speak, going through similar terrifying situations.
Through a fellow activist Sanda found AHRC and me: We start to investigate and make a plan: It takes several weeks of research and investigation, to include the AHRC vetting process. Even getting on Zoom with me is a challenge due to the slave-like circumstances of her existence. We decide on an extraction plan, weighing up the very few options, and the risks. Together we note that the risks are extensive, as this extraction will involve an unknown amount of money, many unknown hurdles along the way which could result in arrests and possible jail, depending on the great unknown - which is - what had the original employer reported to authorities? Did they report her as a lesbian? We did not know and there was no way to find out without further exposure. What would happen when she shows up and turns herself in to pay the fines to get an exit permit? We turn to our donors, estimating an amount needed which we succeed in raising. Again, many thanks – because none of this could have happened without support.
This plan ended up costing more than double the anticipated amount! As I have never worked in UAE before and had no viable partners to turn to. It was a learn as you go experience – as we had chosen an extreme and unique route of escape. We had to balance what her future looked like in one of few places that seemed possible, versus enslavement in UAE versus arrest in Uganda. By now Uganda had passed the new Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023, otherwise known as the “Kill the Gays Bill”- making the dangers of her country-of-origin even more profound and terrifying and increasing the risks ahead.
It took more than six weeks to get her renewed passport from the Ugandan Embassy in UAE. Showing up at that embassy was terrifying. Money to expedite the passport was costly. The corruption at the embassy – a worthy investigation – if anyone cares!
During this time, we had to extract Sanda from the enslaved illegal employment into safe place to hide out until the time came to move forward, also, costly.
We purchased air tickets to ensure a legitimate route to her destination, obviously one of the few places where Ugandan’s do not need a visa and where she can seek asylum or a refugee mandate. THIS was the only choice. No special private sponsorship programs could accommodate Sanda at this point – just not possible. That which other organizations seem to promise – just not viable - or even available when push comes to shove, especially considering how danger mounts as time goes by. At this juncture I would like to note that many of the solutions such as Welcome Corp, UNHCR refugee processes in hostile host countries, barely serve targeted LGBTQI+ individuals in these situations of immediate danger - and Western nations, to include the United States of America, and LGBTQI+ organizations are completely AWOL in finding immediate solutions. And so here we are - the operationally unfunded African Human Rights Coalition- working day and night and weekends and holidays - for one person – to save one life. One life at a time takes people-power, specific planning, much time and money. Of course we are also doing all our other programing and work alongside this difficult task. Unfortunately funders are attracted to large numbers versus a life at a time. GRANT FUNDERS want quantifying metrics and certainty, and there is not much out there to fund this life saving work.
The week of flight came. I am going to skip much of what occurred in that final week, because I do not want to expose the road ahead for those who we have yet to help. All I can say is that after a detention, being dumped in a desert at over 100 degrees with no water, negotiating the fines because we simply could not afford the actual amount, miraculously we accomplished the GOLDEN EXIT document. We had to keep changing anticipated flights, also at great cost and then we sweated through the possibility of being turned away at check-in.
PIC: Sanda in the desert out side the jail where she was dumped by authorities. She spent an overnight in desert heat with no water or food during resolution of fines and exit permit. Copyright, 2023, ©AHRC, Picture cannot be used without permission of nathan@africanHRC.org.
Minute by minute we held our breath – prayed – toyed with plan B – etc. etc. Kept sending money in increments, (purposely keeping it core to avoid being subject to bribes, to ensure food and forward costs, and then our plan kicked into first gear as she boarded that plane.
Copyright, 2023, ©AHRC, Picture cannot be used without permission of nathan@africanHRC.org.
A sigh of relief but still a massive journey ahead, and one still fraught with uncertainty. The final hurdle was getting through border control at the country of destination. Our entry letters worked. We did it!
Copyright, 2023, ©AHRC, Picture cannot be used without permission of nathan@africanHRC.org.
Sanda is now much safer. She is in a motel in the destination country – with more to come for her long-term solution, still ahead. Indeed she is much safer and better off than before, by a long way, pending her next steps and much more advocacy to come. The hope is for healing from trauma and an opportunity to be fully accepted by a country she can call home. Given Sanda's determination, courage, resilience and what she accomplished - her future may well be bright. So thank you to all who have helped so far. by all accounts we accomplished a miracle and perhaps established a path for others, through the extraordinary resilience and courage of Sanda and the help of AHRC donors.
The BIG Question: Would I do this again? It took over 3 months all said and done, and at a cost of over $5,000.00, not to mention the emotional toll that this particular rollercoaster insisted upon. All I can say is it is hard to turn our backs when we have several more lesbians in similar positions going through similar experiences, and as time ticks by, things get worse for each. One cannot forget that every case must result in exploring unique solutions to fir the person’s circumstances. I am confident that this challenge can be met at AHRC.
All we need is the funding: While we have no funds to repeat this at this time. We have no knowledge of other organizations doing this work with such immediacy - what we just did in the extraordinary time frame, from planning to implementation.
With all that said- my hope is for some investigative journalism to OUT the truth behind the opulence and prettiness of Dubai and the rest of UAE. This empire of wealth, this playground for tourism, this business mecca is all built on the back of abuse. And it is happening on our watch....
Please donate to AHRC at www.AfricanHRC.org/donate
CONTACT: Melanie Nathan, firstname.lastname@example.org