x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Migrants cross strait of dreams

Hasan is one of many migrants who has come to the UAE illegally, travelling across Iran and the Strait of Hormuz in search of better economic prospects.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // The town of Shadegan in southwest Iran is little more than a collection of shabby houses. Its inhabitants are poor and many are desperate to leave. It is here that the Iranian immigrant, Hasan, grew up and here he started his journey that was to end in a Ras al Khaimah prison. Hasan, 21, is one of many migrants who has come to the UAE illegally, travelling across Iran and the Strait of Hormuz in search of better economic prospects. Every week migrants are caught trying to cross the Oman borders into the UAE. They travel hundreds of kilometres, usually from Iran or Afghanistan, lured by stories of the wealth of Dubai. Many try the journey repeatedly, up to seven or eight times. Hasan's home town is near the Iraqi border in the Khuzestan province, which suffered the heaviest casualties in the Iran-Iraq war. Today, its oil has brought some economic success and the province is blessed with water and agriculture. But Hasan saw no opportunities. Instead, he had a dream to work in the hospitality industry in Dubai. "I didn't have a job, I can't get married. We don't have anything. I came because I want to work," he said, from prison. Hasan had failed classes twice before, dropping out of school at the age of 15. "I am not good at school and I needed money for books." He began selling construction supplies. His father died of a heart attack two years later at age 65, and his eldest brother inherited the family date farm. Hasan said he has nothing for himself and wanted to save enough money to start his own family, so he set out for Dubai, travelling with his uncle who had made the journey before. For 300,000 Iranian toman (Dh1,111) they travelled by bus for 18 hours from their township to Bandar Abbas, the port city that has served as a gateway to the Gulf for merchants and smugglers since before the time of Alexander the Great. From Bandar Abbas, they hired a boat to take them across the Strait of Hormuz to Musandam, on the Omani peninsula. "When we arrived in Bandar Abbas, I went with my uncle to the sea,'' Hasan said. "My uncle said to someone, 'I want to go behind the mountains'. He said, 'I can take you but tonight you will sleep here'. We gave him 180,000 toman (Dh660). "We woke up early the next morning, before sunrise." After two hours in the boat, Hasan saw the cliffs of the Omani mountains. The driver dropped them off and Hasan followed his uncle. The two walked for three days and three nights, with nothing but the clothes they wore and a bag of apples and some water bought in Bandar Abbas. They would walk at night and in the afternoon, sleeping only for a few hours each morning. But they were caught by UAE police and arrested when they could not produce identification. Hasan said he would not have come if he had known it was illegal, but then admitted he did not want to apply to enter the UAE legally because he was afraid that if he applied for a passport the Iranian Government would force him to do the obligatory two years' conscription. Iran has high inflation and a young, unemployed labour force. The country also has a young population overall and, according to the 2007 International Monetary Fund Country Report on the Islamic Republic of Iran, an estimated 750,000 Iranians enter the labour market each year. Latest available figures show Iran's unemployment at 10.2 per cent. Illegal immigrants such as Hasan are often caught by the UAE army, who usually transfer them to an RAK prison until they can be deported. Prison officials say they receive an average of 10 illegal immigrants from the Omani mountains each month. They usually stay for two weeks before being transferred to Abu Dhabi for deportation. Last month, a man was found near death in the RAK mountains, allegedly trying to enter the country illegally on the same mountain trek as Hasan. He was spotted from the air, starving and unable to walk or talk, and taken for treatment to a hospital. Mohamed bin Hamadi, an investigations officer with the RAK Naturalisation and Residence Department, said: "They think that money is available, that they can take the money in the street." Col Sultan Yusuf al Nuaimi, the director of the department, said it collaborated with the army and the coastguard to find illegal migrants. "Maybe they want a different life, a different job and they don't have a passport," Col Nuaimi said. azacharias@thenational.ae