Families who are living in the UAE illegally hope that they will be considered for amnesty after major changes to visa legislation.
Many are parents who have lost their jobs and are now without legal residency, while some are expatriate mothers who have had children out of wedlock – a crime according to UAE law.
Officials have been working with some of these women to get them to face reality and to accept the penalties of breaking the law.
Dozens of women cradle children, feed their infants and chase after toddlers at the Philippine Consulate in Dubai, at meetings to process the documents of people who have overstayed their visas.
Women who are undecided are advised to come forward to surrender to the authorities.
Jess, who worked as a housemaid, said that when her 1-year-old daughter became ill, it was a wake-up call.
“I could not take her to hospital because we have no papers,” said Jess, who has worked in the UAE for six years. “I got some medicine from a friend, but I could have lost her.
“Here I don’t have anything – no house, no money. I struggle for diapers, milk, food. Before, I was scared to go to jail but now my dream is to go back to the Philippines. It is time to go home.”
Jess joined a recent information session, where the room was filled with women balancing papers and plastic plates on which they served their children rice, chicken and noodles, provided by the consulate.
The children played in a small courtyard, watched by their mothers, who exchanged information about their cases.
Most of the women said they had not shared announcements of their children's births or their illegal status with their relatives in the Philippines.
“I tell them I’m OK. They don’t know about the baby,” said Jemalyn, who worked in the sales department of a confectionery company for five years. She lost her job after her son was born last year.
“Deep inside I’m so sad. I talk to my mother and father but never about my situation, I tell them nothing. When they ask questions, I’m too scared to talk much because they may find out about my situation.
“I wanted to give my family a good life but I lost everything. I can’t send money home; I have no savings. I don’t know about the father, he just left. Maybe he is back in the Philippines.”
Called "baby cases" by the mothers and "morality cases" by lawyers, residents who are unmarried with children face up to a year in prison for crimes of honour under the UAE Penal Code. There have been incidents in which women with children have been released earlier for good behaviour, but this depends on the specifics of each case.
In UAE law, engaging in consensual sex with anyone other than your spouse and conceiving outside wedlock is a crime.
Many of the women at the consulate sessions worked as shop assistants, waitresses, receptionists, maids, and they sent money home to put their siblings through college. Some lost their jobs after their children were born and many live with friends and take on part-time jobs cleaning homes or working in restaurants and shops.
In most cases, the women have no contact with the fathers, many of whom have returned to the Philippines out of fear of imprisonment.
The Philippine mission has helped to repatriate 33 minors and 642 residents this year, with US$250,000 (Dh918,300) paid out from the Assistance to Nationals fund for expenses, such as for flight tickets home.The consulate repatriated 23 children and 1,300 residents last year.
The exact number of unwed foreign mothers living in the UAE is unknown because they tend to approach welfare groups only in emergencies. Several women wait it out before surrendering, believing jail time will be easier when their children are a little older.
“I always urge them to think of the bigger picture, especially about the well-being of their children,” said Paul Cortes, Philippine Consul-General.
“The more they overstay without papers, the less opportunity is available for their children and the more difficult it is to build a future because of the lack of access to education and health care. The hard part of gathering these people is that they do not come to us until they have major issues and usually when things have gone downhill.”
Rihanna worked as a housemaid for eight years before she lost her job after she had a child 10 months ago.
“My mother is sick and I need to go to see her. I came to work because I dreamt of doing better for my family,” she said.
“But then the father left. He disappeared when he found out I was pregnant. Before, I was scared to go to jail. Now I need to finish this ‘baby case’ and go home to my family.”
Apart from the mothers, other residents seek guidance at the consulate on issues such as work contracts and bank loans, as well as requests for financial aid, but immigration matters are the biggest concern. This month, the Cabinet announced a series of visa reforms that established a three-month grace period for illegal residents and a one-year permit for residents from war-torn countries or places where disasters have struck. Previously, visa offenders were penalised with re-entry bans and fines. Lawyers said they required further details to understand if unwed mothers who had overstayed their visas would also be allowed to leave without a no-entry stamp.
Consular officers have held consultations to convince women to come forward.
“When I ask them what kept them from surrendering, some say they are waiting for amnesty; others want to earn a little more money,” said Arthur Blas, a Philippine Assistance-to-Nationals officer. “We explained that even under amnesty, this is a crime and will not be forgiven.”
Former sales worker Diana waited until her daughter turned 5 to turn herself in.
“I stay with friends but I cannot keep depending on them. I will surrender in Al Raffa Police Station in Bur Dubai,” she said. “I get temporary jobs but there has been no proper work for many months. I cannot feed my daughter properly anymore.
“She needs to go to school. So I must settle this ‘baby case’ and go back to my family.”