x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Healthy plans for immigration policy

New pre-immigration medical checks are a good idea, but could give rise to some subsidiary problems. There's also an opportunity here to end some old abuses.

Migrant labour is at the heart of the UAE's economic development. From the oil sector to childcare, it really matters who comes into this country and on what terms. This simple fact moves immigration policy and practice high up the list of priorities for national policymakers.

The latest regulations that will be implemented on October 1 will require would-be immigrants to take certain medical tests in their countries of origin before they are cleared to come here. It's a necessary step and a sensible one, but it will need some extra effort to avoid new problems.

Indonesians and Sri Lankans will have to be cleared of some communicable diseases, cancer and kidney failure, among other conditions; eight more Asian and African countries will be added later.

Behind the move is an alarming trend: in Dubai alone, 722 visa applicants tested positive for tuberculosis last year, up from 122 in 2008. There is no sense in letting people with such ailments come here. At best they are sent home; at worst they unknowingly infect others before they leave. In a country with a relatively transient population, public health concerns about communicable diseases should be a top priority.

It is no surprise, then, that embassies in the UAE have welcomed the change in policy, which should reduce their workload, simplify the lives of people who fail the medical tests and assure the people of the UAE that those who do arrive are not a danger to public health.

But the requirement may create new problems if poorly implemented.

First comes cost. Current medical tests in the UAE are normally paid for by the newcomer's employer; expecting workers to pay the cost would amount to a daunting new exit tax in their homelands.

Second is efficiency. The paperwork burden on immigrants, already considerable, should be increased as little as possible.

But there is also an opportunity in this new procedure. As it is being introduced, authorities could consider shouldering aside unscrupulous recruitment agencies that take advantage of would-be immigrants. Too many people, promised good jobs at adequate wages, find themselves making far less in poor conditions.

The UAE's increased "upstream" presence in the immigration process can help to ensure a healthier deal for everybody involved.