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The maid slaves: how wealthy visitors to Britain trap servants in their homes

Each year 17,000 domestic workers accompany wealthy families to the UK – helped by a special visa regime that campaigners call a “recipe for slavery”.

It was 6am on 15 August 2014. Amara should have escaped an hour earlier; she was running out of time. Had everything gone to plan it would have been easy to slip out of the house in the affluent Home Counties town of Ascot unnoticed, as her employers were away, but Amara had made a misjudgement. She had asked her fellow maid if she wanted to flee, too, and now her terrified colleague was threatening to call their boss, an Emirati diplomat, and inform on her.

A Facebook message popped up on her tablet: she had five minutes until her rescuer would give up and drive home, leaving her stranded. Amara would have to abandon her suitcase. She tucked her most precious possessions – a photocopy of her passport, her employment contract and her tablet – down the front of her pyjamas. Then she sneaked downstairs and out through the front door.

Her friend’s car was parked a few hundred metres down the road. Amara jumped in and they sped past the gated houses and through the tree-lined lanes of Ascot towards London, not quite 30 miles away. Amara felt a rush of elation, followed by the familiar pang of apprehension. After almost a year in captivity she was free, but she had nothing. No money, no plan, not even – and this was the small, humiliating detail she would always mention when she later told her story – a change of underwear. It was the end of ten months of “hell”, labouring under slave-like conditions as a domestic worker, and the start of a new ordeal as an undocumented migrant in the UK.

Amara is 40 years old and about 5ft tall. She used to be chubby but she never regained the weight she lost eating only her employer’s leftovers, and now her waist looks tiny in her belted trench coat. She dresses with care, her long hair set in soft 1950s waves one day and worn straight the next, with a smudge of grey eyeshadow and a slick of berry lipstick to match her handbag. Out of habit, and a residual fear of being caught and deported, she mostly speaks in a whisper. When we met in London in October, Amara asked that, for her safety, I give a false name and not reveal her nationality.

She grew up in south-east Asia, one of six siblings supported by money sent home each month by her mother, who had migrated to Macau, a wealthy special administrative region of China, to clean for rich families. After leaving school, she studied pharmacy at a prestigious private university, then transferred to a cheaper midwifery course when the fees became unaffordable. It was hard to find work as a midwife. It was often difficult to find any job, but sometimes she worked as a secretary. Her husband, a van driver, was often unemployed, too.

They had three children and lived with her in-laws to save money. Amara says they were neither rich nor poor, by which she means they could afford three meals a day but little else. When her son was about to turn 16, she realised that the only way she could afford to pay his college fees was to work abroad. (Her two daughters were 13 and six.) Amara’s mother warned her that the life of a domestic worker was brutal, but she shrugged off such concerns. “I said that, for me, if you just think of your children, everything will be easy. You can do anything for your children.” Now ­Amara concedes that she was only half right. Sometimes, thoughts of her children were the only thing that kept her going.

Things looked promising initially. She can’t remember exactly how much, but she had paid several thousand dollars to an ­employment agency for her medical clearances and to complete a training course in domestic work. She and her family were thrilled when she was offered a post at a royal palace in the United Arab Emirates, and even more so when her employers pushed back her start date by a month but paid her anyway. To celebrate her first monthly pay cheque of 1,600 dirhams (about £350), ­Amara took her children to their favourite restaurant, McDonald’s.

When she finally left her home country in September 2013, her husband and children accompanied her to the airport. The children were distracted by the promise of another McDonald’s meal on the way home, and Amara’s sadness at saying goodbye was tempered by the excitement of her first ever plane journey and the feeling that her plans were finally working out.

The flight landed in Dubai at 4am, and Amara and another maid were met by a driver. As soon as they were in the car, the driver took away their passports. Then he drove them to their temporary lodgings, where they were shown to a room with a double bed, a television and a small bathroom. There were security guards stationed at the entrance to the building who barred the two maids from going outside. Their lack of freedom seemed strange, but they were comfortable enough. Someone delivered three meals a day, and they spent their time watching television and thinking, over and over again, “We’re so lucky!”

After four days, Amara was taken to her employer’s home. It was not, as she’d been expecting from her contract, a royal household, but even so she’d never seen anywhere so grand. “It’s like a palace,” she says of her boss’s home. There were two vast rooms for entertaining, decorated with gold furnishings. Upstairs were five large bedroom suites, each with its own bathroom and reception area. A swimming pool was being dug outside. Amara thought the garden was enormous: whichever window she looked out of she could not see where the landscaped lawn ended and the rest of Dubai began. But she could not be certain – because for the ten months she lived with the family in the United Arab Emirates she was forbidden from going outside.

“Sometimes people think that if you’re living in a huge, nice house, even if you’re a household worker you’re lucky, because your employers are rich. But they don’t know what’s happening inside the house,” she told me.

Usually she worked from 6am until 1am or 2am. Even after she had gone to sleep, on the bare floor of the servants’ quarters, she would often be shouted for to fetch a glass of water or run some other errand, and so Amara started wearing her uniform through the night. Once a month, a driver was despatched to buy phone cards and the household staff were allowed to call their families to confirm that their salaries had been remitted; but otherwise she could not speak to her husband or children.

