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Amnesty raises issue of children lacking papers

Aside from helping normalise the immigration status of many individuals who need help (often, admittedly, because of their own errors), the amnesty programme for illegal immigrants benefits society as a whole.

The UAE amnesty for illegal residents concludes today after a two-month period. Residents whose visas have expired have had the rare chance to leave the country without incurring the normal penalties. Tens of thousands have turned themselves in to their embassies and immigration offices seeking amnesty visas to leave. Starting today, those who have not left the country will face much tougher penalties.

The amnesty comes as part of a government initiative to address the so-called shadow population in the UAE, for the most part economic migrants who have overstayed their residency permits or visit visas. Aside from helping normalise the immigration status of many individuals who need help (often, admittedly, because of their own errors), the amnesty programme benefits society as a whole. Undocumented residents pose public-health risks, as they are less likely to seek medical care, and are associated with a range of other social issues.

In the previous amnesty in 2007, nearly 350,000 illegal immigrants left the UAE - embassies are reporting far fewer applicants this time around. But there is more to the issue than statistics.

Recent reports have highlighted another social priority in the amnesty programme. Most of the adults who have stayed in the country illegally did so knowingly - yet this amnesty has identified children who, by no fault of their own, are not only in the UAE without documentation, but some who don't have citizenship papers from any country at all.

As The National reports today, an Indian woman who has been working illegally as a maid has tried to benefit from the amnesty, along with her 9-year-old daughter. But the girl doesn't have any nationality papers, having been born at home, and her father has long since abandoned the family. The dilemma is an immediate reminder of another tragic case 10 days ago, when a 3-year-old girl, Amna, was found wandering alone in a Sharjah hospital. That girl, whose father has admitted abandoning her and now faces abuse charges, also lacked documents after her mother left without her to return to her home country.

Undocumented adults are responsible for their own behaviour, but there can be no doubt that these children deserve every support. UAE social services have stepped in, in the case of the 3-year-old; in other cases, the embassies of the countries of origin have to show flexibility and creativity in helping their young nationals secure the needed documentation.

The amnesty has started a process to address these problems, but more needs to be done. For these children and families, there are enough challenges without starting out without any citizenship papers at all.

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