The Gulf work trap that brought tragedy to an entire family
Holed up in an apartment on the seventh floor of a tower block in Sharjah, the family of five desperate Sri Lankans were racking up debts and disquiet at an alarming rate.
Unable to pay fines that had been mounting daily since their visas expired four years earlier, they felt trapped. The father’s passport had been withheld by an employer, which meant the 55-year-old could neither find work in the United Arab Emirates nor leave the wealthy Gulf state to seek employment elsewhere.
The tragedy that unfolded from there demonstrates how kafala, a “slave-like” system that binds a worker to their employer, can push migrant families to breaking point.
When the father lost his job as a jewellery designer in 2013, the family had no one to sponsor their continued stay in the UAE and therefore became illegal residents.
The resulting fines, imposed on each family member, mounted rapidly. Before long, they owed £36,000 – in addition to the loans the father had taken out simply to enable the family to survive.
Tragically, on 26 August, the couple’s only son, 19, died at home during an epileptic fit. The family were so terrified of being discovered that they decided not to report the death to police or hand his body over for burial.
Distraught at the loss of his only son – the family’s only other potential breadwinner – the father gathered together his wife and daughters to discuss what to do. He offered to give himself up, which would mean going to jail, but his wife said she would kill herself if that happened.
How far the daughters, aged 17 and 27, agreed to what happened next is the subject of dispute. What is clear, however, is that the family entered into a suicide pact. The father wrote a full-page note saying it was “nobody’s fault” and that the family’s decision to end their lives was theirs alone.
When the first attempt failed, the father sold his wife’s gold bracelet and used the money to buy a large amount of alcohol. By midnight, everyone was drunk on spirits. The father slashed the wrists of his 54-year-old wife,who bled to death in his arms, as well as his daughters. Blaming himself for what he had brought upon his family, he then threw himself to his death from the apartment balcony.
The girls were later found “drunk and bleeding” next to their dead mother. Nearby was the son’s body, covered with a sheet.
As they were rushed by ambulance to the al-Kuwaiti hospital before being transferred to the Ibrahim Hamad Obaidalla hospital in Ras al-Khaimah, an investigation was launched.
It emerged that the father had left Sri Lanka with his family 20 years earlier, initially working in Saudi Arabia before moving to the UAE.
“It was all going well and he was able to raise his family,” said Charitha Yattogoda, Sri Lanka’s consul general in Dubai. “But in 2013 he lost his job. He was a jewellery designer and there were a lot of computer-based jewellery designers coming along. That was one of the reasons he could not find work.
“Without settling all his debts it was not possible for him to leave the country. He also had no passport.”
Under Islamic law, the two sisters now face potential charges of attempting suicide and living illegally in the UAE.
Upul Gamage, president of the Sri Lanka Welfare Association, said: “According to what I’ve heard, their punishment will most probably be caning and blacklisting and deporting.”
But Yattogoda believes the courts will show mercy and allow the girls to return to Sri Lanka, where an uncle and their grandmother have offered to look after them. He believes the parents coerced the girls into suicide.
Nisha Varia, of Human Rights Watch, said: “The restrictive kafala system can trap migrant workers in a vulnerable situation, especially if have they lost their valid immigration status after fleeing an abusive employer.
“Those who have overstayed their visa face hefty fines, deportation, and potentially a few months in prison if they cannot pay the fines.”