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Above: Those overstaying in the UAE have been given many concessions by the government

Sweeping changes in labour and visa rules recently by this country have come as a boon to Indian workers and will also spur tourism, retail and the property market

~By Bikram Vohra in Dubai

Every now and then, UAE authorities launch an initiative to clear the country of illegals. Most of them are from the subcontinent and Africa and spend their lives looking over their shoulders and avoiding being caught. Some have managed to sneak past the system for years and not gone home in a decade. Once caught without papers, they are kept in custody for a few days and then deported with a stamp on the passport and an iris scan that ensures they don’t re-enter the country.

These illegals know that, so they test their luck and hang in there to send mo­ney home. Year after year. This despair to maintain the family is something that the Emiratis understand and empathise with, but the law has to be maintained. Even before new rules came into existence, the authorities would swiftly let an absconder get on a plane if he has not committed a crime and has walked into Immigration or a police station and surrendered voluntarily. Usually, within three days, the individual is despatched with a permanent ban.

The problem often arises when the illegal has no passport because his company either vanished with it or he sold it for a price or, in many cases, has no clue where it is. The roots to that ignorance lie well in the past when the concept of “free visa” was rife. Even though it had no legal fiat, workers would come in droves, give their passport to the mandup (company PR) and be put to work. Often, they would either run away or the company would close down and that was that. Never be united with the passport again.

It had become a cumbersome and expensive business to identify the nationality of illegal workers and the police, immigration officials and concerned embassies had to spend time, money and effort before getting outpasses for these people to be sent home. National security, not just of the UAE but other countries, also becomes a matter of concern.

The new rules address the stranded squarely. Come in with a ticket and go home, regardless of how long you have overstayed, just get your act in order. The carrot is juicy. No ban or “no entry” stamp on the visa. After a break of two years, they can come back as long as they have no criminal record.

It is a very gracious offer, but if the past is any indication, the majority of illegals will continue to chance their luck and not take advantage of this generous offer. After all, when they are “caught” in a raid, then okay, luck has run out…but till then, keep the fingers crossed. Their window or grace period is from August to November, after which it is certain there will be stricter rules against those without papers. Embassies are encouraging workforces to take advantage of this offer.

In the past three or four years, some 35,000 illegals have been caught by the authorities. It is to the credit of the authorities that they still treat them with relative kindness before sending them home, often at the cost of the exchequer. Major General Mohammad Ahmad Al Merri, Director-General of the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners’ Affairs in Dubai is credited with bringing in a new humanitarian approach. He has been quoted in the local dailies as saying: “Illegal immigrants are not criminals and we can help them go back home or to amend their situation in the country in accordance with the laws of the Ministry of Interior.” He further added: “I encourage those who overstay or those who are staying illegally to come to us and we will help them legalise their situation or go back home.”

One of the major courtesies that demand more attention in the new visa rules is the one-year visa for widows whose breadwinner is felled by fate. This was a major issue and uprooted children from schools and created much upheaval in a family. Now, the widow and the children have a year to find their feet and continue the best they can. This is a very heart-warming decision and one that must be seen as hugely compassionate and progressive.

Indians have much to be happy about. Those with US visas on their passports can now get visas on arrival for a 14-day stay. If they are flying onwards to a third destination, a 48-hour transit visa is available. All the airports will have special express counters to dispense these visas. For another $15, you can extend that visit to 96 hours. These rules encourage more footfalls in the country and galvanise retail and tourism in a tangible fashion.

For many years, one of the fears of those working in the region was the draconian protective laws that forced even a senior executive to face a ban if he left a company.

As a young country, the UAE also had to protect its own, but a great deal of global talent was lost as bans forbade moving from one organisation to another, specifically if it was competitive.

As the nation has matured, the rules reflect the new thinking. Now, you can avail a six-month visa to search for another job and not disrupt your lifestyle or that of the family. There used to be the option of flying off to Muscat or the Iranian islands of Kish on what was known as turnaround visa flights. With the new rules, this very cumbersome round trip is a thing of the past. This stay-in-the-country decision is predicated to encouraging talent by offering more permanence and replacing the old, almost seismic and sudden nature of departure, often on a whim or a difference of opinion. In brief, Indian workers are expected to be among the major beneficiaries of the measures.

Besides giving people the comfort zone of permanence and allowing market competition to hone its edge, the idea is also to stimulate demand and create alternative revenue streams to oil economies. The recent 10-year visa for professionals in certain categories is a huge step towards creating a resident “citizenry” that will impact dramatically on the property market.

Businesses will now pay an annual fee of 60 dirhams ($16.34) per worker for a low-cost insurance policy instead of a bank guarantee of 3,000 dirhams. That decision brings nearly a whopping $4 billion revenue stream into the market. “All these rules will go a long way in easing the financial burden on Indian workers, professionals and entrepreneurs,” Navdeep Singh Suri, India’s ambassador to the UAE, reportedly said, echoing the sentiments of three million Indians who live with 120 other nationalities in this country.

A surge of professionals and across-the-board investors are expected to mark these changes with their arrival over the next few months. There is certainly a fresh wind blowing.

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