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UAE pledges safe haven for 19 Sri Lankan refugees

The UAE is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and not legally obliged to allow refugees to stay, but has said it will provide shelter while the UNHCR finds homes for the 19 in another country.

DUBAI // Nineteen Tamil refugees who were rescued from a sinking trawler while fleeing Sri Lanka will be provided shelter in the UAE until they can be resettled in another country.

The 19 were part of a group of 45 Tamils who fled Sri Lanka last October to seek asylum in Australia. When their boat ran into trouble, the Singaporean ship Pinnacle Bliss, which was en route to the UAE, rescued them and brought them to Dubai.

“We will not send them back to their country,” said Colonel Mohammed Al Murr, head of the human rights department at Dubai Police. “They have been here for about six months. We haven’t deported anybody and cannot send anyone back without the UN’s permission.”

The UAE is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and therefore not legally obliged to allow refugees to stay.

“We will give them shelter until their problem is resolved. We are working with the UNHCR [United Nations High Commission for Refugees] and following all the UN procedures: providing food, shelter and health facilities.”

After the UN refugee agency notified the UAE of their presence, they were allowed to disembark at Jebel Ali port and the agency was granted access to determine the legitimacy of their claims for asylum.

Of the 45 people who arrived, seven were sent back by the UN as they were deemed not to be in need of international protection.

All of the remaining 38 were recognised as refugees and 20 were resettled in Sweden and the US. One of the remaining 18 refugees gave birth to a child in the UAE, bringing the total who are waiting for new citizenship to 19.

“We have been actively working to resettle the remaining 19 in a third country,” said Babar Baloch, spokesman for the Geneva-based UN refugee agency. “The UAE has been facilitating their stay, providing food and shelter until their resettlement to a third country. Their protection in the UAE is temporary and we want to find a long-standing solution.

“The UAE has been very generous in supporting and helping the refugees. They have access to facilities and are being treated well.”

He said the agency could not set a time frame on how long it would take to resettle the remaining 19.

There was confusion earlier this week, according to a lawyer for the group, when someone in uniform allegedly told the refugees to prepare to be sent home.

“They were panicked and it was very difficult to calm them down,” said Kulasegaram Geetharthanan, a British lawyer representing Rathimohini Lokini, a female newscaster from a rebel-run TV station, who is among the asylum seekers.

“It has been difficult for them living there since October. But their only worry is about being sent back to Sri Lanka. Rathimohini is happy to be in Dubai in detention for as long as it takes, as long as she is not sent back to Sri Lanka.”

In a statement published by state news agency Wam, the UAE’s Assistant Foreign Minister for International Organisations Dr Saeed Al Shamsi, said: “The UAE offers strong response to humanitarian disasters worldwide and continues to play an active and responsible role in the international community in situations of refugee crises.”

pkannan@thenational.ae

rtalwar@thenational.ae

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