The infiltrators, the term used by local newspapers, were from 21 countries and kept the sultanate’s coast guard personnel on alert throughout the year.
“This year alone, we arrested 203 people from 21 different countries, mainly from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Other countries include Sri Lanka, Somalia, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda,” a coastguard official told The National.
“They all try to come here to find jobs and work illegally in Oman.”
Not all of the attempts thwarted have been reported by the local newspapers he added.
He said the vessels are operated by local boat owners masquerading as fishermen, who bring in illegal workers and charge them money. He said ” it is difficult to patrol the vast territorial water with hundreds of vessels sailing in and out of the Omani sea on a daily basis”.
Oman has the longest coastline in the Arabian Peninsula, stretching from the UAE in the north to Yemen in the south - over a distance of 3,165 kilometres - making it the easiest to access via the Arabian sea from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Omanis living in coastal areas acknowledge that not all licensed fishermen go out to the sea to fish. Some sneak in foreigners under cover of the night to avoid detection.
“These illegal foreign worker smugglers, as we call them, are Omani boat owners and licensed fishermen. They hide the Indians, Bengalis and Pakistanis under a pile of fishing nets. They always smuggle them during the night since it is difficult for the coast guards to detect them,” said Mohammed, an Omani living in the Batnah coastal town of Saham.
It is a thriving business and more of the smugglers get away with it than those who are caught, according to Mohammed.
“They charge $500 per head to bring them in. Hundreds more are smuggled into the country and I would say only 20 per cent are caught. It is a very lucrative business,” he said.
A 26-year old Indian who identified himself only as Anil, who arrived illegally last year in Oman on one of the boats, said agents operating in India have arrangements with Omani boat owners to smuggle in illegal workers.
“I contacted this agent in Chennai and paid him. He arranged everything. It is so easy if you know who to contact. Of course, it is not common knowledge,” Anil said.
He is now in Muscat, without official papers, working as a gardener in the morning and car washer in the evening.
Those who employ illegal foreign workers say it is all about cheap labour.
“I pay my Pakistani house cleaner only 35 rials ($91) a month. He comes two hours a day to clean. Of course, he is free to do other work elsewhere during the day," said an Omani living in Muscat.
"I don’t pay him an air ticket, labour charges, food or accommodation in comparison to someone who is working full time for me."