Workers with expired visas urged to come forward to resolve residency status
Hundreds turn out as UAE's three-month visa amnesty begins
Thousands of workers with expired visas and some who are undocumented streamed into immigration offices across the UAE on Wednesday morning as they sought to take advantage of the Government's new amnesty.
Hundreds of cars and taxis lined the streets outside the centres as expats from India, the Philippines and elsewhere arrived to formally resolve their legal status.
Many workers queued from the early hours of the morning to ensure they were close to the front of the line when offices opened at 8am.
Some gathered in small groups to discuss their cases, with dozens saying they hoped to clear up long-standing residency issues once and for all.
“I don’t know what to do, said Darryl, a Filipino who has worked in Dubai for 10 years in the travel sector. "I have come here for my sister who can’t enter the country anymore. She wants to return. I hope to get some answers.”
Speaking inside a centre in Dubai's Al Aweer district, Darryl, who did not want to give his full name, explained how his sister had been granted emergency leave to go back to the Philippines to see a relative who had become ill.
But soon after she left he said her employer had filed an absconding case against her, preventing her return.
“They keep asking her to come here to cancel her case," he said. "How can she come when she's not allowed to enter the country."
Inside a women-only tent set up within the centre, concerned mothers spoke to consular staff as their children ran between tables, chairs and fridges packed with free bottles of water and juice.
Many said they now wanted to leave the UAE as this was their last chance to return home to families without having to pay visa overstay fines.
“This is my chance - if I don’t take this I will never see home," said Janet, a Filipino who was waiting in line with her nine-year-old son, Jesy.
"I wanted another job; I've tried for many years. Now I have to face the truth that I must go back."
Janet, who was also reluctant to give her full name, revealed she had been living illegally in the UAE for 10 years after losing her job as a spa receptionist.
She said she now cooked and sold meals to other residents from the Philippines to get by. Her son has never been to school because he lacks the correct papers, she said.
The UAE's much-publicised visa amnesty offers anyone who has overstayed their work or residency visa the opportunity to either legalise their status in the country or return home.
Read more on the visa amnesty:
Substantial crowds are expected throughout the process - previous amnesties in 2007 and 2013 resulted in more than 340,000 residents with expired visas taking advantage of the grace period.
Workers are expected to come from a wide range of industries, but are likely to include many domestic workers and construction labourers.
Speaking to The National, immigration staff said the volume of people arriving was “good”, and that they expected numbers to increase.
“People are still trying to understand what they must do and where to go," said Maj Gen Obaid bin Suroor, a spokesman for the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs.
"We have explained that they can come to Al Aweer and then they don’t have to pay the visa fines. We've also had people come to us from countries in a state of war saying they wish to continue to stay here.”
Immigration officials this week said the amnesty may also be a chance for women who have had children outside of wedlock and found themselves on the wrong side of the law to resolve their situation.
Those wishing to take advantage of the programme - which runs until October 31 - can visit any of nine centres dedicated to the amnesty, including those in Al Shahama in Abu Dhabi and Al Aweer in Dubai.
Anyone living in the country without a valid visa will be allowed to return home without paying the fines usually required for overstaying, and without facing the possible threat of a jail term.
The government has also announced a one-year residency and exemption from overstay visa fines for individuals from war-torn countries.
Tassia Falcerose was one of dozens of women waiting her turn to speak to officials at a centre in Shahama in Abu Dhabi.
She described a "torturous" visa situation that she had been going through for three years.
Having worked as a maid in the UAE since 2010 to support her three children, she said she was desperate to stay in the country and continue earning her regular salary.
But she said her last employer had returned to Ireland at short notice, leaving her without a sponsor.
"In April 2015 my visa expired and I just overstayed," said the 48-year-old Filipino. "Then I found an Emirati named Kamal who worked as a freelance immigration public relations officer.
"I paid him Dh27,000 (for help) but he cheated me. He kept saying don't tell anyone because you are illegal. Then he changed his mobile number and he was just gone."
Ms Falcerose, a mother-of-three, said she still had documents proving she had been the Emerati man a monthly fee of Dh 4,000 since October 2015.
"I was working part-time in different houses, no employer would hire me (full time) because my status was illegal," she said.
"I made the payments to him a priority, I did not send my children the money I hoped as I wanted to fix my status."
The full list of immigration centres set up to process those seeking assistance include offices in Al Shahama, Al Ain and Al Gharbia in Abu Dhabi, and Al Aweer in Dubai. The remaining five offices will be in Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah and Umm Al Quwain.
This week, authorities warned anyone in the county illegally to take advantage of the amnesty to ensure that they resolve any ambiguity over their right to remain.
Embassy officials stressed their staff were there to help, while a number of community associations also said they would be on hand to help those most in need.
Brig Gen Saeed Al Shamsi, spokesman for the center in Shahama, said: "We are a country that aims to make everyone happy, whether nationals or expats.
"This amnesty is positive and coincides with the year of Zayed so it should be taken advantage of."
Here's what you need to know:
How long can those opting to alter their visa status stay in the country to look for a job?
A six-month temporary visa will be issued to individuals looking for employment.
Will those who entered the country illegally be given amnesty?
Yes, but they will be instructed to leave the country and banned from returning for two years.
Can individuals with criminal cases against them apply for amnesty?
No. Anyone with a criminal case against them or who has been previously banned from obtaining a visa is not eligible.
Can people with absconding reports apply for the amnesty?
Yes. Immigration authorities will delete any absconding reports and issue an exit permit without a ban.
What documents are required to apply for an exit permit?
Residents need to submit either their original passport or an Emergency Certificate. A valid airline ticket out of the country must also be provided.
Can residents without passports apply for the amnesty?
What is the fee for applying for an exit permit?
What is the fee for modifying residency status?
What is the time period allowed to leave the country after receiving an exit permit?
Those given exit permits are required to leave within 10 days of its issue.
What benefits will the amnesty provide to those from war-torn countries such as Syria or Yemen?
Individuals will be granted a one-year residence visa without restrictions.