Residents hurry to settle debts and court cases before applying for UAE visa amnesty

Lawyers and aid workers lend support to retrieve passports from money lenders and talk to banks to lower interest charges

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - January 20, 2014.  Barney Almazar ( Lawyer - Gulf Law ) works closely with the Philippine Consulate in aiding Filipino expatriates with free legal advice and debt related cases.  ( Jeffrey E Biteng / The National )  Editor's Note;  Ramona R reports.
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Residents who have overstayed their visas have been scrambling to settle court orders and other police matters against them before applying for amnesty.

Individuals with ongoing legal cases are not eligible to apply under the scheme, which has now been extended until the end of the year.

Since the programme began in August, lawyers and consular officials have spent countless hours helping applicants retrieve passports from employers and money lenders and negotiating settlements with banks they owe money to.

“We have had several people come to us because their passports were with loan sharks," said Barney Almazar, head of legal aid at the Philippine embassy in Abu Dhabi. "They were not the ones who had borrowed the money - they had simply acted as guarantors.”

Social workers and volunteers have also highlighted several cases of people overextending credit cards and being forced to turn to illegal money lenders charging exorbitant interest rates.

“A loan shark will not return a passport until the full loan is repaid," said Mr Almazar. "So if the person who is in debt has to travel for work or an emergency, they often ask a friend or family member to swap their passport with the loan shark." If that person fails to return to the UAE, "it creates a lot of trouble for the guarantors,” he added.

In other examples, passports were held by employers who filed absconding cases against employees who changed jobs.

In these instances, embassy officials acting under the amnesty have been able to issue court orders requiring the documents to be returned.

"The court issues an order to return the passport and if the person still does not do so, then the police will step in,” Mr Almazar said.

In one case, an employer returned to Europe with an employee’s passport after the company shut down its operations in the country. When contacted, he agreed to return the document.

“He thought he would have to pay the overstay fines of the employee and when we explained that he would not have to pay because of amnesty, he agreed to help,” Mr Almazar said.

Social workers have also supported amnesty applicants by talking to finance companies and banks to lower interest charges on any money owed.

In one instance, a resident took out eight loans with a debt totalling Dh700,000 after he lost his job.

“The amnesty is an incentive for people to settle," said Mr Almazar. "If they miss the amnesty, then they will have to pay both the overstay fines and the bank loans. The money they would have had to pay for the overstay fines can be used to pay the bank.


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“If the finance company charges a lot of interest, we go back to negotiation. The banks can be concerned that they will not get any of the money so we work on a payment on installments or a discounted one-time payment."

Rent disputes between tenants and landlords over bounced cheques have also been resolved.

“Some people leased an apartment but were not able to pay," said Mr Almazar. "When a case is filed against a tenant, this [payment] must be settled or they cannot leave the country."

The legal aid section also successfully appealed to commute the sentence of a woman who had children out of wedlock, punishable as a crime in the UAE.

When it was proved that the woman was married but did not have the legal papers in Dubai, the case was dropped.

On Saturday, volunteers said more awareness was needed so those working in the country better understood how to avoid legal problems.

“We need more campaigns so they know what the law is and that their passports should not be handed over to the employer," said Eileen Puno, a Filipino volunteer. "They have to trust officials and consulates and reach out to them for help when in trouble."