After surviving the brutality of the Sri Lankan civil war and its aftermath, 15 refugees face an uncertain future

SO desperate for clothing, they fashioned dresses from bed sheets, pulling out individual threads to use as cotton and improvising a needle from pins nailed to wooden crates. Men, women and children live in the searing desert heat in a camp used for unloading aluminium, where everyone else has a safety mask for protection against the metal dust. There’s only one bathroom for all of them and it’s impossible to sleep because of the noise of trucks arriving around the clock. These are survivors of a brutal civil war who’ve been locked up since October; a baby was even born during this time. Shockingly they’re in one of the wealthiest city-states in the world – Dubai. And they’ve also been recognised as refugees by the United Nations.

Far worse than the dreadful physical conditions is the uncertainty. Human rights groups have received assurances that the refugees are in no danger of deportation but they’re currently in limbo until a third country accepts them. This is little comfort to people for whom fear has become a constant companion. They allege they’ve been told they are to be re-interviewed and if their stories change they will be deported. “We live in constant fear that we would be sent back at any time,” explained one of the men contacted by clandestine mobile phones, which they are not allowed in the camp.

Several members of the group allege the Dubai police previously threatened them with forcible deportation if they refused to sign papers agreeing to go quietly. ‘If you are not going to sign, we will put you in chains and send you back,’ the refugees were reportedly told. They’re alarmed because six members of their group who were not accepted as refugees have already been deported.

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Human rights groups have confirmed the refugees are at risk of torture and persecution if sent home – three individuals say they were already tortured in Sri Lanka in 2011. News from relatives back home also suggests that the Sri Lankan authorities have already started tracking down family members and asking questions about the refugees.

The Tamils are the remainder of a larger group of 45 who boarded a boat in southern India heading for Australia. When the vessel broke down and started taking in water, they panicked that they were all going to drown and used the satellite phone on board to contact Australia. After five hours of drifting, they were saved by a ship in the area, the Singapore-registered Pinacle Bliss, which brought them to Dubai. Twenty-four refugees have been accepted by the United States, Sweden and Finland for settlement and one young man is technically stateless because he was born while his Sri Lankan mother was illegally in India and she’s no longer alive.

Talking to journalists abroad, one elderly man broke down in tears on the phone. The stories of escape are quite harrowing – one man who feared imminent arrest in India boarded the smuggling boat in such a rush he left behind one of his children: “The agent assured that if we get into the boat, the rest of the people who are also supposed to join us will bring my daughter. I trusted his word. So, I got into the boat with my wife and the youngest daughter. Until the boat left no one brought our daughter. My wife started to cry. At the same time, we could not go back as police were waiting”.

The couple had left their eldest child asleep and it haunted them to think how she must have felt when she awoke and found herself alone. For four hellish months they had no news. Then they learned she was being looked after by her uncle, also in India. Another man was separated from his wife while fleeing Sri Lanka for India. “It was terrible to get separated after surviving a massive war; I looked for her all these months without any success,” he explained. Only recently he learned that she was back in Sri Lanka but still didn’t dare return to his country.

Among the 15 is also a former Tamil Tiger TV presenter, Rathimohan Lokini, who has given interviews saying how terrified she is that she could be raped and killed like another well known colleague, Isapriya, who was identified among the half naked female bodies in trophy photographs taken by the victorious soldiers at the end of the war.

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Frances Harrison is a former BBC foreign correspondent based in Sri Lanka. Her book of accounts of survivors from Sri Lanka’s civil war “Still Counting the Dead” is available in good bookshops and online in ebook form by Portobello Books .