DOHA, Qatar: 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.
300 people every day
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.
‘I can’t go home’
There is no official figure for how many “illegals” live among Qatar’s 1.8 million migrant workforce.
It is though a highly sensitive subject.
People approached by AFP prior to visiting the department said they had been told not to speak to the international media.
Officials are wary as Qatar has faced constant criticism of its treatment of workers since winning the right to host the 2022 football World Cup.
The authorities point to labor reforms, including the impending end of the sponsorship rules and the Wage Protection System which ensures workers get paid.
Officials say most of those who will take advantage of the amnesty come from Asia, including Bangladesh, Nepal and the Philippines.
In the “Exit Hall”, where “illegals” receive final approval to leave, is Sajad, from Kerala, India.
“I had some problems with my sponsor, salary and security issues,” he says about his eight months outside the law.
He found out about the amnesty on Facebook–the Ministry of Interior’s initial announcement was made on social media and translated into 14 different languages.
“I am going to go home, inshallah (God willing). I am going to go straight from here,” he says with a smile.
He can buy his plane ticket in the Qatar Airways office on site.
Less happy is a nearby Nigerian electrical technician.
He declines to give his name but says he was marked as “absconded” after going home on holiday.
While back in Africa, a close relative died and he attended the funeral, informed his bosses he would be late back to Doha — but says his company told the authorities he had fled.
When he returned to Qatar, he was arrested and placed in prison.
“This is bad, very, very bad,” he says angrily. “This is an embarrassment, the way they treat people.”
“My company should not have taken any action against me. I cannot cope with this environment anymore.”
Ahmed Faram, a 42-year-old Nepalese driver, has spent more than two years outside the law and is resigned to leaving — but wants to return for work.
“If it’s possible to come back, I will come back, inshallah.”
Others though have little hope of ending their illegal status.
A Pakistani construction worker waiting outside the department says his sponsor stole his passport and is demanding 10,000 riyals to return it.
“I cannot go home,” he says.