Queues form at 6am as people take advantage of the chance to resolve their visa status on the first day of a three-month visa amnesty
Visa amnesty: a new chapter begins for thousands of UAE residents
Some had arrived on tourist visas and stayed to work under the radar for cash in hand. Others had been here for years with legitimate jobs, but ran into trouble when employers went bust or simply disappeared without trace.
Today, thousands of workers without the legal right to remain in the UAE emerged from the shadows to formally apply for amnesty under the government’s latest drive.
Secretaries, maids, engineers and electricians all made their way to nine immigration centres located across the Emirates to finally resolve their legal status.
For many it was an opportunity to air their grievances over unscrupulous employers and hopefully reapply to stay. But for countless others the scheme was a much-welcomed chance to return home to their loved ones without having to pay large fines for overstaying illegally.
“The amnesty is my saviour,” said Anne, who worked in an electronics factory in Manila before moving to Dubai and overstaying her visa.
“When I came out here, the recruitment agency promised me a sales job but then insisted I work as a housemaid.
“I didn’t want that but I stayed to work in part-time cleaning and catering jobs. I couldn’t afford the thousands of dirhams in fines, so today means I can finally go home.”
The three-month amnesty offers anyone who has overstayed their work or residency visa the opportunity to either legalise their status in the UAE or return home.
An hour before the immigration centres opened this morning, cars, small trucks and taxis lined the roads outside as men and women flocked in, illustrating how important the move is to improve many people's lives.
The roads display signs carrying the message: 'Protect yourself by changing your status'.
Dubai officials said their first applicant was a Filipino, who rectified his status within 10 minutes thanks to the efficiency of the scheme.
They said the most common violators were housemaids but also construction workers, hopeful for a way out of financial and legal complications. Some had been living in the UAE illegally for more than a decade, while others had overstayed their visa by just a few weeks.
At Dubai’s Al Aweer Centre and Abu Dhabi’s Shahama, residents from the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Jordan, Syria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Indonesia and other nations packed in, most hoping to return to legal work.
Shahama police turned away applicants at around 11am due to the sheer volume, asking them to return on Thursday.
Receptionists, salesmen and housemaids who had been left behind when their employers left the country described the amnesty as their second chance.
Others who visited the centres said they had been tricked by agents with the promise of good jobs in the UAE, only to find that they were forced to work for low salaries as maintenance or cleaning staff.
One Abu Dhabi Filipina, who declined to be named, was duped by agents. She said she had been hired as sales staff before being handed a housemaid visa. She worked for one month before her employer cancelled her visa, leaving her stranded.
In Dubai, a group of Pakistani construction workers checked travel documents provided by their consulate since their passports were with an employer whose business had shut down.
“When we came to the UAE, they told us we would have to pay for food and accommodation. How can we when we didn’t get the salaries we were promised?” asked Marouf Ahmed, a welder, who was paid less than half the amount promised.
Despite announcements, many residents were unaware that travel documents issued by consulates and embassies were required if their passports had been misplaced.
Majeh Hamad, a Jordanian secretary who has worked with real estate firms for the past 14 years, emerged four hours after entering the women’s tent holding an exit document allowing her to leave the UAE.
She lost her job two months ago, after which her visa expired.
“For last two months, I have been worried because I have never been without a visa before.
"Now I can leave without big fines."
Ms Hamad will change her departure date to within 10 days time, as required under the amnesty, and plans to return when she finds a job.
In Abu Dhabi, Zahir Jabar, 60, who was in a wheelchair, was helped by friends and policemen into the tent.
The carpenter from Pakistan has lived in the UAE for 35 years. In broken Arabic, he explained that he has no valid residency because he was paralysed two years ago and could not find work.
"I just want to travel back home," he said. Mr Jabar has not travelled home to see his five children because he could not afford it.
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A software expert from the United States, who gave his name only as Al, said there was some confusion about where to apply for the amnesty. He first headed to Tasheel in Al Raha Mall and was eventually told to go to the Shahama centre.
“I spent a lot of time at Tasheel but nothing happened," he said.
The 45-year-old lost his job two months ago, and, after his visa expired six days ago, was attempting to extend his visa to hunt for a new job.
Lt Mohamed Al Kaabi, an official from the Directorate of Residency and Foreign Affairs, said the staff at Tasheel may have not been fully informed on how to help people because it was the first day of the amnesty launch.
Brig Gen Salem Al Shamsi, executive director of the Abu Dhabi Naturalisation and Residency Centre in Shahama, said that those who have overstayed their visas can register for jobs once they have extended their visas.