The abuse grew steadily worse, particularly after another servant was taken away by the police and sent home under mysterious circumstances. Her boss, whom Amara still calls “Madam”, started cutting down on the number of meals the remaining two maids were given, until eventually they received no food at all and had to scavenge the leftovers from the family’s dinners. Madam began cutting Amara’s salary as punishment for the smallest infractions, and after nine months she stopped paying her. When Madam’s husband was home he was a moderating influence and Madam would speak to Amara politely and without raising her voice, but he travelled often. In his absence, Madam’s moods grew increasingly volatile. She shouted at Amara, hit her and threw clothes and drinking glasses at her.

When Amara was told in the summer of 2014 that she was accompanying the ­family to the UK, she prayed that her visa would be rejected so that she would be able to stay behind and get some rest. But at the last minute her paperwork came through and Amara accompanied the family on a private jet to London.

***

In 2015, the UK granted 17,352 visas for domestic workers – cleaners, nannies, drivers, cooks, and so on – to accompany wealthy families visiting the UK. The largest number of domestic workers, more than 8,000, were originally from the Philippines, followed by Indians and Indonesians. According to the Home ­Office, roughly three-quarters of them were working for households from the Gulf, which often travel to Britain for business, shopping and medical treatment, or to escape the Middle East’s sweltering summer heat.

Until 2012, household staff were granted visa terms similar to those for other migrant workers: they were allowed to change employer, but not job sector; they could be accompanied by their partner or children; and after five years in the UK they were permitted to apply for indefinite leave to ­remain, meaning they could settle in Britain permanently.

But five years ago, the coalition government introduced new regulations for overseas domestic workers (ODWs), ostensibly to try to reduce net migration. A 2012 Home Office impact-assessment document mooted the idea of abolishing the ODW visa altogether, so that visiting families would have to recruit household staff from within the UK.

Families might want to bring their domestic staff with them for benign reasons, such as their children being attached to their nanny. But sometimes employers choose to hire servants overseas because British workers would never accept the gruelling conditions under which they work. This, at least, was the conclusion drawn by one employment tribunal in 2015, which ruled in favour of an Indian maid who took legal action against her bosses over religious discrimination, unfair dismissal and illegal working conditions. The tribunal concluded that the only reason the employers had made no effort to recruit a maid in Britain was that they “wanted a servant in the Indian style. They wanted someone who would be not merely of service but servile, who would not be aware of United Kingdom employment rights . . .”

The ODW visa was not scrapped; the Home Office document expressed concern that doing so could “deter wealthy visitors” to the UK. (The US and a number of European countries also have special visa schemes for domestic workers accompanying visiting families, but the rules vary.) Instead, under a new system introduced in April 2012, ODWs were permitted to stay in the UK for no longer than six months. They could not be accompanied by their immediate family or apply for indefinite leave to remain. And, crucially, they were prevented from changing employer.

For domestic workers employed by Gulf households the new rules were familiar: they mirrored the widely criticised kafala, or sponsorship, system, which is common among the oil-rich Arab states. Kafala, which prevents migrant workers from leaving abusive employers without losing the right to work, has contributed to the widespread abuse and exploitation of financially desperate labourers and domestic workers across the region. No migrant workers in the UK other than ODWs faced such restrictions. In October, I met Father Aodh O’Halpin, a missionary now based in London who has campaigned for domestic workers’ rights for decades. He described the UK’s ODW visa rules as “a recipe for slavery”.

The change of rules had an alarming and almost immediate effect. Research by Kalayaan, a small London-based charity that supports overseas domestic workers in the UK, suggests that rates of abuse shot up. Among workers who registered with the charity between 2012 and 2015, 81 per cent of those on the new tied visas were given no time off, against 66 per cent of those still on the old system. Two-thirds of workers on tied visas were barred from leaving the house freely (against 41 per cent with non-tied visas), more than 30 per cent were not paid for their work (against 11 per cent) and 14 per cent reported physical abuse (against 9 per cent). Kalayaan staff identified 64 per cent of the ODWs on tied visas as victims of trafficking, meaning that their employers forced or coerced them into coming to the UK with the intention of exploiting them.

Even so, those campaigning for domestic worker rights in 2015 had some cause for optimism. The new ODW visa had a negligible impact on migration numbers. This was unsurprising, as even at their peak in 2012 ODWs and their dependants accounted for just 0.7 per cent of net migration. More significantly, the Conservative government had pledged to give priority to the abolition of modern slavery and human trafficking. In March 2015 parliament passed the landmark Modern Slavery Act, and the government committed to an independent review of the ODW visa to determine if its immigration rules were compatible with efforts to tackle slavery.

The review, by James Ewins QC, was published in December 2015 and its findings were unambiguous. “The existence of a tie to a specific employer and the absence of a universal right to change employer and apply for extensions of the visa are incompatible with the reasonable protection of overseas domestic workers while in the UK,” he concluded. He recommended that household workers be allowed to change employers freely and extend their visas for up to two and a half years, a period he described as the “minimum” required. Abused domestic workers “need the freedom to change employment, which in turn requires that they stay for long enough to be able to find safe alternative employment”, Ewins wrote.

