Qatar’s ‘illegals’ scramble to leave under amnesty

Doha: Kalawani has spent the past six years hiding from the Qatari authorities, but finally she is going home to Sri Lanka for the first time since 2010.

The former housemaid is one of 9,000 undocumented residents expected to leave Qatar before December 1 after Doha introduced a three-month amnesty for those living in the country illegally to leave without “legal consequences”.

Kalawani ran away after her employer refused to pay her monthly wage of 1,000 Qatari riyals ($275, 260 euros), a common problem.

“I didn’t get any salary from my sponsor,” she says while waiting for her papers to be approved.

Under Qatar’s strict sponsorship laws, anyone wishing to change their job must get permission from their employer, so Kalawani became an “illegal” after fleeing.

She has existed by relying on her family for help and working in a cafe, though that was also illegal as her entry visa to Qatar allowed her to work only as a housemaid.

“This amnesty is good for me. I want to go home,” she says quietly.

Under normal rules, she could be facing a huge fine or imprisonment for absconding.

Today, all she has to provide is her passport, ID card or entry visa into Qatar and a plane ticket home — or at least enough cash to buy one.

Once approved, she will have seven days to leave.

Like all those leaving during the grace period, Kalawani’s case is being processed by the Search and Follow Up Department.

Located on the southwestern fringes of Doha, the department is surrounded by a dusty car park, a few palm trees and the hum of one of Qatar’s busiest highways.

But the crowds of people outside, and a few packed suitcases propped up against a wall, hint at something happening inside the unremarkable looking building.

Through a small door marked “Reception”, about two dozen people wait patiently to register.

From there they will pass to the much grander “Initial Proceedings Hall”, a large tent complete with chandeliers and separate queueing spaces for men and women.

The tent buzzes with activity.

Ministry of Interior officers carry out background checks and take all applicants’ fingerprints “for the records”.

“When we first started (the amnesty), it was like 100 people a day. Now we are coming to the end, it’s about 300 each day,” one officer says.