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Undocumented workers buy time to avail amnesty in Qatar

On October 23, 2016

Halfway through Qatar’s three-month amnesty for undocumented workers to leave the country without facing legal consequences, many workers say they will ‘surrender’ during the last two weeks of the grace period.

Some who spoke to under the condition of anonymity said they chose to wait until the last days of the amnesty period so they could continue to work until then.

Meanwhile, there continues to be a lack of clarity on key issues:

  • Can a worker claim dues before leaving the country?
  • What is the procedure for transfer of visa, if an undocumented worker wishes to find a new job in Qatar?
  • Will abusive and exploitative employers be blacklisted based on amnesty cases?
  • Will a worker who exited through the amnesty face be able to return to Qatar for work or will he/she face a re-entry ban?

The majority of undocumented workers have left their employers due to wage and other disputes, and work at different places ‘illegally.’ Most of them became undocumented after fleeing their original employers or overstaying their visas, and now work in the construction, domestic or service sector.

Undocumented workers seeking to leave Qatar normally must go through a lengthy, troublesome process which includes detention.  Law No 4 of 2009 regulates the entry, exit and residency of expatriates, and stipulates jailes, fines, and deportations for residency violators.  During the amnesty period, which ends on December 1, illegal residents are able to leave the country without facing these legal consequences.  On paper, those employing irregular migrant workers also face hefty fine and jail terms.

This is Qatar’s third amnesty, but only the first since Law No 4 of 2009 came to force. Under that law, legal consequences were stated with regards to regulating the entry, exit and residency of expatriates(over stay and work for someone other than the employer/sponsor). The punishment for violations of the law includes jail, fines and deportation from the country. The amnesty comes ahead of the enforcement of the new law (No 21 of 2015) regulating entry, exit and residency of expatriates. The law has replaced the Kafala (sponsorship) with a contract-based system and cancelled the exit permit system.

It has also removed the two-year period required for an expatriate worker to return to the country to take up a new job, after his departure. As per the new law, the worker can return to the country two or three days after his departure if he gets a new contract and fulfils entry visa requirements and if there is no court verdict against him.

The last amnesty between March 21, 2004, and July 21, 2004, enabled around 10,000 undocumented workers, mostly South Asians, to leave the country.

“I left the employer in December 2015 due to less salary. Now I do part time jobs at three different places. I thought it’s better to surrender during the last days of the grace period, so will get to work for few more weeks and will have money to buy the air ticket,” said a Nepalese cleaner.

A Pakistani worker said that most undocumented workers are living in the Industrial Area neighbourhood. “I know several others here who work on lower wages. But as far as I know, many of them are ready to avail the opportunity to avoid future consequences but wait until the last week of the grace period,” he said.

Another Sri Lankan undocumented domestic helper said, “I escaped from the employer’s house in June 2015 due to work burden. Now I stay with a friend and work for two expatriate families. I will go and surrender by end of November .”

Embassies of some labour-sending South Asian countries expect thousands of their citizens to benefit from the amnesty period.

The Indian embassy estimated that some 6,000 to 8,000 Indians would benefit from the current amnesty.

An estimated 20,000 Nepali migrant workers were expected to benefit from the amnesty. Nepal’s embassy said around 20 undocumented Nepalese visit the mission on a daily basis to seek assistance returning home.

However, various media reports indicate that only around 1000 –roughly 700 Bangladeshi nationals, 229 Nepali citizens and 450 Sri Lankan – undocumented workers have sought their embassies’  help to obtain travel documents, which is one of the requirements to file an application for amnesty.

“Only the Ministry of Interior would be able to give an exact number of people who have benefited from the amnesty. We will know only of those who have come to us seeking a travel document. Many of them must be having their passports, so they wouldn’t come to us but go directly to the Search and follow up Department and surrender,” said a senior diplomat of a South Asian country, who spoke to under the condition of anonymity.