Yet the subsequent bill for the Immigration Act 2016 rejected many of Ewins’s recommendations. It granted ODWs the right to change employer, but did not allow them to extend their visa beyond six months. Campaigners argue that this concession is meaningless, because once abused workers have summoned up the courage and the means to leave their employers, most will find it impossible to find decent, short-term work before their visa expires.

I asked the Home Office to respond to these points. A spokesman said the government was introducing additional reforms to protect ODWs, including mandatory information sessions to inform workers of their rights, and pointed to special provisions and support for victims of slavery and human trafficking.

Under the new act, ODWs who are identified as having been enslaved or trafficked – a decision that follows a long and arduous process, known as the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – can be granted a visa of up to two years, provided they can prove they are able to support themselves financially in the UK. Ewins’s report and rights campaigners have argued that this does not do enough to protect domestic workers.

For a start, many forms of abuse commonly experienced by household staff fall short of legal definitions of trafficking or slavery. “Do we need to be raped, to be beaten, to be starved to death to access protection?” Marissa Begonia, an overseas domestic worker from the Philippines and a rights campaigner, asked me.

Second, many abused domestic workers are fearful of seeking referral to the NRM. They know that if their claim is rejected they will be sent home. Emily-Anna Gibbs is a solicitor and co-founder of the independent Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU), and often represents domestic workers. She told me that the NRM “provides no escape clause for the thousands of overseas domestic workers who are trafficked and are faced with the choice: do I escape and take a load of risk ­going through the NRM, which I know very little about, getting legal advice which I fear I won’t understand and risking my livelihood? Do I take that risk? Or do I sit tight, suffer this exploitation, continue to do so because I have to pay the school fees for my kids’ education next month?” As a result, she believes, many domestic workers continue to suffer in secret.

All the advocacy groups and lawyers I spoke to agreed that the best way to protect domestic workers from being enslaved or trafficked, and the only way to empower them to flee abuse, is to allow them to extend their visas and switch employers freely. “It’s about the power relations: they can negotiate, because they can ultimately withdraw their labour,” said Kate Roberts, the head of the Human Trafficking Foundation. “If they can’t do that, there’s very little they can do to challenge any mistreatment, which can worsen until it reaches the point of exploitation – including slavery.”

***

At UK immigration control, Amara saw her passport for the last time. Her boss handed it to her in the customs queue, and then confiscated it again shortly afterwards. From the airport, she travelled with the family to the house in Ascot. No one told her where she was going, so she became disorientated. Madam’s ten-year-old asked Amara where she thought she was and then laughed when Amara replied: “London.” “We’re not in London, stupid. We’re in England,” the girl said.

In Ascot, Amara shared a bedroom with the other maid. The room, which had two single beds and an en suite shower, doubled as a laundry room and extra storage space for the family. Despite the slight improvement in her sleeping arrangements, Amara’s working conditions deteriorated. The family preferred staying in a central London hotel to being at their Ascot residence, so Amara would often clean the house in the morning before being driven to the hotel to wash and iron her bosses’ clothes, returning late at night. She was not paid, and still could not contact her family.

Madam’s behaviour became more menacing. She became convinced that Amara was a witch. “She says she got ill just because I looked at her food. She said, ‘You will pay for this. You will pay for everything you’ve done to me when we get back to Dubai,’” Amara told me. Afraid that Madam might seriously hurt, or even kill, her, she began planning her escape. She had been working for the family in England for 15 days and knew she had a week until they were due to return to the UAE.

Amara was able to run away thanks to a few bits of luck. The first was that before her household colleague in Dubai was sent home, she gave Amara her tablet computer and instructed her to hide it. The second was that Amara decided to risk asking one of Madam’s daughters for the wifi password at the Ascot house, even though she was “99.9 per cent certain” the teenager would not give it to her. The gamble paid off.

When her employers were staying in London it was not hard for Amara to leave the house, but with no money, no passport and no idea of where to go next she knew she couldn’t get far on her own. Her final stroke of good fortune was that she knew one person in the UK, an old friend from her home country who was working as an undocumented domestic worker in London and whom she contacted on Facebook. As Amara was still not sure where she lived, the friend instructed her to memorise the road signs when she was driven from London to her employer’s house, which she did.

After picking her up early that summer morning in 2014, the friend let Amara stay with her for a month, lent her clothes and helped her find part-time, casual work, often covering for other people’s sick leave or holidays.

Amara’s former employers appear not to have tried to track her down. A few months after leaving, she managed to get in touch with the maid who had worked with her in Ascot. She was surprised to hear from Amara, because she had been told by Madam that she was in prison. That woman is still working for the family in Dubai.

For over two years, Amara managed to scrape a living in London. As cleaning work was poorly paid and the hours unpredictable, she taught herself cake-making and sugarcraft by watching YouTube videos and began supplementing her income by selling cakes. She showed me pictures on her phone of some of her past creations: a Thomas the Tank Engine birthday cake; a sponge expertly decorated with an icing baby for a new arrival; another cake draped in a sweet Australian flag for a leaving party. Now that she is able to, she calls her husband and children daily and although, at ten, her youngest is too old for lullabies, Amara sings to her every night before she goes to bed. In her absence, her husband and her in-laws have been raising her children. She has not seen them since they waved goodbye to her at the airport, three and a half years ago.

