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Entry denied.

A ban on issuing visit visas for Pakistanis with manual or hand-written passports has been imposed by the United Arab Emirates for several weeks now. The new rule, introduced around August 27, caught many travellers unaware, as it was not widely publicised or circulated. According to this blanket rule, citizens of Pakistan cannot apply for a visit visa to the UAE, even if they are located in neighbouring GCC countries.

This problem is exacerbated in case of Oman as the Pakistani Embassy in Muscat cannot issue the required Machine-Readable Pass-port (MRP), leaving Pakistani expatriates residing in Oman in a lurch.

AoIt was brought to our notice by a number of our citizens travelling to the UAE around the time of Eid that they were denied entry. Initially, we thought these might be isolated cases but then we were informed verbally by the UAE Embassy here that such a rule has been passed,Ao said Ahsan Wagan, deputy head of mission at the Pakistani Embassy. The embassy has not received any written or official notice from the UAE Embassy about this ban, he said.

AoIn the verbal communication, we were informed that it is a regio-nal ban, and it is for all manual passport holders of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan, etc.Ao

However Indian expatriates do not face a problem as the Indian Embassy in Muscat has been issuing MRP or computerised passports for the last couple of years. Similarly, Bangladeshi expatriates were also not affected although the Bangladeshi mission still issues hand-written passports and plans to start MRPs only in 2011.

The officials at the Bangladeshi embassy were unaware of any changes in the rule and confirmed that none of their citizens had faced problems or brought this issue to their notice. They were also not aware of the imposition and rescindment of a previous ban in July on UAE visit visas for hand-written Bangladeshi passports. This particular ban issued in the last week of June, cited confusion created by two different formats of passports until its revision two weeks later, after the Bangladeshi consular services in the UAE managed to convince the UAE authorities to provide some grace period to convert all old passports to computerised ones.

Coming as a shock for a lot of Pakistani expatriates who had planned to spend their Eid holidays in Dubai, the rule makes no exception of financial or economic basis of the applicant, which are generally the deciding factor in the laws governing UAE visit visas for expatriates residing in GCC countries.

Confirmed and reconfirmed airline and hotel reservations were left to gather dust as some of the people could not avail them. The ban allowed some relaxation during Eid holidays and Ramadan as an exception, but it was a mixed bag of fortune, with some making it across and others denied entry. Initially very few people travelling by air were warned in advance by their airlines but thought these to be rumours as many of them could not find alternate sources to verify the morator-ium. Others who booked online were turned away at the airport before boarding. Even at the time of filing of this report, with the exception of two major airlines, travel agents were willing to make reservations for passengers with manual passports.

Hira Lal Bharvani, CEO of a prominent financing company, was caught unawares, when he and three of his colleagues heading for a business trip, were told that they could not board the plane. AoWe were shocked, as this was the first time that I came across such a rule. There was no advance warning. What is frustrating is that nobody is sure as to who to address this query to. I know a number of individuals who have been here for years and have manual passports as that is what our embassy issues here,Ao said Bharvani, who has travelled 40 times to the UAE in the last three years. AoIt is impossible for most of us to take our families to Pakistan for new passports, that too in the middle of an academic year.Ao

Taimur Malik, legal consultant at Said al Shahry Law Office (SASLO), recently travelled to Pakistan to renew his passport as a number of Western countries require an MRP and a manual passport is a severe handicap. AoIt is high time the Pakistani Embassy addressed the issue as not everyone can travel to Pakistan for renewal purpose. Besides, the timeline for passports back home itself is very long, due to various factors, with a minimum of seven days at least for an urgent case.Ao

A larger number of people travelling with their families who decided to travel by road, made a trip to the Hatta border and back, in vain. Hajra Haq, a young mother, was informed of this rule by her parents residing in the UAE, who advised her to double check before travelling as some of their relatives were deported from the Dubai airport on arrival. AoI decided not to risk air travel, and went through the Hatta border and was able to make it across because I also have a UAE residency visa,Ao said Hajra.

She now plans to make anot-her trip to the UAE and renew her passport from the Pakistani embassy there to get an MRP.

But not everyone is as lucky as Hajra. Calls to both the Hatta and Wajaja border confirmed that if a person had the required designation on their labour card, they would be allowed entry. None of the officials could confirm if manual passports would be denied; it could not be ascertained if this was a part of the aforementioned relaxation.

The new rule has upset many Pakistani expatriates living here as it has affected not only their leisure plans but their livelihood in many cases. High-level executives, small business owners, technical and skilled professionals, who were previously allowed cannot travel now because of this blanket ban as most of them hold the manual or handwritten passport.

Shahzada Riaz, a banker found it bewildering that it has been almost two months and no subsequent action had been taken. When he approached the relevant authorities at the embassy, he was told that the Pakistani Embassy in UAE had been asked to intervene but no progress has been reported so far.

AoWe have asked our UAE counterparts to raise the issue with the UAE Immigration authority and the Foreign Affairs. We are trying to seek a window, so that it gives us some time to solve the issue of the passport machine here,Ao said Wagan.

Speaking about the passport machine which has been installed and commissioned for the last nineteen months now, Wagan said, AoEverything is in place, but we need an operating team. We have asked the Pakistani Ministry of Interior

and the National Database and Registeration Authority (NADRA) to assign the required personnel as it is their jurisdiction. We also raised this issue with the Minister of Foreign Affairs on his recent visit here,Ao he said.

The case of the heavy vehicle drivers is of particular interest. The UAE government has a special category for by-road visit visas, called the Truck Driver visa, which is a multiple entry and exit transit permit that allows them to commute between the UAE and the sultanate. This category is only reserved for expatriate drivers from Oman.

A large majority of these heavy vehicle drivers are Pakistani and this moratorium is a blow to their livelihood. Heavy vehicle licenses require even more persistence and effort than the light vehicle licences, and these seasoned truckers are finding themselves without jobs. Worse still, a number of businesses have to plan and manage their sorties to and from UAE, as it is becoming increasingly difficult to find truckers for the job.

AoWe have contracted our trucks to some of the local firms here, and our truckers are hesitant to proceed as there is no guarantee if they will make it across. Sometimes, they are flatly refused and in a small number of instances, they allow them on checking the relevant custom clearance documents and the invoices,Ao said Muhammad Ahsan Sabir, a transporter.

The reason for this ban could not be ascertained as continuous efforts for inputs from the UAE embassy in Oman remained fruitless. The officials at the UAE embassy are only willing to confirm that such a rule is in place, and cannot divulge the reasons, timeline and the implications of the rule. Generally believed to be brought about or security reasons, the ban may be trying to stem the flow of illegal immigrants travelling to the UAE on manual passports, but isolation of one nationality alone has left many Pakistanis questioning the rule.

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Publication:The Week (Muscat, Oman)
Geographic Code:7UNIT
Date:Oct 28, 2010
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