Soft-spoken Olanrewaju Akingbemisilu’s looks were etched in discontent recalling the challenges associated with attempts to renew his Direct Employment Visa (work permit) in the United Arab Emirates for seven months. Some years ago, his expectations were high when economic woes, gloom, unemployment among other wearisome realities joined forces to make him seek succour outside Nigeria.
It’s thus a rigid choice to resist the urge to live and work in the Western Asian country when the opportunity came on a silver platter.
Armed with a certificate in civil engineering and modest savings in naira converted to Dirham, Akingbemisilu hoped for a new beginning in the UAE as the plane in 2018 taxied through the runaway in one of Nigeria’s international airports and its blades sliced the skies en route to Western Asia. His dream was falling into place after he got a job a year later upon arriving in the Gulf Tiger. He focused on his job until the UAE government ceased issuance of work permits to Nigerians in the country over indistinct reasons.
Speaking with our correspondent in a voice echoing helplessness, Akingbemisilu narrated the episode which has thrown him and other compatriots into distress.
He said, “I am a certified civil engineer from Nigeria. I got to the UAE in 2018 and in 2019 joined a firm, Adnoc Drilling Offshore. Within two years, I engaged myself in many courses to build a career in the field despite the courses being expensive. I tried to get the certification to improve my skills and increase chances of promotion.
“The courses are bosiet, advanced fire fighting, helicopter landing officer, h2s, banksmen, ringing and slinging, work atight among others. I personally funded those courses. My contract with the company expired on July 27, 2021. In the process of signing a new contract to reap the career-building courses I invested in, I was told that issuance of working permits for Nigerians was on hold. The company told me to continue working as they would reapply. They did many times until they confirmed that the UAE had placed a ban on work permits for Nigerians. I contacted the Dubai Ministry of Labour through its page in July and it said the ministry didn’t restrict work permits.’’
He stated that he thought the issue would be resolved in no time until it spanned seven months and counting, adding that the contract was eventually terminated and the company contacted him a few months later to know if the matter had been resolved.
Akingbemisilu added, “When I told them it was still a pending issue, they moved on. Since then, things have been difficult. I can’t feed myself anymore or pay rent. My tourist visa expires next week and I don’t have money to renew it. I cannot return to Nigeria now because I don’t have money to pay for the flight. I can’t take care of my family back home, my aged mother and others. I am stranded here as I don’t know what to do. The Nigerian government should come to our aid to resolve the issue.’’
Akingbemisilu is not the only Nigerian migrant facing hard times in the UAE.
Last year, over 500 Nigerians lost their jobs and were stranded for months after the Western Asian country halted granting or renewing Direct Employment Visa to them. It was gathered that the Nigerians realised the situation upon securing another jobs, their new employers applied for work permits for them or when they applied for fresh work permits. Unable to bear the ensuing despondency, some of them returned to Nigeria since they committed no crime in their host country, while others stayed, hoping that the decision would be rescinded.
The unemployment situation in Nigeria is worrisome with the National Bureau of Statistics disclosing that the country’s unemployment rate rose from 27.1 per cent in the second quarter of 2020 to 33.3 per cent in Q4 2020. This indicated that within three to six months, over 1.4 million more people became unemployed. The mess has made many youths to flee the country for pastures new.
The allure of the UAE includes its cultures and traditions striking in its seven emirates namely; Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain and Fujairah. There are an impressive number of expatriates in the country. Last year, the country was ranked 18th out of 59 countries surveyed suitable for expatriates to work and live according to a study by 2021.
Another Nigerian caught in the web of the lingering matter is Johnson Joseph who started living in the UAE five years ago. He spent four years and three months in his previous firm before applying for another job with a new company.
He told our correspondent in a disturbed mood exposing dissatisfaction that he resigned to join the new company, stating that when the company applied for a work permit on his behalf, it was rejected several times.
