Emirates Humanitarian City: a refugee prison complex?

February 22, 2024

MENA Rights Group expresses deep concern over reported human rights violations against Afghan refugees who have been stuck in the "Emirates Humanitarian City" since August 2021.

New Delhi, India-Aug 24 2021: Afghan women holding placard protesting outside at UNHCR demanding to be given refugee status in India or other country. © PradeepGaurs, licensed under Shutterstock.

MENA Rights Group is highly concerned about reported human rights issues arising from the so-called “Emirates Humanitarian City” (EHC), where significant Afghan refugee populations have been stuck for almost two years.

In the context of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, more than 120,000 Afghans were flown out of Afghanistan. Thousands were evacuated to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Following their arrival, they were transferred to the Emirates Humanitarian City and Tasameem Workers City (TWC) pending onward movement.

This was intended to be a temporary measure, so that processing procedures could be completed before long-term resettlement in the United States (US) and Canada. While many were resettled, as of March 2023, between 2,100 and 2,700 refugees have been stuck in limbo. What was initially meant to be a short-term stay in the UAE transformed into an almost two-year-long period of detention. This situation presents several human rights concerns, as reported by Human Rights Watch and the Global Detention Project in March 2023.

Inside EHC, refugees’ rights to privacy and freedom of movement have reportedly been violated. According to testimonies, they are constantly subjected to surveillance, prohibited from leaving the premises absent extreme circumstances, and their movement is restricted within the confines of the EHC. With few exceptions, surveillance cameras are reportedly everywhere and private guards are reportedly posted at every building.

According to testimonies, refugees are not allowed to receive visitors in EHC, consequently isolating them from the outside world. Outsiders’ access to EHC is limited and difficult. Many Afghan nationals in EHC claim they cannot receive visitors, with some sharing their family members were not allowed inside. 

Refugees in EHC are also unable to access adequate medical and psychological care, as the compound has only one health clinic that often refuses or cannot conduct diagnostic tests needed to treat detainees. Medical experts reviewing collected testimonies and limited medical records available have deemed the medical care grossly inadequate and were alarmed that Afghans are often denied permission to obtain off-site medical attention when needed.

Individuals inside EHC reportedly cannot obtain appropriate medication; the clinic typically treats most illnesses with painkillers and without diagnosing underlying issues. While some families say there is a psychologist or psychiatrist in the health clinic, many families claim that when they tried seeking help from the mental healthcare providers, none were available.

MENA Rights Group filed a request for opinion on behalf of one of the detainees, in collaboration with private attorney Marissa Jaime Priceman, to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The complainant, Nour Tahiri (whose name has been changed), arrived at EHC with their family in September 2021. We argue that Tahiri’s detention, like that of many other Afghan refugees in the EHC, is arbitrary.

We also submit that both the UAE and the U.S. are responsible for their detention. Tahiri’s deprivation of liberty has no legal basis under U.S. or Emirati law. The responsibility over their transportation and detention was and continues to be held by U.S. private entities and a non-judicial branch of the UAE government, without involvement from a judge or other judicial authority. Their detention has not undergone automatic or regular judicial reviews to ensure its adherence to standards of necessity, proportionality or legality.

Furthermore, it appears that Tahiri will not be released until the U.S. finishes processing their case, thereby subjecting them to a prolonged and indefinite period of administrative detention. It must be recalled that international human rights standards require administrative detention to be temporary, such that it is strictly limited to a “brief” period and lasts the shortest possible time.

In submitting this request for an opinion, we call on both the UAE and the U.S. to take the necessary steps to address Afghan refugees' detention conditions and ensure all individuals in EHC receive appropriate medical and psychological care. Furthermore, we call on them to review the detention of individuals, including Tahiri, to remedy their situation by immediately releasing them and allowing them to seek asylum and resettle in the U.S. and/or Canada, as promised.

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