Dubai's Safa Park

A Home for Illegal Immigrants 1960s-70s

It is difficult to imagine today's lush green Safa Park as a deprived area where people lived in poverty, without power, running water, sewerage, medical services and food for under nourished children, in fact, without any rights whatsoever. But that is exactly what happened back in 1960s and 70s in the area that is now Safa Park.

Dubai's Plywood Cities

Prior to 1970s Dubai relied on Illegal Immigrants for its workforce. They mostly came from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Typically they borrowed money to purchase a passage by Dhow to Dubai in the hope of finding work both to repay the loan and support their family back home. Dhows carrying these illegal immigrants usually headed for Ras Al Khaimah or somewhere on the coastline between RAK and Dubai. Dhow Captains risked imprisonment if they were caught so often landed their human cargo onto offshore sandbanks, usually ften at night, where Immigrants risked being trapped by the rising tide and drowned. Those that made it ashore, these "Illegals" may or may not have had someone ready to help them then needed someone to help them. "Help" meant finding sponsorship by a local person for a Work Visa.

Back then local people had the right to sponsor foreigners for Work Visas so an "illegal" immigrant could became "legal" - at a price. However these Work Visas although being for work as a gardener or labourer did not have any actual job on offer,being made "legal" did not equate to being employed. There was no Job associated with the Visa despite the Visa specifying a Job e.g. Gardener or Labour. So with loans to pay back these people had to find paid work. Many made they made their way to Dubai to work illegally (i.e.they no longer complied with the Job or Employer specified on their Visa) or find a Job with a new Sponsor which involved paying off the old Sponsor to get release from the original Visa). This meant a continuing spiral of paying and borrowing money.

Living cheaply became a necessity. Illegal "Plywood Cities" established around Dubai to house these "illegal" immigrants. Made from scrap wood and materials gathered from around the town, these Plywood Cities became self contained Communities and home to thousands. One of these "Plywood Cities" developed where Safa Park is located today. In the late 1960s this area was desert and considered "outside" Dubai.

Dubai's Illegal Immigrants

Dubai's Government tolerated these "plywood cities" because Dubai depended on "Illegals" for its workforce. These "Cities" were "out of sight, out of mind" but essential to labour supply. In 1970s Dubai's Government declared Illegal Immigrants would be deported although little action. Periodically Dubai Government announced an "Amnesty" whereby "Illegals" applying for the "Amnesty" received an Identify Card enabling them to now legally work in Dubai until some undefined future date when they could leave legally for their own Country but prohibited from returning. "Illegals" often kept working until they were ready to return to their home country. Most stayed in Dubai for long periods and acquired some "wealth" before returning home. Others immediately returned to their own Country at Dubai Government's expense. However these "Illegals" now knew how to enter Dubai illegally, find work and live. Many later returned again as Illegal Immigrants with different identities to begin the cycle again. "Illegal Immigrants" played an important role in Dubai's Development.

40,000 'illegal' Indian residents to return home from UAE under 'amnesty' scheme

UAE Newspaper November 2012

Feeding the Children

Illegal Immigration was not confined to men. Families and single women also entered Dubai illegally. "Safa City" was home to Immigrant families and a large number of children. Amenities in the "Plywood City" (also referred to as "Packing Case Cities") were non existent - one or two water standpipes, no electricity or sewage systems. Safa City was an unhealthy place to live. Immigrants had no access to Dubai's limited medical facilities or services. Children were undernourished. Save the Children Fund established in Dubai in 1960s. They organised Feeding Programmes for these needy children. Women's Guild of the Holy Trinity Church provided Volunteer Expatriate Wives to run a Feeding Schedule. STCF provided food which these Volunteer Wives regularly took into Safa City and fed the children. Children knew the schedule and arrived on time with each carrying a bowl to receive their food.

Dubai's Legal Immigrants

By 1971 a number of large scale construction projects started. Construction companies needed a huge labour work force and began recruiting directly from countries such as India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. These Construction companies organised and paid for their recruits to be transported to Dubai. Generally this was by British India Line Ships Dwarka, Dumra and Sirdhana which provided a regular passenger service from the subcontinent to Gulf Ports. Ship DwarkaThese were "Three Class" ships with the lowest being Deck Class which was how the newly recruited Labour traveled. Arriving at Port Rashid Dubai, these ships were berthed at No 3 Berth. No 3 Storage Warehouse was temporarily re-equipped as an Immigration Hall staffed by Immigration Department. Recruits were taken off the ship in single file down the gangway and into the "Immigration Hall" to be processed by Immigration Staff. As each man was processed, the Company that had recruited him was identified then a coloured shirt given to him to immediately wear. Each Company had been allocated a different colour. As each new recruit completed his processing, a representative of "his" Company took charge and led him to an enclosure dedicated to this Company.

These "legal" Immigrants were then led to their waiting transport. Most Construction Companies simply used their dumper trucks and tipper trucks as transport. Soon a steady stream of dumper and tipper trucks left Port Rashid each laden with new Workers dressed in same colour Tee Shirts. They were on their way to their new home - a purpose built Labour Camp.

Safa Park

Dubai began to expand. "Safa City" and its people were no longer out of sight, out of mind or out of town. "Safa City" and its people became a "nuisance" and an eyesore. Dubai Municipality planned to develop the area. Dubai's Government issued another "pardon" for "Illegal Immigrants". "Safa City" was evacuated then demolished and its Residents faded away to other areas. Safa was not flat as it is today. "Safa City" was built on top of a small sand hill. Dubai Municipality announced a Public Park to be built in Safa. This small sand hill was flattened to become Safa Park in 1975.

"Plywood City" was cleared away and its people moved on. A new "Plywood City" soon appeared in Mumzar,
A canal now passes through Safa Park. It is strange to think that where once people lived without running water now has water in abundance - albeit salt water!