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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

340,000 reasons to show compassion in visa amnesty

Heartrending tales of those who have come forward should give us all pause for thought

Amnesty seekers at Al Shahama immigration centre in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National
Amnesty seekers at Al Shahama immigration centre in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National

If there was ever any doubt about the need for the three-month visa amnesty, the lengthy queues at immigration centres say it all.

Thousands have been amassing at nine centres across the UAE, each with their own heartrending tales to tell.

When they first set foot in the UAE, few of them hoped or dreamed of finding themselves in such a desperate plight, without legitimate paperwork; many have been unwitting victims of circumstance or fallen on hard times.

Take the 18-year-old young man, whose existence on the planet was not even officially documented yet who had engendered a staggering Dh1 million in fines; or Rose Mary, a mother-of-three who had not seen her family for 13 years after her husband ran up debts and had to leave the country; or Darryl, whose sister had returned to the Philippines to care for a sick relative, only to be declared absconding in her absence.

They are but a drop in the ocean of the tens of thousands expected to declare their illegal status over the next three months and who will be granted a reprieve in the visa amnesty: a chance to either apply for official residency status or return home, with any fines or possible jail terms waived.

There are few times in life when one is offered a second chance to rectify the mistakes of the past.

This generous gesture should be grasped by anyone who has found themselves falling into a legal quagmire.

While those flocking to take advantage of the reprieve come from all backgrounds, it is primarily labourers and domestic workers who have come forward, those on low incomes who were not able to cover the cost of fines and visa applications and instead retreated into the shadows, where they have been living in fear of being caught ever since.

They have until October 31 to clear their names and start afresh. In that time, no doubt more heartwrenching stories will emerge, all equally deserving of our compassion.

Employers have a responsibility to recognise when those who provide a service for them fall on difficult times themselves and to treat them with empathy when those circumstances prevail.

Officials have taken the right step by not treating them as criminals; it is down to each of us to do the same.