x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A flexible approach in worker amnesty

The UAE amnesty programme for illegal residents needs some flexibility for workers who wish to return and contribute to the country.

Running away seemed the only solution. Susanty, a 27-year-old domestic worker from Indonesia, says that she had to leave her sponsor's house because she was being mistreated and authorities would not help her. But she was left without official papers.

Despite finding a new job with another family that treats her well and pays her Dh2,000 per month (more than twice what she made before), she decided to report to her embassy to apply for an emergency certificate to legalise her status. She wants to visit her country to see her children after three years of being unable to travel - but then she wants to return to work in the UAE.

Susanty is one of the hundreds of illegal workers approaching their embassies and Ministry of Interior offices seeking emergency certificates in line with the government amnesty programme for illegal residents, which allows them to exit the country without paying fines.

The amnesty programme has been a good step to address the shadow population in the UAE: undocumented workers who pose legal, medical and public-safety challenges for the country. Having no official documents prevents them from working, renting homes or even possessing mobile phones legally.

Nearly 350,000 illegal immigrants benefited from the last amnesty in 2007, including about 50,000 Indians who returned to their country; another 6,000 legalised their statuses to stay in the UAE.

By announcing the amnesty this year, authorities gave people who have overstayed visas or violated other immigration laws another chance to come clean. After the deadline on February 7, those who fail to take advantage of the programme may face stiffer penalties, in addition to the fine of Dh100 per day for visa overstay.

At present, the policy is that people who take advantage of the amnesty will not be able to return to the country. This makes sense - these people did break the UAE's immigration laws, knowingly in many cases.

But as the deadline nears, we hope that there will be some flexibility for workers such as Susanty, who have stepped up to come clean while looking for another chance to work legally.

In about a month, the amnesty period will come to an end. Many people will be leaving the country, no doubt happy to go home. Others will be eager to return, earn a living and contribute to the UAE.