Amara imposed a strict budget on herself, spending no more than £10 to £20 a week on food, toiletries and clothes, which allowed her to send roughly £200 a month back home. Her family had no idea how dearly Amara paid for these monthly remittances. To avoid upsetting or worrying them, she has never told them that she was abused, that she ran away from her employer, or that she is now undocumented.

Amara might have continued living underground in London indefinitely, ­devoting herself wholly to her family and hoping that with enough hard work she could distract herself from the gnawing fear of being caught and expelled from the UK. But a few weeks before we met, a shock event toppled her precarious new equilibrium. The boarding house in which her rescuer and friend was living was raided by the UK Border Agency, and her closest confidante was deported. Heartbroken and shaken, Amara realised she needed to address her legal status before she suffered the same misfortune.

***

Abused domestic servants do not fit the popular image of slavery. They sometimes arrive in the UK in private jets, and are chauffeured to elegant townhouses in Mayfair, diplomatic residences, sprawling country piles or five-star hotels. The domestic worker and campaigner Marissa Begonia described some of her experiences to me as being “caged in paradise”.

Domestic workers are often hidden in plain sight. Many of them gather every Sunday morning at the union offices of Unite in central London for a meeting of Justice for Domestic Workers, or J4DW – a campaign group that often starts its sessions with a singing and aerobics class to shake off another exhausting week’s work.

On the morning I attended, the first arrivals pushed the chairs and tables against the walls of a conference room, muttering about the bad habits of “corporates” as they efficiently cleared the dance floor of sugar sachets and scraps of notepaper. One woman rushed to change out of her uniform, having just finished an early-morning shift, and the others began stretching to upbeat pop music. The mood lifted quickly, rising to defiance when the group practised a song that I initially mistook as a straight rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”, until I caught the lyrics:

 

At first I was afraid, I was petrified

Hiding and running from it all, justice not on my side

But then I spent so many nights, thinking how they did me wrong

So I grew strong,

I learned how to move along.

Then I found you, a group of hope . . .

 

J4DW was founded in 2009 and is run by domestic workers, many of whom spend their only day off volunteering for the group. It is lobbying the government to change British visa regulations and offers its membership of more than 1,200 workers a range of support services, pointing them towards legal advice, providing courses in IT, English and employment rights, and occasionally organising rescue missions for those held captive by abusive employers.

Its weekly gatherings offer an opportunity for people living far from home, in a country whose language they might barely speak, to make friends. Even for those who are treated well by their employers, life is tough. Women spoke to me about unfaithful husbands and marriages strained by years spent apart, or their feelings of guilt and sadness at raising other people’s babies while their own children grew up without them.

Even so, the atmosphere at the meetings is warm, friendly and stubbornly optimistic. One woman cried as she shared the news of her recent cancer diagnosis, and a group closed around her to urge her to stay positive, to keep praying and to speak to another member who had proudly described herself to me earlier as a “Stage IV cancer survivor”. Amara first visited J4DW days after her friend was deported. “They gave me my confidence back,” she said.

Marissa Begonia, the 46-year-old mother-of-three who is also J4DW’s co-ordinator, seemed subdued when we first met. “I Will Survive” rehearsals could be heard ­taking place in the neighbouring room as she coached Sarah (not her real name) for a job interview. Together, they hunched over ­Begonia’s smartphone to plan the journey to the interview, then she instructed Sarah on how to negotiate reasonable working conditions by demanding holidays and days off, overtime pay, a daily rest period and a wage of at least £8 an hour.

Sarah, a Filipina, was staying temporarily with Begonia, having been rescued by a group of J4DW members from a house in Kensington, central London, a few weeks earlier. She is 36 years old but looks and sounds much younger, with a high, hesitant voice and a permanent uncertain smile. At a playground in Hyde Park she had met and befriended a J4DW member, who put her in touch with the group on Facebook after Sarah confided that she was earning just $400 (about £320) a month and working around the clock, with no days off. She had no winter clothes and because her employers rarely provided her with food, she subsisted mainly on coffee and the occasional biscuit. She described her travel to the UK from Dubai as a “suicide run”: her salary was too low to support her family, but what else could she do?

Despite her ordeal, Sarah believed that she was unlikely to be recognised as a victim of trafficking and did not want to be referred to the NRM in case her claim was rejected and she was deported. Her six-month visa would expire in two months, but she did not feel she could go back to the Philippines yet. She still needed to save enough capital for her siblings to start their own small business and for their children to go to college. As she saw it, her only option was to work in the UK illegally.

After Sarah left for her interview, Begonia sighed and told me that she was unlikely to heed her advice. She thought that Sarah, like many other ODWs, would be desperate to accept any work offered, and employers often realise that undocumented workers are unlikely to complain if they are exploited. Begonia was right. In the end, Sarah was offered £350 a week to work 15-hour days cooking, cleaning and looking after two children. She would have Sundays off, but would not receive holiday pay. Even if the employers, a Pakistani family living in London, stuck to the agreement and did not extend her working hours, she would in effect be paid £3.88 an hour (the minimum wage is £7.20). “I hope they don’t treat me like a robot,” Sarah said to me, when we met again a few hours after her interview.

