Hundreds of thousands of Asians, often working in pitiless heat and now facing the threat of prison, are racing against time to 'get legal' -- find work permits or leave the United Arab Emirates within a three-month government deadline.
The labour ministry has officially put the number of clandestine immigrants at 350,000, of whom nearly 250,000 have left their employers, saying they had been mistreated or exploited or had their contracts broken.
AdvertisementThe others are either 'visitors' who don't want to leave, or 'infiltrators' who have slipped in from neighbouring countries.
They have one desire in common -- not to leave the country, and prefer to work illegally, offering their services to whoever will pay the best in an oil-rich country where they are viewed as cheap labour.
Most too are up to their necks in debt, to the agency who recruited them and for their travel costs to the UAE.
Raju is typical. He told AFP he would prefer to commit suicide rather than return to his home, the Indian state of Rajasthan, where he owes the agency money and can't even move back into his house which he rented out to try to make ends meet.
While there are no exact figures, suicides are not uncommon among Asian immigrants when their jobs disappear or collapse in dispute, and they face the shame of returning home empty-handed.
For the men, hanging themselves from the ventilator in their collective work cabin or jumping from one of the high-rise building, appears the most common way out, while women go for a strong dose of detergent.
Raju and thousands of other immigrants have until September 2 to 'regularise their situation in conformity with the law' -- in other words, find a job and a sponsor enabling them to obtain the precious residence permit, or leave the country legally.
After that, if they are caught still here and operating illegally they face up to 10 years in prison, followed by deportation.
Those employing them risk a month in jail and a fine of some 13,600 dollars, while someone hiding an 'illegal' faces two months behind bars and a fine twice as heavy.
In 2003, around 100,000 illegal workers left the UAE under a six-month amnesty. Nonetheless, the authorities later announced that 40,000 illegal workers were arrested after that amnesty deadline expired.
Around 80 percent of the 4.1 million inhabitants of the UAE are expatriates, mainly from Asian countries, attracted to the UAE to work mainly as low-paid labourers and domestic workers.
The biggest group, estimated at 1.2 million, comes from India.
To try to move away from the reliance on foreign labour, the UAE has for several years undertaken a process of 'Emiratisation,' with companies being told to employ a set quota of Emirati nationals.
The process has, however, been slow and problematic.
One man seeking advice this month at one of the 12 help centres set up by the Indian embassy in six of the seven emirates forming the UAE, said he had worked for the government in Dubai for 35 years. He then lost his job because of the decree to take on more local people.
Since then, said Mohammed, he has been in the country illegally for 10 months.
'The 35 years I spent in Dubai have not benefited me at all and I now have to reserve a one-way ticket back to India,/ he said.
The latest amnesty is described as a 'golden opportunity' for illegals to return home or try to get a work permit with the help of their national embassies.
'Around 300 Indians in an illegal situation turn up each day to the 'Indian High School' where volunteers from various Indian states are working to help their compatriots, who are mainly illiterate, to complete forms to pass to the Immigration Department,' Minafi Ghandi, a volunteer, told AFP.
As Ghandi spoke, a badly-hurt man named Palani limped in to the Indian High School, supported by a sympathetic compatriot.
Palani's lined face was etched with pain, his skin burnt by the sun, his chest covered in barely healed scars, and his legs hardly able to support him. His whispered explanation, in tamil, was that he 'fell from a building under construction.'
'An urgent case. He must be repatriated immediately,' said the volunteer.
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