x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 September 2017

Tourists heading for UAE fleeced in immigration scam

Filipinos coming to the UAE on tourist visas are being hit for cash by corrupt immigration officers in return for permission to leave the country.

ABU DHABI // Filipinos coming to the UAE on tourist visas are being hit for cash by corrupt immigration officers in return for permission to leave the country.

Since August 2010, the officers have been ordered to be on the lookout for suspected victims of illegal recruitment and human trafficking and to stop them from leaving - a process known as "offloading".

But some corrupt officials at Ninoy Aquino International Airport are abusing the system by denying travel to legitimate tourists unless they pay a bribe.

"In October last year, my wife was offloaded three times," said a 42-year-old Filipino hotel chef in Dubai. "Many approached her at the airport offering to help her depart for a fee."

The chef contacted a travel agency in Dubai that had a contact in Manila. His wife was escorted to a specific immigration counter and then to the departure gate in exchange for 25,000 pesos (Dh2,200).

Filipino tourists to the UAE have to obtain a visa in advance, usually through a UAE travel agency.

A one-month tourist visa costs about Dh800,while a one-month extension is Dh1,000.

Leo Ang, 44, the marketing officer at a travel agency in Dubai, knows of more than 40 cases this year of Filipinos on tourist visas who had to pay up to 25,000 pesos to leave the Philippines.

"They do not pay money directly to the immigration officer," he said. "The transaction is done outside and the passenger is escorted to a counter and to the departure gates."

Maria Antonette Bucasas-Mangrobang, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Immigration in Manila, said: "Why do they have to pay in the first place? We don't sit easily with complaints like these.

"Please give us names. If they have allegations, we can't act on them unless they identify the immigration officers."

In January this year, an anti-human trafficking body came up with clearer rules for Filipinos going abroad, including the presentation of affidavits for those intending to leave the country as tourists.

Before, officials had the discretion to turn away travellers even if they had the correct documents. Officers based their judgment on travellers' appearances and demeanour.

The new guidelines by the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking in January refined the system of "offloading", or preventing victims of trafficking and illegal recruitment from leaving the country.

Officers assess passengers who are classed as tourists, overseas Filipino workers, and immigrants and permanent residents.

Travellers on tourist visas face a second round of inspections to protect them from trafficking and illegal recruitment. They are also asked to complete a Bureau of Immigration border control questionnaire.

But Mr Ang said airport immigration officers were not being consistent when clearing passengers for departure.

"Some are lax and even wish them luck in their job hunt in Dubai," he said. "Others are very strict and ask for additional documents to show proof of relationship."

For instance, if a Filipino in the UAE wants to sponsor the visit of a cousin on a tourist visa, the immigration officer will ask for their parents' birth certificates, he said.

"There is no exact science for the job of an immigration officer," said Ms Bucasas-Mangrobang. "There are guidelines within which they work."

Immigration officers have come across several incidents of passengers on tourist visas claiming to be a cousin of a Filipino worker in Dubai, she said.

"But when asked by an immigration officer of the cousin's name and job in Dubai, they are unable to respond."

rruiz@thenational.ae