LAST Tuesday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia issued an “extremely urgent” bulletin to all diplomatic missions in the Gulf country regarding the ongoing “Nation Without Violators” amnesty program for undocumented and overstaying foreigners, including many of our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).
According to the bulletin, which was originally issued in Arabic, the Saudi government has promulgated an instruction “to carry out the implementation of the comprehensive national campaign to chase and arrest the violators of the residence permit (i.e. iqama), work and border security regulations” after the amnesty deadline.
This means that our “kabayan” in Saudi Arabia should expect a massive crackdown on all illegal foreign workers in the kingdom at the end of the amnesty period on June 25 (Sunday).
The Saudi government has also “granted a grace period deadline to the violator expatriate to leave the kingdom at his own expense within 90 days. Moreover, the violator expatriate is entitled to exemption from fees and fines.”
The bulletin likewise urges the Philippine embassy to urge all OFWs “who are violating such regulations to benefit from the grace period to leave the country before the end of the deadline” because “any violator of the residence permit and work regulations would be arrested after [the end of]the grace period [and]the regulation will be implemented on him/her and he/she will be under a legal case.”
In Saudi Arabia, the violation of labor or residency laws usually results in mandatory jail time and a hefty fine ranging from 15,000 to 50,000 Saudi riyals (or P200,000 to P660,000) and deportation proceedings, which means a ban from re-entering the kingdom for several years.
Right now, there are two options by which our OFWs can apply for amnesty. First, through online application, or second, by appointment and personal appearance at the Jawazat (an agency under the Ministry of Interior that handles immigration concerns, passports and iqamas). Workers who do not have an iqama or do not know their iqama number are required to process the same in person before the Jawazat.
But even with the amnesty, not all undocumented or overstaying Filipino migrant workers will be able to go home. Excluded from the amnesty are those with so-called “police cases,” unpaid debts or bank loans and other similar problems.
The most common police cases involving our OFWs are qatl (murder, homicide, suicide or a life lost by accident), theft, “love cases” (or affairs between couples who are not married to each other), drugs, pork-selling or alcohol consumption, and embezzlement or swindling.
Our Philippine Overseas Labor Offices (POLOs) in Riyadh, Jeddah and Al Khobar have all noticed an uptick in police cases among amnesty availers, perhaps because of the required database check being implemented by Saudi immigration authorities. An exit visa or clearance from the Jawazat, therefore, is not a guarantee that an OFW will be allowed to leave.
Our overseas posts have encountered scenarios where OFWs have already checked in at the airport, only to find themselves denied exit by immigration authorities due to a police case, unpaid debt, etc. This happens because the Saudi Ministry of Interior and police officials at the airport have access to the Jawazat database and can stop the departure of any foreigner.
If the OFW is stopped at the airport, he has to appear at a police station where the complaint originated (even if this is in another area hundreds of miles away) in order to secure an exit clearance. For this reason, some of our kabayan would go to the airport’s immigration counter prior to their flight in order to check through the computer system if they have a listed police case/s, unpaid debt/s, or outstanding bank loans.
It’s even more problematic for mother-and-child cases where the offspring is born out of wedlock. Despite technically being a “love case” involving adultery, which carries a penalty of 100 lashes and one-year imprisonment, mothers and their children availing of the amnesty program will be spared jail time. Instead, before being given exit visas, both mother-and-child are required by Saudi authorities to undergo DNA testing. I’m told this is to ensure that no Saudi national is taken out of the country without the consent of the father.
The problem that has been encountered recently is the long waiting time for the DNA results because of the long queue at the Jawazat. The lines are expected to get even longer until the end of the month due to the nationwide observance of the Ramadan in Saudi Arabia. During Ramadan, work hours in government offices, including the Jawazat, are reduced to only 5 hours per day.
This is why I’m urging all our undocumented and overstaying kabayan in the kingdom who wish to avail of the amnesty program to avoid the “last-minute” mentality, and to start processing their exit visas as soon as possible while they still have enough time to verify and/or rectify their labor or residency status.
Once an OFW has secured his or her exit visa, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE)’s augmentation team, composed of labor attaches and OWWA welfare officers deployed by Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello 3rd (in the POLOs in Riyadh, Jeddah and Al Khobar)—in cooperation with the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs (OUMWA) headed by Undersecretary Jesus Yabes—are on hand to provide them with plane tickets for their return flight to the Philippines, in case they can’t afford to buy one.
Our amnesty availers, however, will not come home empty-handed. As ordered by President Rodrigo Duterte and Secretary Bello, a package of benefits and financial assistance from OWWA awaits them upon their arrival. More on this in our next column.