J4DW’s members are almost all women, but they follow many different religions and are ethnically diverse. A large number are from the Philippines, but some are from other countries in south-east Asia, or sub-Saharan Africa. Some have been in the UK for years and now have British citizenship; others are working illegally. Many have harrowing stories to tell of abuse and ill-treatment, and although the details vary they are linked by a common thread: every woman had torn herself away from her loved ones in the hope of giving them a better life, and no amount of hardship had persuaded them to abandon that goal.

Begonia was no exception. She was exhausted. Sundays were her only full day off, and because her employers had a new baby she had started working 12-hour days. She would normally have contested this change, but her father had heart problems and while she had to worry about his medical bills she could not afford to risk her job.

She was used to having to pick her battles, even if that wasn’t something that came easily to her. She described herself as a “natural fighter”. She told me the story of how an employer in Hong Kong had attempted to sexually assault her. Begonia managed to escape to her room and barricaded herself in while she packed her belongings and wrote her resignation letter. Then she crept outside to hide all the kitchen knives bar one. “He’s big, and I’m so tiny. I give the resignation letter and my knife is like this,” she said, holding up an imaginary weapon. “I said, ‘Sir, I’m resigning with effect today because you’re a sex maniac.’”

Begonia first arrived in the UK in 2004, and five years later, having escaped from an abusive employer, she helped found J4DW. Her children now live with her in the UK and she has acquired British citizenship. She has been the group’s co-ordinator since 2012, and some of its members call her “auntie” as a mark of respect. She spends much of her time offering practical help for other workers, arranging donations of clothes for women in need, liaising with the police and angry ex-employers and, sometimes, hammering on strangers’ doors to extract servants trapped inside. She has also represented the group in parliament and at party conferences, and often speaks at forums for international workers. Begonia wants domestic workers to appreciate the bigger picture and to join her in seeking greater social and political recognition for those who are in their situation.

“We look after families, the building blocks of society,” she said, but people “don’t value domestic work as work and they don’t really respect domestic workers as workers”. She urges J4DW members to view their struggle as part of a broader fight against low pay and poverty in the UK. At one meeting she encouraged the women to see the recent Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake to help them understand the problems faced by “vulnerable British workers”. “We are affected if British workers are affected,” she told the group.

As Begonia described her mission to me she grew more animated, her tiredness ­temporarily displaced by anger and frustration. Abused domestic workers have so few avenues for legal redress that J4DW can rarely offer much more than emergency ­assistance, moral support and help with finding new work.

She wants to give members of J4DW the confidence to join demonstrations and speak out in public, and many of them do – if they can. Yet domestic workers who have overstayed their visa, or who are stuck in exploitative jobs, cannot campaign for their own rights.

Begonia says that when she speaks in public she often reminds her audience of this, telling them: “I am a perfect example of how slavery could end. It has to end; it will end. But domestic workers need these rights. That’s what I had.”

***

The day after her friend’s boarding house was raided and she was deported, Amara visited Kalayaan. The charity determined that her trafficking case was sufficiently strong to refer her to the National Referral Mechanism. She is now waiting for a “conclusive grounds decision”, which would determine whether she can be formally recognised as a victim of trafficking and might thereby be eligible for a two-year visa. If her trafficking claim is rejected, she will have to leave the UK.

Amara does not know how long she will have to wait: according to Kate Roberts of the Human Trafficking Foundation, those referred to the NRM can be left waiting for anything between 45 days and several years for a decision. Nor does Amara know how good her chance of success is. The government does not publish data on the number of overseas domestic workers who are referred to the NRM and are formally recognised as victims of trafficking.

Amara has little grounds for hope that her former employers will ever be brought to justice. As diplomats, they are immune from criminal jurisdiction. In February 2015 a Filipina national identified in court documents as Ms C Reyes, who had been trafficked to the UK by Saudi diplomats, took her former employers to a tribunal, claiming racial discrimination, harassment and payment of less than the minimum wage. She lost the case. The Court of Appeal judgment acknowledged that “this may seem unfair to Ms Reyes”, but, it argued, “sometimes the apparent unfairness to an individual is outweighed by the harm that would be caused by a failure to give effect to diplomatic immunity in circumstances such as those that have arisen in this case”. (The case is under appeal at the Supreme Court, and will be heard in May.)

While she is under the NRM, Amara cannot be deported, which she considers a small relief. To distract herself from the agonising wait, she is spending as much time as possible at J4DW. She often participates in the singing and dancing sessions, and takes English and IT classes – anything to keep busy. When she speaks to her family on FaceTime every evening, her ten-year-old daughter becomes tearful and asks when she is going to come home. Amara warns her that it could be a little while yet.

“I’m praying the Home Office will give a positive conclusion so I can apply for a two-year visa,” she said. “I don’t want to stay here for ten years. What I want is to be here for two years, just so I can save. So at least I can have something when I get back to my house.”

Sophie McBain is an NS contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in New York. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine

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As one of Abu Dhabi’s unofficial citizens, when will I get to call my country home?

