x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Oman struggles to keep out illegals

Oman's crackdown on illegals proving to be largely futile as hundreds of deportees return illegally each month.

MUSCAT // The smell of vomit and animal faeces was overpowering in the cargo hold of the livestock boat carrying illegal workers from Pakistan to Oman. Most of the men were returning to the Gulf country after being deported only a few months before. There were about 10 Pakistani nationals in a space no more than 100 square metres in size. They had to compete for leg room with goats and sheep. Most of the men wrapped their scarves around their faces to block the stench, they said.

One of the men would vomit every time the boat lurched as it made its slow, overnight journey to Oman's northern town of Khasab from Pakistan's Gwadar port. The port is located in the Gulf of Oman some 450km west of Karachi and is a major getaway for illegal Pakistani migrants on their way to the Gulf countries. For Farook Shahbaz, 38, the difficult journey to Oman began in Karachi. He left the coastal megacity by boat for Gwadar, a two-day trip, and then Gwadar for Oman.

Every now and then, Mr Shahbaz said, one of the boat crew would shout for the men to crouch under the heavy canvas whenever they passed another vessel. The US navy was looking for boats carrying weapons and the Omani coast guard for human trafficking. "One of the men said that the boat crew knew some of the patrolling police and had bribed them not to look in the hold," Mr Shahbaz said. The group arrived at Khasab on Oman's northern coast just after 3am. Dirty and tired, but grateful, they hugged each other and said goodbye before going separate ways to their friends' waiting vehicles.

They paid 70,000 rupees (Dh3,016) each to agents in Pakistan for the arrangement of entering Oman illegally. Oman has tried to staunch this flow by launching a concerted effort to deport thousands of illegal South Asian workers since last August. More than 80,000 have been sent home since then, according to local newspapers reports. But the crackdown has proved to be largely futile as hundreds of deportees return illegally each month, according to job experts.

"Since I was deported from Oman only in January this year, I still had enough money to pay the agent. No problem. I am going to make much more now I am back," Mr Shahbaz said. He returned to Oman during the first week of May, just four months after his deportation. "They come back by sea, the same way they came in the first place. I know many who have been deported come back to me looking for work. I have to follow the rule and show them the door if they don't have valid papers," Mohammed al Rabeea, 49, an employment consultant based in Muscat, said.

Mr al Rabeea provides construction workers to property developers on a contract basis. He added that the property construction business uses a lot of the illegal workers to cut their costs and maximise profits. The manpower minister has warned that employers face a fine of 2,000 rials (Dh19,099) for every illegal worker recruited and a business licence suspension for persistent offenders. But some builders still find the practice of recruiting such workers too profitable to resist.

"Such workers cut down the labour construction expenses by half and that is too much for some builders to miss. As long as they are such cheap workers around, builders will recruit them," Nasser al Juhais, owner of Al Juhais Building Contractors, said. And as long as there is a need for labour in the construction market, more illegal migrants will sail in through the Gulf of Oman, said Makbool Ghulam, 31, a forklift operator in Muscat who claimed that one of his cousins in Pakistan is an agent who arranges the sea trip.

"Some of the organised trips are arranged with the co-operation of corrupted officers patrolling the waters. They get their cut and never stop certain boats. That's why the Omani government and also the UAE, find it difficult to get rid of illegal workers," Mr Ghulam said. The ministry of interior declined to officially comment, but a police officer in the Gulf of Oman patrol, who spoke on condition of anonymity said it was difficult to patrol Oman's long coastline, which stretches for 1,700km.

"There are at least five hundred vessels of every kind and size sailing every day in the Gulf of Oman. We catch, on average, 400 South Asians per month trying to come to Oman illegally. It is possible that a few hundreds escape detection to land in Oman every month," the police officer said. The manpower ministry does not know the exact number of illegal workers in Oman but job experts estimate they number at least 200,000, in a country with one million legal expatriate workers out of a total population of 3 million. Late in May, the government extended a two months amnesty for illegal workers to report to the manpower ministry to validate their papers or go back home unpunished.

The first amnesty expired in December 2009 and it has been extended three times since then. @Email:salshaibany@thenational.ae