Joseph said, “I learnt that Nigerians are being restricted from getting work permits. Since then I have been suffering and struggling to survive without work. To be able to stay legally in the UAE, I have to get a new visit visa every three months and it’s an expensive venture. I now have to borrow money from people in Nigeria to survive here. I have my mother to take care of and five siblings in the university who depend on me for their upkeep and schooling. I can’t support them because of the problem. We call on the Nigerian government to intervene in the matter. Nigerians are suffering and stranded.’’
For Olabisi Kazeem, the nightmare started in June 2021, when she got a new job and resigned from her previous company. Kazeem noted that it was a bad experience for her when in the first week of July, 2021, having left her former company, she contacted her new employer who processed her work permit and sent her evidence that they were unable to process the document in Abu Dhabi, the country’s capital.
She further said that the firm reapplied on her behalf at its Dubai branch and got the same response because “work permits for Nigerians were being restricted.’’
Kazeem stated that since then everything had been put on hold, particularly efforts to advance her career and work to make things easy for her. She added, “We went to the Nigerian embassy in Abu Dhabi and consulate in Dubai but nothing was done. Since July last year till now, I have been jobless, homeless and I don’t eat good food. I eat what I see anytime. I have my family in Nigeria who I cannot take care of anymore. I am appealing to the Nigerian government to look into the issue because many are dying as they could not withstand the problem.’’
Urgent help is what Nkechi Achalu desires to get out of depression which the wearisome issue threw her into. She expressed displeasure over the matter while speaking with our correspondent, saying, “The ban on the issuance of work permits to Nigerians by the UAE has affected me badly and even put me in depression due to lack of income.’’
She also expressed sadness over her loss of job due to the development, adding, “I started working with Gems Founder’s School in August 2021. I loved my job and the environment but unfortunately I lost the job in October 2021 due to the inability to successfully process my visa. I have been living from hand to mouth with the support of my parents in Nigeria. This should not be so. I have extended my visa thrice and the cost is draining. It is disheartening that our government is quiet when its citizens are languishing in the UAE. I urge the Nigerian government to act fast to restore our dignity.’’
Azeez Akogun had worked in two firms in the UAE since 2017 until the work permit conundrum threatened to truncate the abundant hope the country held for him.
In a measured manner, Akogun said he had worked in two different companies as a technician, adding that on June 16, 2021, he got a job offer in a company called Al Masaood. He said, “I submitted a resignation letter to my former employer on June 19, 2021, because the new company said they wanted me to start immediately I resigned from my former office. But surprisingly, I got a cancelled visa on June 22, 2021. The new company applied for my new work permit on June 27, 2021. I awaited approval until July 8, 2021, when the human resources manager called to tell me to approach my embassy because there was a restriction of work permit on Nigerian passport holders. They reapplied thrice for me and each application was rejected.’’
Unable to bear the burden of the situation, on July 11, 2021, Akogun said he visited the Nigerian embassy in Abu Dhabi to explain his predicament unknown to him that he was not the only Nigerian in the quagmire.
He noted, “I was asked to write my full name, phone number, old and new companies’ names. I did and left the premises. I returned there on July 15, 2021, for an update and was told that they were working on it. The information I got was that they had written to the UAE government.’’
Akogun further said that after a week, he returned to the embassy and got the same response the many times he visited.
He said, “The issue affects applications for both work permit renewal and fresh one. We are facing difficulties till date. My wife joined me in the UAE on December 2, 2020 and she kept searching for a job and eventually got one on June 27. The company applied for a work permit on her behalf. However, the same case of work permit rejection was recorded. Since then, I have been doing visa renewal for both of us to stay in the UAE legitimately and we keep hoping that the Nigerian government will intervene in the matter.’’
He disclosed that they visited the Nigerian embassy last year where a top official they met told them that the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), would attend the Dubai Expo 2020 and address issues relating to flight restriction, work permit and bilateral relations.
Akogun stated, “We were happy that the issue would be resolved but it was saddening that nothing like that was discussed. The issue still remained the same. Nothing was done and no mention of our plight. Since June last year till now my life has been in a nasty state. My wife and I in the UAE have been in a tough situation. I am the family breadwinner and the first son of my parents. I have two children. They, my siblings and everyone look up to me.’’