Abu Dhabi is my home and it is where I come from, despite the utter illegality of my claim. 

The United Arab Emirates tends to lure three types of Western scribblers to its shores. First off the plane are the well-heeled jingoists, many of whom hardly ever seem to leave Abu Dhabi or Dubai's airports and hotels. Despite the oppressive heat, these intrepid correspondents take to bashing “morally destitute” Emiratis with great gusto, pausing to wax lyrical on their hatred of that “scorched, soulless land of labour abuses” or to condemn the country's obsession with Vegas-style kitsch. Finally, their “patience frayed”, they find themselves “snapping” and take their leave, citing their dreadful experiences as further proof the West should dread the dark cloud of Arab oil money, or Islam, or both.

Next come the neoliberal Orientalists, who attempt true-to-life portraits of this sandy, oil-rich Eldorado, where life is good under the tax-free sky and red-lipped young women in abayas clutching Gucci bags stride confidently into university lecture theaters and government jobs. A litany of clichés invariably follows: dhow rides along the creek, camels, sheesha cafés, elusive Emiratis in blingy rides, indoor snow-skiing and cosmopolitan shoppers in gargantuan, Disneyesque malls – perhaps a wee glimpse of despotism here and there, yet not enough to spoil the happy picture.

Finally, there are the fly-by reporters, who prowl the gardens of the UAE's otherness for the inspiration they're unable to find back home in London and New York. Their takes on the UAE range from the chronically confused, such as denying the country's tight censorship, defending its sodomy laws, or comparing Dubai to “an unreliable Tinder date” – to the embarrassingly naïve, turning the UAE and its highly complex society into exotic curios. Adam Valen Levinson's The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East, for instance, was deemed so problematic that a magazine which ran an excerpt was forced to issue an apology. For the latter writers, life in the Emirates is so “confusing and eclectic” that they are forced to wonder whether “such a nomadic population could ever settle down long enough to develop a culture”, as an article in the New Statesman recently put it, which depicted the UAE's foreign-born residents as hardly ever seeing the country as their home. I am glad to say the reality is altogether different.

*

Abu Dhabi is my home and it is where I come from, despite the utter illegality of my claim. After all, I am not a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, nor could I ever hope to be. Acquiring Emirati citizenship is almost impossible and besides, I don't even look the part: being white-skinned, whenever I speak Arabic my interlocutors assume that I'm Lebanese. As the son of an Iranian father and an Italian mother, and raised almost entirely in the UAE's capital during the 1990s and early 2000s, my statistical designation throughout my childhood was clear. I was a guest worker's dependent, alongside my mother and younger brother. Thus, although I come from Abu Dhabi, I am not Emirati.

Regardless, the island of Abu Dhabi is the only place I think of as home. It is where my parents' romance blossomed, where I was conceived and where I was reared. My father, a leftist forced to abandon Iran at the end of a barrel in 1979, had worked on and off in Abu Dhabi since 1980. As such, I have few memories of Venice, my birthplace, where my mother was obliged to go a couple of months prior to my birth, since unmarried pregnant women were required by UAE law to return to their countries of origin.

Abu Dhabi is where I spent my childhood and adolescence. I planted saplings in Mangrove National Park, just off the T-shaped island's eastern shore. I whiled away hours at the Cultural Foundation, then the city's only public library, next to Qasr Al-Hosn, the ruler's abandoned 18th century fort, where I devoured Abdel-Rahman Munif's Cities of Salt novels, which chronicle the rise of the Gulf's oil kingdoms. I slept feet away from the ruins of the Nestorian monastery on Sir Bani Yas island; and I visited the old pearling grounds of Abu Al-Abyad, which once provided locals with their only tradable commodity before oil. I grew to know the city and its people's language, culture and history well. However, like all the male children of guest workers, at age 18 I was forced to leave, and I have re-entered the country ever since as a tourist. Despite having spent close to two decades in the UAE, each return visit has been limited by the 30 day visa stamped on my passport on arrival. Notwithstanding, Abu Dhabi has shaped my outlook and sensibilities more than any other city I have lived in. Much as I have tried to deny it at various times in my life, I am an Abu Dhabian.

My parents, for their part, wouldn't think of themselves as Abu Dhabians. Nevertheless, they were perfectly happy to spend their lives in the UAE, and absurd as it might seem, in their long decades there they hardly gave a thought to the inevitable prospect of one day being forced to leave. We weren't alone: approximately 86 per cent of the UAE's population is currently made up of foreigners. Although over the years I have grown used to seeing my hometown pointlessly praised, or derided, for having the world’s most expensive hotel, the world's largest theme park – and rather bizarrely for a majority Muslim country, the world's most expensively decorated Christmas tree – this is the record Abu Dhabi should be chiefly remembered for: the world's highest number of foreign-born inhabitants.


