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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Consulates warn of new visa crackdown as UAE amnesty draws to a close

Embassies urge those trapped in a 'vicious cycle' to come forward to authorities

People queue to enter a Visa Amnesty Centre in Al Awir, Dubai. Satish Kumar for The National
People queue to enter a Visa Amnesty Centre in Al Awir, Dubai. Satish Kumar for The National

Embassy officials have warned people who remain in the UAE without valid visas at the end of a four-month long amnesty they face stiff punishments from authorities.

The UAE amnesty - which was launched in August and ends on Saturday - led to tens of thousands of people without legal documentation coming forward to ask for new visas or to return to their country, with overstay fines waived in the process.

As the amnesty window prepares to slam shut on Saturday, immigration officers will mount a new operation to identify those still living in the country illegally.

Dozens of people visited the Bangladesh embassy and the Indian and Philippine consulates in the final days of the scheme to register their details and fill forms so they could return home without paying fines.

However, the numbers of residents who continue to live in the UAE with expired visas could run into the thousands.

Some could not take advantage of the amnesty when employers absconded with their passports and they remain in the country, hoping to secure unpaid salaries.

Others face court cases for defaulting on bank loans, overdrawn credit cards or civil cases.

When the scheme was launched, UAE authorities made it clear that the programme only covered people who had overstayed their work and residency visas prior to August 1. Residents with legal cases against them were not eligible for amnesty.

Warnings have gone out from the Philippine consulate about the prospect of fresh inspections after the amnesty ends.

“Immigration authorities have made it clear that they will enforce the regulations as stringently as possible. We would like to remind the Filipinos who do not have proper documentation in the UAE to be careful,” said Paul Cortes, Philippine Consul-General.

“This does not mean they should continue to remain illegal because there will be more stringent enforcement of the law. ”

There could be as many as 2,000 Filipinos with debt-related court cases, he said, and he urged them to approach authorities.

“There are quite a number who were not able to avail of the amnesty because of this constraint. They remain in that vacuum where they are caught in a spiral and unclear how to even rectify their status because of bank debts and their inability to pay off these debts,” Mr Cortes said.

“We do not condone undocumented migrants in the UAE. We have reiterated our announcements that the consulate will provide legal assistance to those who may not be able to afford it. We are here to assist Filipinos. I advice them not to wait until things get worse but to seek help.”

Immigration officers have said they will begin a campaign to identify residents without valid visas with targeted checks in areas where they suspect large numbers. However, there would be no random inspections nor would people be stopped on the streets and asked for identity documents, officials said.

Indian authorities said they had warned people who overstayed through welfare organisations and the media.

“Our message to people has been that UAE authorities have been clear that after amnesty ends they will take stronger action,” said Mr Vipul, Indian Consul General.

“But there will be quite a number without valid visas who will stay because employers have kept their passports, the employer may have left the country without paying them and then the workers' fines will keep piling up.

“There could be a variety of issues labour, employment related or due to social causes. If a person loses his job, the family does not want to go back and the vicious cycle continues.”

Volunteers and officials have often appealed to people in financial trouble to seek legal counsel that included approaching banks and credit card companies to reduce interest charges and accept instalment payments.

The Sri Lankan consulate said most citizens with expired visas had legalised their visas and cautioned those who remained illegally.

“If any person still chose to remain in UAE without rectifying the visa, the Consulate General wishes to reiterate that such persons will have to face the legal consequences emanating from the immigration policy of UAE, which will be beyond the approach of our officers,” said Charitha Yattogoda, Consul General of Sri Lanka.

The Bangladesh and Ethiopian missions recorded the highest numbers of people who applied for amnesty.

Some 25,002 Ethiopians applied and obtained new passports to legalise their visas during the amnesty period and another 4,548 left the UAE.

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Read more:

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“The amnesty program has been very helpful to many Ethiopian citizens who for various reasons suddenly found themselves in violation of UAE visa rules with no path to legalise their status,” said Tebege Berhe, Ethiopian ambassador.

As many as 15,000 Bangladeshi workers chose to rectify their status and apply for new passports. More than 5,000 workers decided to leave with the one-way exit permits issued to people who had lost their passports or whose documents had been stolen or damaged.

“This is definitely a lot, the numbers are more than we expected. Altogether 20,000 people have taken advantage of amnesty,” said Muhammad Imran, Bangladesh ambassador.

A key reason for the figures was a freeze on visas of Bangladeshi workers introduced in 2012, due to the high crime rate. It resulted in workers remaining in the UAE even if they lost jobs since they would not be able to re-enter the country.

Of the 6,810 Filipinos who applied for support during the UAE's amnesty program, about 64 per cent opted to stay.

At least 2,467 were issued travel documents to return home to the Philippines while 4,343 decided to remain in the UAE and search for employment as per records until November, when the amnesty programme was extended by a month.

More than 550 Sri Lankans were issued exit passes to leave the country during the four-month amnesty.

There was a 130 per cent increase in applications for new passports with at least 2,500 people rectifying their visa status.

“We encourage citizens who rectified their visa to find a legal sponsor and stay in the UAE as legal residents,” said Mr Yattogoda.

“We recommend all citizens to be vigilant on the expiry dates of their visa, passports and to renew documents on time as these are immigration requirements. Delays in renewal can drag the persons concerned towards dire consequences.”

Some 4,469 emergency certificates were issued to Indians to leave the country and about 2,468 passports renewed during the amnesty period.

While the Pakistani embassy said it did not have precise numbers, Muhammad Sarwar, the deputy head of the Pakistani mission in Abu Dhabi, called on sponsors and companies not to withhold passports of workers and for the legal process to be expedited in labour and immigration related cases.

“In case of any disagreement or conflict between the sponsor and an employee on the terms of employment or about the work environment, the designated government authority must notify such incidents to the respective embassy,” he said.