He said that people back home didn’t know what he was going through as he couldn’t feed himself and wife, adding that he borrowed money from friends to renew his wife’s visa every three months.
“I can’t send money home. My parents’ house rent will expire by February 1 and I am to pay N350,000. My children’s school fees are also there. My life has been in frustration since June last year. I appeal to both the UAE and Nigeria to hold a dialogue and resolve whatever the matter is. They should consider the families of Nigerians in the UAE who have died since this issue started. They should think about those who had returned to Nigeria due to inability to feed, make visa renewal and pay rent in the UAE. They should also consider those still in the country and undergoing harrowing times. We will appreciate immediate intervention from the Nigerian government,’’ he said dismally, resigning weakly to fate.
Among those struggling to make ends meet in the country is Sodiq Akinwunmi who moved to the UAE six years ago. He got what he described as a good offer from another company and threw in the towel in his previous firm. He narrated, “I resigned from my previous company because I got a good offer from another company. My new employer asked me to provide police clearance which I did but work permit was denied.’’
The case of another distraught Nigerian in the country identified only as Chukwuebuka is similar to Joseph’s. He not only has two siblings to cater to their university education but is also responsible for his mother’s upkeep. He arrived in the UAE four years ago and worked at a firm for three years and six months before another company offered him employment.
Chukwuebuka, who intermittently paused as he narrated his ordeal in the country, said, “I resigned to join the new company. It was during the process for my work permit that I realised that Nigerians were being denied work permits either renewal or fresh application. The company tried more than once and it was rejected.’’
He added that since then he had been struggling to survive without work, stating that he had to renew his visa every three months to legally stay in the country. He noted, “I borrow money from friends in Nigeria to survive. I don’t have a father. I have a wife, a two-year-old daughter, my mum and two siblings in the university to cater for. I no longer have the financial strength to take care of these loved ones because of the lingering problem. We call on the Nigeria government to intervene in the matter. We are suffering and stranded.’’
All that Chika Christian desired at the moment was for the issue to end so that he could get a permit to work in a school which employed him in September last year.
Christian said the school’s efforts to get him a work permit were abortive after he was offered a job when he left a maintenance firm he worked with for six months.
The Nigerian national who’s apparently disturbed over the development stated that he arrived in the UAE January, 2021.
He said, “I am a trained teacher in Nigeria. I worked for six months at the former company and left as a support assistant. My new employment was with a school and the authorities processed a work permit for me without success. They said the labour ministry didn’t grant it. After working for six months, one is allowed to seek another job. I want the Nigerian government to step into the issue. Most Nigerians in the UAE are responsible and law-abiding. We are good ambassadors of our country and we reside legitimately in the UAE.”
Amid the mounting chagrin among the affected Nigerians, the UAE Ambassador to Nigeria, Dr Fahad AI Taffaq, declared that no official communication on work permits issuance for Nigerians living and working in his country.
Taffaq’s disclosure emanated during the visit of the Chairman, Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, to the Embassy in Abuja, in August, last year. He noted that he read about the ban on social media, adding that “UAE has no restrictions against any nationality.”
At the time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also noted that the UAE was still issuing Direct Employment Visas to Nigerians living in the country. It noted then that several work permits were renewed, adding that new applications for work permits were not granted.
But in an interview with our correspondent, a Dubai-based activist, Tosin Fadoju, said to the best of his knowledge, the issue had been on for over six months, stating that it had been a bad experience for Nigerians in the UAE.
Fadoju added that affected Nigerians were living from hand to mouth and borrowing to keep body and soul together.
He said, “The inability to renew work permits for Nigerians has thrown many of our brothers and sisters in a dilemma. People are depressed and adults crying on the phone when they call for help. It’s devastating and makes me feel bad as well seeing my compatriots in that situation. We have been to the appropriate authorities in the UAE and they told us to go to our embassy or consulate that the decision was an order from above. The most painful and annoying thing is that the consulate doesn’t even have a proper knowledge about the work permit and instead of them to learn and know the difference, we were labelled liars that there is nothing wrong with work permits for Nigerians. Officials of the consulate were always on the defensive and exhibited intimidating attitude to silence some of us championing the cause such as threatening to arrest us with police.’’
