There is growing concern among rights activists that a group of Tamil refugees held in Dubai since October may soon be forced to return to their native Sri Lanka, where rights groups say they are at serious risk of being persecuted and tortured.
Nineteen refugees, including six women, say they were told by UAE authorities to leave the country by April 11.
They were among 46 Tamils who fled Sri Lanka in October, trying to reach Australia by boat. After running into trouble at sea, a Singaporean ship rescued them and brought them to Dubai.
The UNHCR has recognized 39 members of the group as refugees. Third-country resettlement has been found for all but the 19 thought to be at risk of deportation.
According to Human Rights Watch, Sri Lanka is alleged to torture Tamils with assumed links to the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), including failed asylum seekers.
The Sri Lankan government defeated the Tamil Tigers militarily in 2009 after three decades of conflict.
"We have documented the serious abuse of individuals with suspected ties to the LTTE in Sri Lanka. This includes serious physical and sexual abuse. The 19 refugees in Dubai are well aware of what may await them there and speaking to them, it was clear that the prospect of being returned to Sri Lanka had them terrified," said Nicholas McGeehan, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Lokini Rathimohan, a former journalist, says she decided to flee Sri Lanka after government soldiers killed several of her colleagues. She says she and the other refugees in Dubai fear they could meet a similar fate if they are forced to return.
"The situation is a very, very big problem. We are afraid, very afraid," she said.
The refugees say they are being kept together in a single room at Dubai’s Jebel Ali Port and have minimal contact with the outside world. According to Rathimohan, they were given no further information after being told they must leave Dubai and are uncertain about their future.
"No final result [was given] to me. What will happen to our cases, I don’t know," said Rathimohan.
Authorities in the UAE did not reply to repeated requests for an interview.
The UNHCR says it continues to search for third-country resettlement for the remaining refugees and that it was unaware of any deadline in place.
"UNHCR has not learned anything about recognized refugees that have been asked to leave, but on UNHCR’s request they [UAE authorities] have been quite supportive in terms of admitting this group and also allowing them to stay," said Babar Baloch, a UNHCR communications officer in Geneva.
The UAE has not ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, however rights campaigners argue the country is obliged under customary international refugee law to keep the Tamils until they are resettled in a safe environment.