x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Visa chaos floods Buraimi hotels

New rules preventing selected nationalities from attempting visa runs have placed thousands in limbo.

Filipinos stranded in Oman face an uncertain wait to find out if their visit visas will be renewed.
Filipinos stranded in Oman face an uncertain wait to find out if their visit visas will be renewed.

BURAIMI, OMAN // When Lydia left for the Omani border town of Buraimi to renew her visit visa, she expected to make it back for dinner at her sister's house in Abu Dhabi the next day. Now, nearly five weeks later, she is living in a hotel room with five other people in the town straddling Al Ain and is still waiting to return to the UAE - just one of the thousands of people believed to have been stranded outside the country after attempting so-called visa runs that have recently been banned for many nationalities. "We are suffering too much," said Lydia, 52, who declined to give her surname. Like many others, she said she had been promised her visas would eventually come through, "but nothing is happening". Before the new rules took effect in July, people whose visit visas expired were able to renew them by making short trips to easily accessible neighbouring countries. The new procedures prevent visitors from all but 33 countries from re-entering the country immediately. Officials advise they should return to their home countries for at least one month before returning to the Emirates. Some travel agencies admit they do not fully understand the revamped procedures and are still offering customers the short visa-renewal trips. As a result, thousands are thought to be stuck in a sort of bureaucratic limbo in places such as Buraimi and Kish Island in Iran and some do not have the funds to return to their home countries. It is estimated that more than 6,000 Filipinos alone have been stranded outside the UAE. Like many of the people stuck in Buraimi, Lydia arrived in Oman on a package deal offered by a travel agency, which included transportation by bus, a one-night hotel stay and assistance with visa procedures. "I came to the UAE to be with my sister who works in Abu Dhabi, to find a job," Lydia said. "Now, I have no money to pay for the ticket if I have to go back to the Philippines. I don't want to have to go back." Yesterday, scores of people, mostly Filipinos, crowded into the lobbies of several Buraimi hotels, waiting to find out whether they would be allowed to return to the UAE. Others said they were simply taking respite from cramped hotel rooms. In some cases up to eight people are living in one room. Gaye, 22, has been in Buraimi for more than three weeks, paying Dh50 a night to stay in a hotel room with five other women. She was due to start work as a secretary with a company in Abu Dhabi. "I don't even know if I have a job to go back to now. I am very frustrated. Nobody would be happy in this situation," she said. "Hopefully I'll be able to go back after Eid." Her travel agency maintains that she will be able to return to the UAE. Outside the hotel, dozens gathered as dusk fell on another day in Buraimi. They were simply waiting, sitting on plastic chairs outside the hotels, jostling for space on couches in the lobbies. Some already had their luggage by their side in case a call came that their visa applications had been approved. After eight days in Buraimi, Ronald, 30, a graphic designer from Manila, was told that his application was rejected, but no one told him why. It was his first visa run after living in Dubai for six years. The travel agent "didn't give us a reason", he said, surrounded by several friends in similar predicaments. "They said they don't know, but won't give us the evidence or any documents to prove it. We don't know what's happening. Maybe my application is still pending." Some said they were on visit visas on the advice of their employers pending the completion of probationary periods. Others were employed "off the books" due to rules that allow their previous employers to ban them from working for another company for six months or were simply living in the UAE on visit visas. While there was frustration at travel agents for giving out false information, some criticised the rule change itself. "I trust my agency. They're Filipinos so they should help me," said Vinecia, 35, one of a large group that had congregated on the front lawn of the Buraimi Hotel. Her friend, Christina, 31, who had been looking for a job in sales in the UAE, has been staying at the hotel for the past 20 days, since she was informed by her travel agency that her visa renewal application had been rejected on the basis that she had entered the country too many times. "I feel so bad," she said. "Why is this happening? I am spending so much money and I don't know what is going on." Also among the crowd was Mona, 30, an Iranian pianist who had been in Buraimi since Saturday and was supposed to have performed at a recital in Dubai this week. "I am not working in Dubai. I just wanted to stay for one more month and couldn't find a seat on a plane back to Iran, so I came here," she said. "My family in Iran don't know what's happening. They would be too worried." Local hotel managers said they were negotiating with Omani authorities to allow the stranded passengers to stay longer in Buraimi to resolve their visa problems. "Most of these people are staying here for over one month, without a salary, so we are doing what we can to help," said Jamal al Safar, general manager of Al Salam Hotel. "If they have no money, maybe some will turn to doing something wrong. This is a very bad situation for them." However, another manager, who declined to be identified, disputed that anyone was "stranded". They were free to return to their home countries, he said. "They are just waiting for their time here to elapse, but they are not stranded," he said from behind the front desk of his hotel, while dozens of people clamoured for information about their visas. Some of those stuck in Buraimi said they were lucky enough to have friends or family in the UAE who were able to send them some money. Others are not as fortunate. "If my visa gets rejected again, I will have to borrow more money to get home as I don't have enough. I am so worried," said Richard, 32, from Manila. "I came to the UAE to work and earn money. Instead I am spending all my money. It's the opposite."