The Guardian: ‘It’s a very big torture’: the children growing up in hiding in Dubai

With sex outside marriage punishable by jail, migrant workers who become pregnant are often forced to keep their babies locked away

Neng and Jerry eat a meal in their tiny shared room.
 Neng and Jerry eat a meal in their tiny shared room. Jerry has no access to education and has never been to see a doctor. Photograph: Katie McQue

02 Jan 19 – A sweltering, windowless room in an old district of Dubai, no more than 5 metres by 3 metres in size, is home to nine people from the Philippines. Eight are adults, working long hours in low-paid jobs so they can send money home to their families. The ninth is a six-year-old boy.

His name is Jerry and he shares a tiny bed with his mother, Neng. Jerry loves dancing, Peppa Pig and doughnuts. This small dark room is the only home he has known, as he’s spent his life in hiding as a stateless child. Growing up without a birth certificate or any other identification means he has no access to education and has never visited a doctor. Officially, this little boy does not exist.

Of the UAE’s 9.4 million inhabitants, about 70% are low-paid migrant labourers. As a vital part of the economy, they normally work in construction or retail, or as maids and taxi drivers.

Neng was one of them. A decade ago she came to the UAE from the Philippines to work as a domestic maid but ran away because her employers were abusive, she says. Having no job meant losing her visa and living in the country illegally. She got involved with a man who took her into his home but then he threw her out after she got pregnant.

Now pregnant outside of marriage, Neng knew she had broken the law in the UAE for a second time. Having sex outside of marriage is a crime under the country’s Islamic laws, with convictions resulting in prison terms of up to one year.

“The moment that you get pregnant, and you cannot tell anyone and you don’t know what to do, it’s a very big torture,” says Neng.

The legislation prohibiting sex outside marriage in the UAE is known as the Zina law and is often rigorously enforced. In some cases, even reporting a rape has been regarded by the authorities as illicit sex, and has led to victims being jailed.

Doctors in the country who diagnose an unmarried woman as pregnant are obliged to turn them over to the police. They can then face jail and deportation.

Some women opt to leave the UAE before the pregnancy becomes visible and backstreet abortions are also common.

Figures supplied by the Philippines Consulate in Dubai indicate several hundred migrant workers a year like Neng make the decision to go into hiding after they become pregnant outside of marriage.

“They are afraid of losing their jobs because that’s the only means to support their family back home. To them, deportation is like the end of their life,” says Barney Almazar, a lawyer at Gulf Law, who provides legal aid to migrant workers in UAE.

After carrying her baby to term having accessed no healthcare services, Neng gave birth to Jerry in a friend’s apartment with the help of an informal midwife and without any pain relief.

Unable to find a job through official channels, Neng eventually managed to find work as a housekeeper and nanny for a fellow Filipino family, who live in a house 10 minutes’ walk from her home. Her employers know she’s illegal and can therefore get away with paying her just AED 1,000 per month (£216) for working 10 hours a day, five days a week. Often she is not paid on time. But she has no rights and cannot complain to the authorities.

With rent for their bed costing AED 500, the mother and son struggle to make ends meet. When she can, Neng tries to send AED 190 home to her family, who live in Zamboanga Sibugay, one of the Philippines’ poorest provinces. This small amount of money is enough to compel her to stay in Dubai.

Neng and Jerry’s bed is a lower bunk, just under a metre wide. Makeshift curtains made of bedsheets hang over the front of the bunks to provide a little privacy. Meals are eaten in the room, and cockroaches and other bugs scuttle across the floor.

These living conditions have blighted Jerry’s childhood. He is often overwhelmed with worry, which makes him ill. “I don’t feel anything. I’m sick but I can’t get better,” he says.

Neng is preparing to surrender to the authorities, which will allow her to leave after serving a jail sentence, and obtain exit visas for herself and Jerry. Despite her difficult life in Dubai, she is reluctant to return home. The future there seems even more bleak to her. Her extended family don’t have room to accommodate them and extreme poverty in her province will make life difficult.

Fearful of being caught by the police and unable to look after their children while working, many of these unmarried new mothers resort to abandoning their babies, leaving others in the community to look after them.

One such informal adoptive mother is Joanna*. She is a Filipina nurse and has been living in Dubai for 10 years. For the past 15 months she’s been bringing up a baby girl called Rosamie*.

Joanna lives in a room with five other women in the Al-Karama area of Dubai. A year-and-a-half ago a newborn baby girl appeared in the room. The mother was a friend of her roommate and, after leaving the baby, she became uncontactable. “It was 1am and [the baby] was crying and had been left alone,” says Joanna. The baby was gone the next day, but she reappeared one month later and then again the next month, Joanna says.

“During that time she had been passed around to other houses. The third time I saw her she was covered in a rash.” Joanna started to look after the child, expecting her mother to collect her soon.

“It was difficult that the baby is with us without documents. After two weeks I asked the Philippines Consulate what to do. I was told, ‘Just wait, the mother will come,’” she says. “At this point, I decided that maybe this baby is for us.”

Through Joanna’s work, Rosamie has access to medical care. She is also very well looked after. The talkative little girl can sing her ABCs and speak English in sentences. She loves wearing dresses and her favourite toy is a doll that she calls Baby Princess. Each night Rosamie and Joanna sing You Are My Sunshine to each other before going to sleep.

“I’m proud of being her mother. I always tell her that I love her very much,” Joanna says. “She’s so very sweet, she’s lovely. I want her to have a normal future, not like this.”

Joanna is very aware she could be jailed for keeping a baby that is not legally hers. She is desperate to find a way to legally adopt Rosamie but only Emirati nationals are permitted to adopt children in the UAE.

Other women looking after abandoned children in Dubai have approached Joanna, looking for advice. “So many kids here don’t have documents,” she says.

It is almost impossible to know how many parents and children are in the same position as Neng and Jerry across the country. Each month, about 40 mothers with children born out of wedlock seek advice and assistance from the Philippines Consulate in Dubai and the embassy in Abu Dhabi, according to a spokesperson for the consulate. This figure is likely to be a fraction of the number of mothers who are living in hiding in the country with their children, Almazar says.

At present, child and baby facilities in Dubai’s jails are full, because of the high number of mothers who have come forward to surrender, so that they could leave the country after completing a custodial sentence. This has created a backlog of cases, the spokesperson says.

Yet there are signs of hope for these families. The Dubai Foundation for Women and Children is a government-run charity and shelter, which, in addition to rehabilitating human trafficking victims and caring for abandoned or orphaned children, deals with “tens” of cases of mothers who have had babies out of wedlock a year, says Ghanima Hassan Al-Bahri, its care and social services director. In all of the cases the foundation has worked on, the courts have been flexible and the mother has not served a jail term. This approach could be rolled out for wider implementation, she adds.

“I cannot speak about the police or the prosecution about whether they arrested women, I don’t know. But from our experience, at the foundation, whenever a woman has called us, it is not like that,” says Al-Bahri. “I do believe there is room for improvement … What’s the point of putting them in jail?”

*Names changed to protect identities

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