x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

No going back for Syrian expats

Desperate workers provide a boost for visa consultancies

Syrian expatriates are flooding immigration consultancies with applications in a bid to escape their country
Syrian expatriates are flooding immigration consultancies with applications in a bid to escape their country

Syrian expatriates across the Emirates are flooding immigration consultancies with applications to live abroad as fighting in the country intensifies.

The trend is reviving business for companies that help to arrange visas for working abroad.

"It's all about the crisis," said Hamad Aziz, a consultant at Diverse Immigration in Sharjah. "They want to move the family to a safer destination. Most of the Syrian applicants are ... job-oriented professionals but if they lose their job and they have to go back, there could be a problem for them."

The UAE is home to about 160,000 Syrians. Arrivals from the country have risen since the outbreak of violence last year.

Before the uprising that began last March, Mr Aziz received five to 10 calls per month from Syrian nationals. But now he gets the same number of calls every week. That figure continues to rise, he said, accelerating over the summer as Syria's political crisis descended into a violent civil war.

The immigration consulting industry ballooned following the 2008 financial crisis as expats sought work abroad.

For many Arab expats living in the UAE, their home countries were considered a backstop in the event that they lost their jobs. But for one Syrian business consultant who recently left Abu Dhabi for Toronto, Canada, his home country was no longer an option.

"I am from Homs and you know how the situation is there," said the consultant, who did not want to be named.

"If anything happens, I can't go back. After taking my time and considering my options, I finally decided to quit my job and move [to Toronto]."

The rise in inquiries has proved a boon for visa consultants whose businesses had slowed amid an improving economic climate in the Emirates. There are more than 30 immigration firms operating in the UAE.

Today, many of them are being kept busy by Syrian residents living in the UAE and others flying into Abu Dhabi on tourist visas to seek legal advice. The Damascus embassy of Canada, a popular destination for Syrian emigrants, was closed in January.

"It's entirely security-related, and not driven by economics," said Paul Abraham, a founding partner at Abraham Consulting and Associates.

"The calls I get from Syrian nationals are about five times the normal rate of inquiries. Clients from Syria account for 8 to 10 per cent of my business portfolio, whereas they used to represent 2 to 4 per cent. That doesn't include the pro bono stuff I do as well for those who want advice for refugee status flying in from Syria."

Another Syrian immigration consultant, who declined to be identified, said almost six months ago he would distribute his business cards among friends to help him find new clients in Dubai. "Now I have way too many files, I am struggling to keep up with the requests.

"Those with sufficient funds apply as investors, because skilled workers more than often lack the credible qualifications or refuse to go to Syria to get educational certificates attested amid the unrest," he said. "Many others who come to the UAE on tourist visas seek advice on acquiring refugee status." More than 250,000 Syrian refugees have fled the war-torn country, the UN reported this month.

There are more than 808,000 registered Syrian refugees across the Levant, according to estimates by the office of the UN high commissioner for refugees. About 589,000 people are internally displaced in the country.

Last week, Standard & Poor's said the ongoing conflict "could potentially increase the credit rating risks of neighbouring sovereigns". It cited Lebanon as the most exposed 8followed by Jordan, Israel, Turkey and Iraq. A number of Syrian professionals from Damascus have spent time in Lebanon before moving to Abu Dhabi or Dubai.

halsayegh@thenational.ae