Families stroll down the Corniche

Since the late 1960s, the world's nationalities have spilled into the UAE, supplying it with nurses, doctors, teachers, lawyers, shopkeepers, service workers, entertainers and police forces. For certain Westerners, the UAE is a revolving-door country in which to spend a lucrative two or three years. We, though, defined ourselves as long-termers and hardly ever came into contact with such opportunists. My father, who speaks four languages including Arabic, was an architect employed by an Emirati prince. The masons, carpenters, electricians, drivers and foremen he worked with were almost entirely from South Asia and the Middle East. There were times when, despite my father's stories of his Emirati friends and my few Emirati classmates, I thought that I lived in Little India: a solid 60 per cent of that 86 per cent majority was – and remains – composed of people from the Indian subcontinent, mostly men employed in the construction and transportation industries.

Our Abu Dhabi wasn't as tall then: the island's neighborhoods were mostly capped at five or six stories and stubby palm trees still jutted out of the gardens of crumbling villas built in the wake of the 1970s oil boom. The polished steel and glass skyline that can be seen today was still being sketched on the drafting board. The famously heavy, humid air was always pregnant with two kinds of sounds: the call to prayer five times a day, and the drone of 24-hour construction sites. The sandstorms and sea-salt constantly lashed against the cheaply-built beige apartment blocks, which were studded with the loud but vital external AC units that rattled precariously on their sandy perches. Tagalog, Malayalam and Hindi tinkled constantly in my ear. I went to school with Arabs, South Asians and Africans, ate Afghan bread fresh from the downstairs bakery and was more familiar with Bollywood than Hollywood, perhaps owing to our living above a cinema that played double-bills of Hindi hits every night. Although there were a few Westerners, they largely kept themselves confined to their own residential enclaves, schools and beach clubs.

Our fellow long-term, informal Abu Dhabians exhibited no desire to leave, but also made no attempt to entrench themselves, either. Foreigners cannot own property in the Emirates, they can only lease it. Since naturalisation was deemed impossible anyway, the general understanding was that there was no point in doing anything about it. The longer the permanence in the UAE, the shorter the visits back to their real, supposed homes became. While first-generation immigrants remained somewhat more connected to their origins, their children were often horrified by the prospect of ever having to leave, even though they mostly knew this was inevitable.

The choice facing all male children at the age of 18 is this: find employment and thus secure a sponsor for your visa, or else attend one of the country's franchise Western universities. The first is a near impossibility, since businesses in the Emirates do not hire untrained adolescents, especially foreign ones. The second is exorbitantly expensive. (Unmarried daughters are allowed to remain in the family fold.) Knowing that that my parents could not afford to continue paying for my education in the Emirates, I applied to several institutions in the UK, where, thanks to a clerical error, I was offered a place at university at the lower “home” fee rate, then just slightly over a thousand pounds.

Adapting to life in Britain, I often reflected on how, despite causing me a great deal of pain, my illusion of permanence in the UAE had nevertheless been an incredible gift. Such an illusion was denied to millions of other informal Emiratis. Visitors to the cities of the Emirates over the past few decades will have all stumbled on the same inescapable sight: the striking preponderance of men, in particular the millions of South Asian labourers who spend their lives in the UAE entirely alone, denied the option to bring their families over. While many could afford to do so – at a stretch – they are systematically blocked by strict entry quotas based on their countries of origin, no matter how long they've lived and worked in that country.

In the early 1990s, visitors to Abu Dhabi's Corniche, the broad waterfront boulevard on the western shore of the island, would be struck by the sight of thousands of South Asian laborers in their distinctive blue overalls. Back then, the Corniche was one of those few places where Emiratis and foreigners, and the poor and the rich could mingle. On Thursday nights, labourers would pose in front of the Corniche's Volcano Fountain, an 80 foot water feature lit by bright crimson lights at night, making the drops look like lava.

There, they would snap photos of themselves to mail back to their families. The ideal stance involved leaning one elbow against the trunk of a palm, with the sputtering Volcano in the background. The rest of the week, the labourers were restricted to the construction sites and their accommodations in hangar-style shacks outside the city limits, on the mainland.

The Volcano, which grew into one of the city's most beloved landmarks, was demolished in 2004. It made way for a sleeker, broader Corniche, yet one that was ultimately far more exclusive. Today its beach pavilions and cafés are the bastion of the middle class, part of a trend that has seen the city grow more segregated. Although the UAE is a cacophony of cultures and nationalities, the government's unwritten policy is straightforward: one is welcome to live there so long as one silently subscribes to its system of apartheid by consent. While foreigners are free to mix, the UAE's informal hiring practices mean that jobs are allotted almost exclusively according to race: East Asians are employed in service industries and as maids, construction workers are South Asian, lower middle-class jobs go to Arabs and managerial positions are the near-exclusive preserve of Westerners, leaving the friendly, languid Emiratis perched alone on top. You are free to live here and make your money however long you can, the Welcome Sign should say, but never fool yourself into thinking you'll ever remain. The PS should also read: if you don't like it, leave.

Despite the terrible odds presented by this game of roulette, there is no short supply of willing gamblers. For better or worse, the UAE remains a beacon of potential prosperity. It is the promised land to the Subcontinent's poor, a safe haven for the Arab world's elites and a tacky oddity ripe for the plucking to the West's middle classes. Precisely because of that, most of the aforementioned would happily accept Emirati citizenship in a heartbeat, and therein lies the problem. Rather than open the floodgates, the answer, it seems, is to make the process a near impossibility, no matter how long one has lived there.


