New one-year residency visas that allow families to remain in the UAE following the death of their father or husband will end the legal limbo that many relatives find themselves in.
As part of an overhaul of the visa legislation in the Emirates, the UAE Cabinet adopted a resolution on Tuesday that granted widows, divorced women and their children the option to apply for a one-year residency without requiring a sponsor. The move will come into effect by the end of this year.
"This is lifesaving. I've seen it up front, first you are dealing with the grief and the loss. Most women are in a complete daze and then they have this visa issue looming over their head. Time is hanging over their head like a guillotine, a noose," Priya Pinto, whose husband died in 2014, told The National.
Fortunately for the family, instead of cancelling their visas, her husband’s company allowed her time to find a job and the children finished the school year.
Until now, the sudden loss of a husband, often a family's main sponsor, plunged surviving relatives into legal limbo, with bank accounts frozen and wife and children in financial distress.
“A year’s visa gives some respite for the women to get back on their feet again. This will save the lives of family members who are left behind,” Ms Pinto said. “They can be with their children during the initial phase of grief, settle the children, do all the important things they need to and be whole again. If the rent is paid, the house taken care of, then you have immediate expenses that can be handled. A year is adequate time to deal with the legalities.”
Ms Pinto shared the news with a widow, who broke down when she heard the government’s decision.
“She was in tears and crying because she never thought she could stay in this country with her son legally, so she is just ecstatic. She doesn’t know how to process the news,” Ms Pinto said.
Dubai resident Margaret Athaiya said she knew of widows in the UAE who had not left home for months for fear of being found out.
“They cannot go to the doctor if they are ill. But mostly, they are too scared to leave the house, some lock themselves in. I cannot explain what this means for women. It is a blessing, it will help them live again,” said Ms Athaiya, who was widowed last year and has since found employment.
“You are in shock for more than a year and only afterwards can you start dealing with life.”
Many women attempt to counsel widows whose lives in the UAE have been turned upside down by the loss of a spouse and legal status. When advised to leave the country, most widows refuse because they want to continue to live with their children who have found employment and the legal security that brings.
“Their thinking is, ‘I will be deported and will never see my son again.’ I kept telling one lady to go back [to her country of origin] and that her son would visit once a year because it was better than living a jailed life without going anywhere. She turned around and told me, ‘I have lost my husband and you are asking me to leave my son.’ It was not possible to talk to her,” Ms Pinto said.
Previously, visa overstay offenders were penalised with re-entry bans and fines, but this has been waived in the latest rules.
The Government on June 13 adopted another resolution that permitted a three-month grace period for "illegal residents" to change their visa status and apply for a one-year stay permit. The Federal Authority for Identity and Citizenship has said it would launch an initiative – Protect Yourself by Modifying Your Status – to implement the Cabinet decision.
Many have been checking on how to change their status and asking for details about where they should apply.
"As soon as people saw the resolution, I started getting emails and messages from people asking how can they start the process and whether they qualify," said Barney Almazar, head of legal aid at the Philippine embassy and consulate. "We are still looking at the finer details. There are general instructions that this will start in August but we will wait for specifics about how this will be executed and by which department.
"But the most important thing is that at least we know that it can be done, that people who have overstayed can legalise their stay in the UAE. They will not be banned for life. They can either return home or continue to stay here. Nobody wants to be an illegal or to overstay. It is because of circumstances that they are trapped."
Widows who overstay are vulnerable and cannot follow up on wages owed to a deceased spouse.
While Ms Pinto was fortunate that her husband’s company supported her, other widows have dealt with companies which have not processed the deceased’s full earnings.
“The saddest part is that many companies don’t settle the dues and the woman can’t go to fight and claim it because she has no legal status. Companies that don’t settle full payments and immediately cancel [a widow’s] visa – that is more the norm than the good companies. Now with the new rules, widows will get their husband’s rightful due,” she said.
The one-year stay permit will also give women time to find work, since many are housewives and cared for the family.
“They are qualified women but because they have to find a job immediately and they are not thinking straight, they accept any job they are offered,” she said.
“This also means they take a job where they struggle and can’t be there for their children, who really need them at that time,” Ms Pinto said. “This [new legislation] is such tremendous news because given a year, they will have time to search for a job that meets their qualifications. They will be in a better emotional state to find that job.”