x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Detainees kept in dark about nature of disease

Expat returns for 'another check-up' and is locked in room, as UAE's HIV deportation policy is criticised.

For the past month, a building known as the isolation ward has been vacant; a heavy metal padlock around the door handle prevents anyone from entering. A few hundred metres away on the grounds of the Al Baraha Hospital, some patients are being housed in a new facility - but many are unaware of what is wrong with them or when they will be able to leave.

They have all tested positive for an infectious disease under the Government's policy of checking expatriates for a range of conditions before granting them residency visas. A private security firm now guards the new facility 24 hours a day after having taken over from Dubai Police a few months ago. Among those being held was Hezron Mwagli, 32, who, after being detained for nearly a month, was finally sent back to Kenya last week. He told a tale repeated by many others at Al Baraha: after undergoing mandatory blood tests he was asked to return to the hospital several days later for another check-up and was detained.

"They told me that I was going for an X-ray, and then just shoved me in this room and locked the door," he said before he was released and deported. "If you don't have someone outside, no one will help you." Mr Mwagli came to the UAE three months ago to join his father, who works as a long-haul driver across the GCC. He was looking for a job, but in the interim managed to find a company to sponsor him - at great expense to his family.

Newton Mwagli, his father, was working in Kuwait when he found out that Hezron was being held. The company sponsoring Mr Mwagli did nothing in his father's absence, leaving him to languish inside the holding facility, unaware of what was happening. "My aim was just to work here. No one has told me what is wrong with me, just that I had something wrong with my blood," said Mr Mwagli, who is married and has a four-year-old son in Kenya. "Since then, I have not even seen a doctor. It is so difficult inside here, I have too much stress."

He described the new facility at Al Baraha as clean with bunk beds, but said each person was given only one sheet. Newton Mwagli was able to secure his son's release, but said he would encourage him to undergo another medical when he got back to Kenya. "It is strange because he had a medical before he left Kenya, but nothing came up," he said. "Now I don't know what he's going to do. I am really worried about him."

After being in the UAE for only two months, Kasha, another Kenyan, was held in the old isolation facility for 10 days before being deported in mid-October. "I thought I was going to see another doctor, but they brought me to this place," said Kasha, who came to Dubai to work in the tourism sector. "I asked the security guards what the problem was and they said just go through the metal door and the doctor will come. They wouldn't even let me see my report."

Once inside, Kasha said his fellow detainees explained he was in the "deportation centre", but beyond that he received no official explanation of what was happening. "I feel so frustrated and it is very inhuman," said the father of two. "No one has told me what is wrong and I don't think I am sick, but I am getting mentally stressed." Many of the other detainees also said they did not know why they were being held. They were told they were sick, but many said they were not given specifics about their disease or proof. Some questioned whether they were even ill.

According to Dr Ali Shaker, the Ministry of Health's undersecretary, some people are held for extended periods because of the time taken for their sponsors to cancel their visas. Dr Mustafa al Hashimi, the director of preventative medicine at the ministry, said all of the patients were being provided with "appropriate medical services and health education". However, several inmates said visits from doctors were few and far between.

Many of the people who land inside are from the Indian subcontinent or Africa, but westerners have been detained as well. Manish Gupta, a 24-year-old engineer from India arrived to take up a new job in Dubai over the summer. Just a month later, he was detained for two weeks. "I am in heavy shock about what has happened to me," he said before he was deported. "I have committed no crime, so why am I in jail? I have suffered a lot of things, but I want to talk about it because I don't want someone else to go through this.

"Inside here, one minute is like one year. I cannot explain how hard it is. ... We feel helpless." Mr Gupta, who is unmarried, was shown a medical report confirming his HIV-positive status. He asked to be retested, but claimed his request was denied. However, Dr Shaker said retesting was "routinely" done for all "borderline cases". There are at least 540 Emiratis currently suffering from HIV/Aids, according to MoH figures. Officials claim that deporting infected migrants has curtailed the spread of the disease.

In July, the UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO), called on Gulf countries to stop discriminating against those with HIV/Aids, particularly migrant workers. HIV and International Labour Migration, a policy brief released by the ILO, UNAIDS and the International Organisation for Migration, called on officials to "ensure there is no discrimination on the grounds of HIV status in the context of entry requirements, immigration, employment or reintegration procedures".

The report described the policy of deportation because of HIV status as "discriminatory and unwarranted". The UAE is among more than 60 countries that restrict HIV-positive people from entering or remaining in the country, according to the document. Susan Timberlake, a senior human rights and law adviser for UNAIDS, said that, from a public health perspective, placing someone in detention solely on the basis they are HIV positive was unfair.

"There is no justification for the deportation of people living with HIV on the basis of positive HIV status alone," said Ms Timberlake, adding that "due regard" should be taken to provide treatment pending deportation. zconstantine@thenational.ae