A group of Filipino men take a selfie 

Abu Dhabi has certainly grown larger, denser and richer in recent years. It has also become visibly unhappier. For expatriates, visa restrictions are increasingly tough. A new law making “good conduct certificates” mandatory to get work permits came into effect on 4 February 2018. Meanwhile, despite the UAE government making no distinction between short-term opportunist and those whose families have made the UAE their home for decades, generations of residents now feel both estranged and at home. Many Abu Dhabians ejected at eighteen do, after all, come back. As the Abu Dhabian writer Deepak Unnikrishnan recently explained, his unexpected return to his city in 2015 led to a “difficult” re-adjustment: “Mentally, it was as though I couldn’t return to the city I had left, as though someone had changed the locks to my home without telling me.”

It is fittingly ironic, then, that the UAE's government newest obsession just so happens to be happiness. In February 2016, the UAE became only the fourth country in the world after Bhutan, Ecuador and Venezuela to appoint a Minister of State for Happiness. Dubai's PR-savvy ruler – and self-styled poet – Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum even went so far as to pen a slim tome entitled Reflections on Happiness & Positivity (Explorer, 2017). In it, he wrote: “What makes us proud of our United Arab Emirates is not the height of our buildings, the breadth or our streets or the magnitude of our shopping malls, but rather the openness and tolerance of our nation.” It is nevertheless unfortunate to see that Al-Maktoum's openness and tolerance does not stretch to include the millions of expatriate men and women who built his principality in the first place.

Emirati citizenship grants one instant access to a host of socio-economic privileges unavailable to the UAE's foreign-born inhabitants, and is granted solely by royal edict. The rationale for such exclusivity is simple. Citizens enjoy lavish benefits, including a college fund, free health care, a guaranteed job in government, and access to a government Marriage Fund. Open up citizenship, and the less than a million existing Emiratis would be politically overwhelmed overnight. While a provision exists in Emirati law which allows expatriates to apply for UAE citizenship after a 20 year period, it is almost never put to use. UAE society is thus bitterly divided. The expats resent the Emiratis' privileges, while Emiratis quietly worry about losing the reins of their own country. Mixed marriages between Emiratis and foreigners are actively discouraged, with Emirati women forbidden from marrying foreign men altogether.

Meanwhile, informal Emiratis have been there for decades longer than the actual country has existed. One of my father's oldest friends during his early years in Abu Dhabi was an engineer. He was both a third-generation expat Emirati and a Palestinian. His grandfather had left his village in Galilee in 1949 and had wound up in the northern emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah, where he had started a chicken farm. By my early teenage years, this Emirati Palestinian clan counted over twenty individuals, who occupied various posts in both private businesses and government enterprises. Their story mirrored that of many Palestinians after the Nakba, who alongside the Lebanese, Egyptians, Iranians, Indians and Pakistanis, played a vital role in the building of the modern Gulf petrocracies. Unfortunately, the supply of willing workers long appeared inexhaustible. Each new conflagration in Israel-Palestine prompted a new flight of migration, and so the Palestinian immigrants in the Gulf were largely treated as expendable. While the UAE's government has always made a public show of its sizable contributions to Palestinian charities, it has never extended the warm hand of citizenship or long-term residency, which is precisely what the overwhelming majority of expat Emirati Palestinians both want and deserve.

A pragmatic solution to the woes of expatriate Abu Dhabians remains as distant now as it was when my family first moved to the UAE. However, their cause – and the overall issue of an individual's right to place – is nevertheless a global cause for concern. In his Reflections on Happiness & Positivity, Sheikh Mohammed claims to have taken cues from Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun and the US's Founding Fathers to reach his conclusion that “tolerance is no catchphrase, but a quality we must cherish and practice” since “the government's job is to achieve happiness”. For the moment, however, the UAE's interpretation of happiness excludes almost 90 per cent of its people.

Whether the UAE survives as a functional state may well largely depend on its ability to retain and absorb its long-term expatriates. It is time for the country to attempt what Benedict Anderson called a “sophisticated and serious blending of the emancipatory possibilities of both nationalism and internationalism”. The UAE is no paradise for migrant workers, but meanwhile those nomads and their children have developed a culture the rest of the world should finally begin to contend with. Last year, the UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale featured non-Emirati residents, such as Vikram Divecha and Lantian Xie. Deepak Unnikrishnan's novel Temporary People (Restless Books, 2017), which explored Abu Dhabi's hidden nuances through a sequence of interlinked stories tinged with magical realism, was recently published to highly-deserved acclaim. Dubai has even become home to exiled artists like Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian.

For all that the Western world likes to caricature the UAE, the question of citizenship is not one confined to the expatriates of Abu Dhabi. Los Angeles, the city where I currently reside, is presently home to thousands of “Dreamers”, beneficiaries of the Obama-era legislation that protected the children of people who entered the US illegally, many of whom now face a very uncertain future. As for me, the familiar sight of pump jacks and foreign migrants outside my window keeps my memories of home – and hopes for a better future there – alive. Impractical or not, Abu Dhabi is my home, and I don't need a passport to prove it.

 

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine