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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Couple kept captive by rogue employment agent return home to Sri Lanka after UAE visa reprieve

UAE residents came to rescue of couple forced to sleep rough at a Sharjah park

Renuka Sanjeewani was lured to the UAE from her native Sri Lanka by the promise of work but ended being held captive and forced to work for free. Victor Besa / The National Section
Renuka Sanjeewani was lured to the UAE from her native Sri Lanka by the promise of work but ended being held captive and forced to work for free. Victor Besa / The National Section

A Sri Lankan couple who were forced to sleep rough in a public park after escaping entrapment in an Ajman villa have returned to their homeland – thanks to a UAE visa amnesty reprieve.

Renuka Sanjeewani and her husband Anura Jayasurya arrived in Dubai in August with the promise of a better life after being offered employment by a recruitment agent.

Instead, they were held captive in an Ajman villa and forced to sleep on the floor in separate rooms, while Ms Sanjeewani was made to work without pay.

The couple, whose visas had expired, managed to flee the villa this month, ending up in a Sharjah park, where they slept on flattened cardboard cartons for two weeks.

They were spotted by fellow Sri Lankans, who provided them with food and shelter.

Their compatriots worked with embassy and consular officials to complete legal formalities, obtain fine waivers, exit documents – under the amnesty scheme – and pay for air tickets to return the couple home on Saturday.

“At one point, I wanted to commit suicide when I was separated from my husband and we were kept in separate rooms,” said Ms Sanjeewani, mother to a son, 23, and two teenage ­daughters.

“But I thought of my children and I held on.”

Sobbing as she spoke, Ms Sanjeewani, 42, told of being locked in separate rooms in a house in Ajman that she says belonged to a Sri Lankan ­woman.

There were three women from Ethiopia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka in the room, while her husband and other men were in another room, she said.

There were few details she could provide about their captors but the couple told officials they would provide details of the recruitment agency once they returned to Sri Lanka.

Renuka Sanjeewani and husband Anura Jayasurya pictured in Rolla Park, Sharjah, where they lived for two weeks
Renuka Sanjeewani and husband Anura Jayasurya pictured in Rolla Park, Sharjah, where they lived for two weeks

Ms Sanjeewani spoke to The National in a small room in Mirdif, Dubai, before heading to a deportation centre in Abu Dhabi and on to Colombo.

She came to the UAE with dreams of working in a tailor’s shop and hoped her husband would find a job as a driver.

The couple left the coconut and paddy fields of Kuliyapitiya village on a one-month visit visa after paying 300,000 Sri Lankan rupees (Dh6,373) to an agent who assured them of a job.

In August, the women in the villa were twice taken to an office that handled employment of maids.

The couple were eventually able to make their escape and flag a taxi, which dropped them at Rolla Square Park in Sharjah.

“We found cartons and slept on them. We were scared to sleep in the park at night, so we took turns to sleep for a few hours. People walking in the park gave us money to buy food, but one time for two days we had no money and no food,” Ms Sanjeewani said.

The Sri Lankans who discovered them alerted a welfare centre that organised food and accommodation for a week in Mirdif until their paperwork was processed by authorities.

Ms Sanjeewani’s story was corroborated by consular officials and volunteers.

She obtained an outpass from the Sri Lankan embassy, a document issued to people without a passport who wish to return to their country.

Because the couple’s visa had expired in September, they did not qualify for the UAE visa-­amnesty programme that covers infractions before August 1, 2018.

But after Sri Lankan authorities intervened on their behalf, overstay fines were waived and exit documents were granted by the immigration ­department.

Ms Sanjeewani and Mr Jayasurya were required to surrender to Al Wathba and Al Sweihan prisons, and were in jail for three and five days respectively before being deported.

Other amnesty seekers do not serve jail time and can leave the country with the exit pass once they show proof of an air ticket. The three-month amnesty ends on Wednesday.

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Read more:

UAE residents flock to Tasheel ahead of amnesty deadline

Visa amnesty offers UAE's 'runaway maids' hope for better life

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Chathura Weerasekera, head of the chancery at the Sri ­Lankan consulate, said any information on the unauthorised agents would be forwarded to UAE authorities.

“We are taking these cases very seriously. Whatever information we receive about the perpetrators we are providing this to the police in the UAE and in Sri ­Lanka,” said Mr Weerasekera.

George Hettiaratchy, who works with the Sri Lankan Welfare Association, said there were other cases of women brought in to work as housemaids.

“They are promised jobs, but come on visit visas. They are not paid and do not have the proper visa so they cannot leave the country. The case of the husband and wife sleeping in Rolla Park is a very sad situation. We are trying to find out who arranged their visas.”

Volunteers also raised about Dh2,600, which helped to pay for air tickets to Colombo.

Declining to give his name, a volunteer hoped this would raise awareness so others did not fall prey to rogue agents.

“This is the first time I have seen something like this in 22 years here,” said the volunteer, who helped find the couple shelter for a week.

“They were worried and helpless. The sad thing is they paid a lot of money to come here.”

Strict laws were announced by the UAE two years ago and fines levied by authorities on recruitment agencies that exploit workers including domestic workers and drivers.

The law details that placement agencies must be authorised by the government and complete contracts detailing the job description and wages.

In the trolley Ms Sanjeewani took back home, she had packed a few soaps and shampoos donated by volunteers.

“I will give this to my daughters. They will feel happy to get this,” she said.

Smiling through her tears, Ms Sanjeewani said she has not lost hope. The couple will work in Colombo to earn the money they need to repay relatives in the village.

“We cannot go back to our village. First we must make some money. Now we have nothing. We have a small plot of land, maybe we will need to sell it to pay the money. Slowly we hope it will get better.”