In 2007, the last time the UAE offered amnesty to illegal immigrants and undocumented workers, nearly 350,000 people came clean to legalise their status or leave the country. Diplomats from top labour-exporting nations are expecting a similar number to present themselves this time around; as The National reports, the latest amnesty programme began yesterday.
Day one of the planned two-month campaign seemed to bring a low turnout, which is understandable. Staying off the grid has become a survival tactic for many, and illegal residents will undoubtedly approach officialdom with a dose of caution. Yet turnout may increase in the coming weeks as word spreads.
There are many practical reasons to tackle issues related to this shadow population. Data on this segment of society is sparse; census figures don't include them, and few will seek assistance publicly. But undocumented people and their communities function - or fail to function - much the same in every country.
Off the books, eking out livings on meagre means, illegal immigrants generally have no access to health care, can easily fall victim to exploitation, and can pose medical, legal and public-safety challenges for the nations in which they live. Not fully protected by the laws of the land, these members of society operate on the margins. Their numbers are estimated, their needs not always known. Making policy decisions for invisible people is impossible.
With this amnesty programme, like others, will come more questions. Will those seeking amnesty be barred from returning to the country? How will those who are here illegally, but are penniless, return home? The head of Overseas Indian Affairs, Vayalar Ravi, has called on leaders in his country to "make provision for free air tickets". Officials on both ends of the labour chain will need to make good on this call, and work creatively to find solutions to this and other challenges.
In a nation where documentation is required at every turn - to get a phone number, to rent a flat, to secure a job - it might seem surprising that so many are here illegally. But they are, often willingly, because the UAE offers opportunities their home countries don't. Given this, people will keep finding a way to come to these shores to work. That is all the more reason to get the nation's immigration books in order now.