Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Population

GULF-POPULATION: Extra Time for Illegal Immigrants to Leave UAE

Ahmad Mardini

ABU DHABI, Sep 30 1996 (IPS) - A last minute extension of an amnesty for foreigners staying illegally in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has relieved tens of thousands of South and Southeast Asians who could not leave the country before the earlier deadline Monday.

The UAE’s Interior Ministry announced Saturday that illegally staying foreigners can now leave by end October. Officials here say the decision was taken on humanitarian grounds because thousands of affected people were unable to leave for no fault of their own.

More than 100,000 overstaying foreigners have already left the country since July when the heavy penalties for illegal residence were temporarily waived.

However, tens of thousands of people are still awaiting confirmed seats on airlines and diplomatic missions swamped by applicants seeking the exit passes were unable to handle the demand in time to enable them to leave by Sep. 30.

Diplomatic missions of the countries with the most illegal residents in the UAE were also hard pressed arranging transport for thousands of their people many of whom did not even have money to buy their return tickets.

In the rush to leave, many could not even collect dues from employers here, say embassy officials. WIth even airlines and shipping companies unable to cope with the mass exodus, it was feared that thousands would be stranded in the UAE after the deadline.

Envoys of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Iran, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka are relieved with the extension and say this will enable them to tackle the problem caused mainly by inadequate transport facilities.

“The extension will help people who were unable to book a passage out of the country,” says M.P.M.. Menon, Indian Ambassador to the UAE. India has the single largest expatriate population here with an estimated half a million nationals.

They are followed by 400,000 Pakistanis and 300,000 Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and Afghans. Iran has 150,000 nationals in the UAE while the Philippines has some 80,000. Expatriates make up more than half the UAE’s about 2.4 million population and two thirds of the 800,000-strong foreigners employed in the UAE.

The Indian Embassy has issued exit permits to 43,000 people and more are expected to be issued during the extended period. A ship with 2,100 passengers will leave for India Tuesday from the Emirate of Sharjah.

India’s national carrier, Air-India, has already operated 204 flights, including 58 which were re-routed from Abu Dhabi and Dubai under ‘Operation Amnesty Airlift’

According to A.K. Barman, Air-India regional director for the Gulf and Middle East, the airline is estimated to have carried 29,250 of the Indians who have left under the amnesty.

Many Indians who have to leave the UAE do not have money to buy the air tickets. Some were helped by better off Indians here who pooled money to pay for their passage. Most are, however, awaiting a passage on the ferries being run by the Indian government.

The Bangladesh embassy has issued more than 34,000 outpasses while the Pakistan embassy has given out some 7,000 exit permits to its nationals staying illegally in the UAE. Ten thousand Sri Lankans, 6,600 Iranians and 5,000 Filipinos have also obtained the exit passes.

Mohammed Chowdhury, Labour Counsellor at the Bangladesh Embassy says the amnesty extension will allow outpass applicants from this country, more time to collect dues owed by their employers.

“This will also give those who wanted to stay on, time to change their sponsorship which they were unable to do before because of the crowds at the ministry,” he adds.

A new immigration law, ratified by President Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan early this year, will take effect when the amnesty runs out. It lays down prison terms of up to 10 years and heavy fines for illegal immigrants and those who help them sneak into the country.

The previous law was considered too lenient. Violation of immigration rules has so far been penalised by a few weeks imprisonment and deportation of offenders. Those smuggling in people by boat using the UAE’s extensive and poorly patrolled coastline, were only fined.

The growing population of illegal residents was considered a security risk and blamed by the police for the increasing

criminal activity in the UAE. Nearly 25,000 illegal entrants have been arrested over the last 10 years.

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