Qatar ‘il­le­gals’ scram­ble to leave un­der amnesty

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

DOHA: Kalawani has spent the past six years hid­ing from the Qatari au­thor­i­ties, but fi­nally she is go­ing home to Sri Lanka for the first time since 2010. The for­mer house­maid is one of 9,000 un­doc­u­mented res­i­dents ex­pected to leave Qatar be­fore Dec 1 af­ter Doha in­tro­duced a three­month amnesty for those liv­ing in the coun­try il­le­gally to leave with­out “le­gal con­se­quences”. Kalawani ran away af­ter her em­ployer re­fused to pay her monthly wage of 1,000 Qatari riyals ($275), a com­mon prob­lem. “I didn’t get any salary from my spon­sor,” she says while wait­ing for her pa­pers to be ap­proved. Un­der Qatar’s strict spon­sor­ship laws, any­one wish­ing to change their job must get per­mis­sion from their em­ployer, so Kalawani be­came an “il­le­gal” af­ter flee­ing.

She has ex­isted by re­ly­ing on her fam­ily for help and work­ing in a cafe, though that was also il­le­gal as her en­try visa to Qatar al­lowed her to work only as a house­maid. “This amnesty is good for me. I want to go home,” she says qui­etly. Un­der nor­mal rules, she could be fac­ing a huge fine or im­pris­on­ment for ab­scond­ing.

To­day, all she has to pro­vide is her pass­port, ID card or en­try visa into Qatar and a plane ticket home - or at least enough cash to buy one. Once ap­proved, she will have seven days to leave.

Like all those leav­ing dur­ing the grace pe­riod, Kalawani’s case is be­ing pro­cessed by the Search and Fol­low Up De­part­ment. Lo­cated on the south­west­ern fringes of Doha, the de­part­ment is sur­rounded by a dusty car park, a few palm trees and the hum of one of Qatar’s busiest high­ways. But the crowds of peo­ple out­side, and a few packed suit­cases propped up against a wall, hint at some­thing hap­pen­ing in­side the un­re­mark­able look­ing build­ing.

Through a small door marked “Re­cep­tion”, about two dozen peo­ple wait pa­tiently to reg­is­ter. From there they will pass to the much grander “Ini­tial Pro­ceed­ings Hall”, a large tent com­plete with chan­de­liers and sep­a­rate queu­ing spa­ces for men and women. The tent buzzes with ac­tiv­ity. Min­istry of In­te­rior of­fi­cers carry out back­ground checks and take all ap­pli­cants’ fin­ger­prints “for the records”. “When we first started (the amnesty), it was like 100 peo­ple a day. Now we are com­ing to the end, it’s about 300 each day,” one of­fi­cer says.

There is no of­fi­cial fig­ure for how many “il­le­gals” live among Qatar’s 1.8 mil­lion mi­grant work­force. It is though a highly sen­si­tive sub­ject. Peo­ple ap­proached by AFP prior to vis­it­ing the de­part­ment said they had been told not to speak to the in­ter­na­tional me­dia. Of­fi­cials are wary as Qatar has faced con­stant crit­i­cism of its treat­ment of work­ers since win­ning the right to host the 2022 foot­ball World Cup. The au­thor­i­ties point to la­bor re­forms in­clud­ing the im­pend­ing end of the spon­sor­ship rules and the Wage Pro­tec­tion Sys­tem which en­sures work­ers get paid.

Of­fi­cials say most of those who will take ad­van­tage of the amnesty come from Asia, in­clud­ing Bangladesh, Nepal and the Philip­pines. In the “Exit Hall”, where “il­le­gals” re­ceive fi­nal ap­proval to leave, is Sa­jad, from Ker­ala, In­dia. “I had some prob­lems with my spon­sor, salary and se­cu­rity is­sues,” he says about his eight months out­side the law. He found out about the amnesty on Face­book - the Min­istry of In­te­rior’s ini­tial an­nounce­ment was made on so­cial me­dia and trans­lated into 14 dif­fer­ent lan­guages. “I am go­ing to go home, in­shal­lah (God will­ing). I am go­ing to go straight from here,” he says with a smile. He can buy his plane ticket in the Qatar Air­ways of­fice on site.

Less happy is a nearby Nige­rian elec­tri­cal tech­ni­cian. He de­clines to give his name but says he was marked as “ab­sconded” af­ter go­ing home on hol­i­day. While back in Africa, a close rel­a­tive died and he at­tended the fu­neral, in­formed his bosses he would be late back to Doha - but says his com­pany told the au­thor­i­ties he had fled. When he re­turned to Qatar, he was ar­rested and placed in prison. “This is bad, very, very bad,” he says an­grily. “This is an em­bar­rass­ment, the way they treat peo­ple. My com­pany should not have taken any ac­tion against me. I can­not cope with this en­vi­ron­ment any­more.”

Ahmed Faram, a 42-year-old Nepalese driver, has spent more than two years out­side the law and is re­signed to leav­ing - but wants to re­turn for work. “If it’s pos­si­ble to come back, I will come back, in­shal­lah.” Others though have lit­tle hope of end­ing their il­le­gal sta­tus. A Pak­istani con­struc­tion worker wait­ing out­side the de­part­ment says his spon­sor stole his pass­port and is de­mand­ing 10,000 riyals to re­turn it. “I can­not go home,” he says. — AFP

DOHA: Mi­grants gather at the Search and Fol­low Up De­part­ment in the Qatari cap­i­tal on Nov 8, 2016. — AFP

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