The Debt Panel: Dubai expat with terminal breast cancer cannot return home to South Africa due to debt issues

The South African had her passport held by police in 2015 after a case was raised against her over a bounced cheque.

In 2011/2012 I took out a bank loan and two credit cards with an international bank in Dubai after getting into financial difficulty following job loss. By 2014, I’d settled the loan, however the credit cards were not settled. When I was made redundant in 2011 I had over Dh500,000 debt; I’d “helped” a friend and got duped. I had so much to pay off that it was a case of paying those who were shouting the loudest. While I was dealing with the collections department regarding the loan, they never mentioned the credit cards and I focused on paying off other debt. The total amount on both cards would have been in the region of Dh65,000. I have finally finished paying everything off except for these debts and am now left with a small personal loan at another bank. In December 2015, the police contacted me to say a case had been made against me for an amount of about Dh39,000 for a bounced cheque relating to one of the credit cards. I am sure that there is a police case for the second card but I don’t know where the case is filed.

By way of some background, I have been battling breast cancer since 2014 and at the time of finding out about the police case I was hoping to be able to resolve this matter. I was not successful as I could not obtain a bank loan from my current bank due to a bad credit report. I explained my illness to the police and they agreed to take my passport from me and hold it until I could settle the debt. Then last year my diagnosis advanced to terminal breast cancer and my life expectancy is currently six to twelve months.

I am desperate to resolve this matter so that I can have my passport returned and can return to my home country of South Africa. I have tried to contact both the international bank and a local bank that bought out the debt but nobody has been able to assist me, so can you help? I have also misplaced the paperwork I was given by the police when they took my passport so don't have a case number or anything to work with. I am currently employed but on extended sick leave on half pay and am just managing to keep on top of my monthly commitments. Once my employment terminates in a couple of months I will receive a final settlement which will allow me to settle any amounts due. My second question relates to the best way to find out how many police cases I have against me. Is there any easy way to do this without putting myself at risk of being jailed immediately? IC, Dubai

Debt panellist 1: Philip King, head of retail banking, UAE for ADIB

You’ve done very well to have paid of most of your debt over the past few years, and especially considering how your personal situation has complicated your financial issue significantly. As a general rule, it’s important to always be wary of getting into financial transactions that are not legally binding – as when giving informal loans to people you know. It’s always difficult when it’s a question of helping out a friend or a family member, because emotional ties are also involved.

Your bank should be receptive to your determination to repay your outstanding debt and seeking direct advice, such as through The National’s The Debt Panel, is also the right thing to do. It is important for you to highlight your personal situation to bank officials, especially as you are expecting to receive your end of service gratuity in the coming months, which will allow you to repay your debt. At this point, you should seek a rescheduling of this debt to avoid any legal action being taken against you. The rescheduling will allow you to agree monthly payments that are manageable, and hopefully within the coming months this issue can be settled.

Debt panellist 2: Keren Bobker, The National's On Your Side columnist and an independent financial adviser

While debts have to be repaid there is also a time and place when compassion is more important and this is one of those cases. I understand that the total amount owed is no longer a large amount and IC has been diligent in making the required payments against most of the accrued debts.

When a police case is raised against someone it does not mean that they are automatically jailed, as the actions of the police in this case have shown. Rather the banks are more interested in a debt being repaid as that is in the greater interest. Passports are retained so that someone does not abscond.

Even if IC unfortunately no longer has the correspondence regarding the retention of her passport it should still be with the police. Contacting them herself does not mean that she will be automatically arrested, as if they already have her passport she cannot leave, but a case is then usually referred to the courts and that is where any punishment is meted out. This can mean detention but rarely if payments are being made and the defendant has the means to pay.

I understand that my colleagues at The National are contacting the bank to enquire about the outstanding debts and to see if the bank will be amenable. I do hope that they will retract any bank case so that IC’s passport can be returned to her, allowing her to leave and have a few peaceful final months.

It is important that she also finds out if there are any other cases registered against her as if there are they could prevent her passport from being returned. I understand why she does not want to do this herself but there will be no consequences for any friend who enquires on her behalf as they are not legally liable or responsible for someone else’s debt. I understand however, that the police are becoming more reluctant to provide information to a third party but IC also has the option to hire a local advocate, a UAE registered criminal lawyer, to make a check for her. Naturally there will be a fee for this professional service, which I expect to be in the region of Dh4,000 -5,000 but it will provide proof either way and action can then be taken if required. I wish her well.

The Debt Panel brings together four financial experts: Philip King, the head of retail banking, UAE at Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank; Ambareen Musa, the founder and chief executive of the comparison website; Rasheda Khatun Khan, a wealth and wellness planner and founder of Design Your Life; and Keren Bobker, The National's On Your Side columnist and an independent financial adviser with Holborn Assets in Dubai. Together they answer queries in a weekly online column to help readers better tackle their debts. If you have a question for the panel, write to

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