Sunday, February 22, 2009

Border Shock

Last Friday my husband and I took a one hour drive to the Hatta - Oman border to do my visa run. I've been doing visa runs ever since I arrived in Dubai. When I first touched down at the airport last August, the UAE immigration granted me a 30 day visit visa, just like any other visitor to the UAE would get. Before the 30 days are up, you are supposed to well, leave the country or go do a visa run. A visa run is where you go to a UAE border (in my case, the Hatta - Oman border), get an exit chop from the UAE immigration, enter Oman, exit Oman and re-enter UAE with a fresh chop for another 30 days stay in the UAE. There are only a group of countries which are allowed to do this visa run and thankfully, Malaysia is one of them. Syukur..

Another easier way to avoid doing visa runs is to apply for a spouse visa under my husband who holds a UAE resident visa. Spouse visas cost a few thousand dirhams and as we had just got married when I came to Dubai, we decided not to opt for that. Aaaaaand, we were so so sure that I would get a job within the first two months in Dubai and usually when you get hired, the company you work for will take care of your visa. So that would save us the few thousand if we were to apply for the spouse visa.

On my first visa run in September, I was granted the same 30 days as before. Then I heard stories of friends who went for visa runs after I did mine that the rules have been changed and visit visa's are now granted for 60 days instead of 30. Okay, so I missed out on that. No worries. So when we went for my second visa run in October, we were happy to know that I was granted a 60 day visa. I went for the next run on the 27th of December 2008. Again, just to be sure, we asked for how many days my visa was valid for. The officer said, '60 days. Even though the chop in the passport says 30. We have not received the new stamps which states 60 days. But here in the computer it states your visa is valid until the 24th of February 2009'. Such words of assurance.

The run I went for last Friday was 4 days before my visa was supposed to expire. I reached the counter, handed my passport to the UAE officer and waited for him to slam an exit chop into my passport. Instead, his brow creased and he looked annoyed. Then he started talking VERY loudly to his colleagues in Arabic. I didn't expect anything to be out of order as the Arabs do have the tendency to talk to each other and totally ignore that you are standing in front of them. Then suddenly, he shoved my passport back to me and growled, 'Go see manager in that building. Go see manager!' pointing to a building across the road. If you were me and saw how huge this officer was, you would also stop yourself from asking 'Why?' and just go and see the manager like he says.

So Cha and I walked over and asked to see the manager. An officer (we'll call him Officer B and the earlier one Officer A, ok) at the door asked why, and we told him Officer A sent us but he didn't say why. So Officer B asked for our passports, told us to wait and vanished inside the office. 15 minutes passed. At this point I definitely knew something was wrong. My crazy mind started imagining handcuffs and rough shoving. I shuddered to think what was going to happen when I didn't really know what was wrong in the first place! At the same time, I noticed many other different nationalities going in and coming out of the manager's office. A few minutes later, Officer B came back with our passports and said sorry it took so long (yes, he was one of the rare few who were actually polite). He said nothing was wrong and told us to go back to Officer A and tell him there was no problem. Still, absence of explanation.

I went back in line at Officer A's counter. More people had arrived who I suppose were there to do visa runs as well. So I had to wait for quite a bit. When my turn came, my husband handed over our passports and told Officer A the manager said there was no problem. He gave us a look and started punching at his keyboard. And again, he started talking loudly to his peers. Only this time he looked and sounded really, really angry. Still not saying anything to us, he picked up his metal stamp and flung it across the counter. Thank god he was inside the cabin and we were outside, separated by see-through counter barriers. Then he pulled off his identity card which hung from his uniform pocket and threw that too on the counter. As if to say, 'I don't want to do this job anymore'. I was really scared and confused that I didn't dare to even look, much less ask him anything as he continued to now shout a string of Arabic words around. After this went on for about 10 minutes plus a few minutes that Officer A was on the phone probably talking to the manager, our passports were shoved back to us with words - 'Go to manager. You overstay. You overstay!'

Okay. So the problem was I overstayed. But that was not possible as we were assured two months ago my visa is valid till the 24th of February. We went back and asked to see the manager. To cut the story short, the manager checked my passport details on his computer and said I did overstay. We told him what the officer in December had said. He told us to talk to Officer Hassan (that's December officer's name) and said he couldn't help. Officer Hassan it seems, was out and would only be back in an hour. So we waited, and waited and waited. I asked Cha what would happen next. He said we'd have to pay a fine for the days I overstayed and only then can we get the exit chop and proceed to enter and exit Oman. Cha was shaking his head in disbelief as he said we'd probably have to pay thousands as the first overstay day would cost us 200 dirhams and the following days 100 dirhams each. We sat in silence the rest of the time as I was shocked and sad, and he was shocked and angry.

During this time, I noticed some faces I had seen throughout the day queueing up at the immigration payment counter. One Korean lady and her English husband were complaining to the officer at the payment counter as to why they did not accept credit cards as no one carries thousands of dirhams around. I knew that in a few minutes or hours, I would be facing the same situation.

We finally got to see Officer Hassan and asked him how is it possible that I have overstayed my visa when he had assured us the visa would be valid for 60 days. His reply was that the government changed the rules on the 26th of December that visas would only be valid for 40 days instead of 60. My god! 30, 60 then 40 days?! Can the UAE government please make up their mind!!

'But I came on the 27th! Why did you tell me I had 60 days when the rules changed one day before?'. He said they had not been informed at that time. And I said, 'But this is not my fault! How was I supposed to know the rules had changed?'. He said, 'I know. But everyone also has the same problem. Everyone else also didn't know. You have to pay the fine'. There was no other way out. There was nothing we could do.

The computers showed I overstayed for 16 days. Guess how much I had to pay?

1700 dirhams!!


(if I was hooked up on hospital equipment, that line above indicates what happened to my heart. It stopped beating)

We were lucky we had the cash between us. And that was the last of what we had to spend for this month. We are now officially broke. Until my husband gets his salary for this month. Even so, this calamity will definitely rattle our financial plans for months to come.

After we paid the bloody fine, we had to go back to Officer A's building to get an exit chop. Thank god he was not around anymore. Maybe his shift ended. And as another officer took care of some paperwork regarding my passport, I saw a woman carrying a toddler in one hand and holding the hand of her daughter in another, plead with the officer behind the counter next to mine. 'Please sir, I didn't know the rules have changed. I do this every time. Every time I get 60 days. I didn't know. Please sir, help me just this one time. Please', she begged. The officer just sternly replied she had to pay a 1700 dirhams fine and that was that. I turned away as I did not want to see the disappointment in the woman's face.

I finally got an exit stamp in my passport. As I was walking away, I glanced at the counter next to mine as an Englishman's eyes bulged just as he was told he had to pay a 1500 dirhams fine. Another victim to this merciless drama.

Everything went on smooth after that. Went to Oman, entered, exited and re-entered UAE. Five hours in total was spent that Friday for something that usually only took 2 hours.

But it got me to thinking, in this time of financial desperation, is this some kind of conspiracy played upon us defenseless expats as an easy way to swindle money out of us? Just imagine, if one overstaying person had to pay 1500 dirhams each and there were say, 30 people on that dreaded Friday that had to pay the fine. Hmm.. you do the math.

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