He also accused the Nigerian consulate of urging them to keep the matter off the media radar.
Fadoju added, “It’s nothing but the truth that our brothers and sisters are out of work. Some of them are afraid to speak up. Some of them don’t even know who to turn to for help. People are just hoping that the ban will be lifted. The matter has lingered for six months and counting. It is a shame that the Nigerian authorities in the UAE aren’t attending to the cries of the citizens living in the country. This matter has been politicised as a matter of fact.’’
Exuding anger over assumed politics on the matter, Fadoju said he had decided not to allow his fellow countrymen to continue suffering in silence. He said, “We have recorded seven deaths of our citizens over this issue. Depression was responsible for the deaths. We will not rest until we get justice and adequate welfare for our fellow citizens.’’
Last week, a group championing the cause, TakeItBack, pushed the narrative further to public space by drawing the attention of the Nigerian embassy and consulate in the UAE to the matter.
In a release by its Director of Political Affairs and the Director of Mobilisation, Sanyaolu Juwon and Gbola Owoborode respectively, the group noted that it instructed its lawyer, Tope Temokun, to petition the Nigerian Embassy in Abu Dhabi.
It stated that the petition was also submitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chairman, Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Abuja.
The statement indicated, “Upon submitting the petition at the Nigerian Embassy in Abu Dhabi, the Nigerian Ambassador to the UAE, Mohammed Dansanta Rimi, and other cabinet members of the embassy, met with our comrades in a discussion that lasted two hours, acknowledged the problem, and promised to do something about it. This was the same embassy that had been denying this ugly incident since June, 2021. While we will not take their word for it, we will continue to intensify pressure. We want to use this moment to reiterate that indeed, when we fight, we may win. But if we don’t, we have already lost.’’
Efforts to get the reaction of the Nigerian Ambassador to the UAE, Rimi, were futile. He refused to comment on the matter. When he was sent messages on his number to state what the embassy was doing to address the protracted issue, the texts were marked as read but he refused to comment.
Two messages were sent to his number on January 3, 2022, he read them but neither acknowledged nor responded to them. On January 11, 2022, a reminder was sent as the app showed he was online. Immediately he read the message, he went offline after he swiftly removed his displayed picture profile which showed him comfortably decked in voluminous attire ().
Contacted via its website, the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation, formerly the country’s Ministry of Labour until it was renamed in 2016, said one of its representatives would contact our correspondent on his enquiry. It had yet to do so when this report was filed. The case number was CAS-5520238-C5K4R9, logged in on 11/1/2022 at 10:10pm. A reminder was sent on Thursday but not acknowledged as of press time. Also, Assistant Undersecretary for Labour Affairs, Aisha Belharfia, couldn’t be reached for her comments on the matter.
Besides, the Spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mrs Francisca Omayuli, when contacted to comment on efforts to resolve the issue said, “The ministry has engaged extensively with officials of the United Arab Emirates on the non-renewal of visas and resident permits of Nigerian nationals residing in the country. UAE authorities have assured Nigeria that the suspension on the renewal of visas and work permits for unskilled and unprofessional migrant workers is a policy of the government aimed at boosting the country’s economic prospects, and not an act targeted against Nigerians. The UAE supposedly lifted the ban on renewal of visas and work permits in October 2021, but strictly for immigrants that meet specific category of labour requirements.’’
Also, the ministry’s Director, Consular Affairs, Mr Bolaji Akinremi, reacting to s enquiry on the issue, said, “This matter is receiving serious attention and engagement between our Embassy in Abu Dhabi and the UAE authorities. Soon the positive effect of these diplomatic efforts will manifest.’’
Reacting, Chairman, Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, said both the country’s embassy in Abu Dhabi and consulate in Dubai were handling the matter.
She said in a text message sent to our correspondent, “The Nigerian Embassy in Abu Dhabi and the mission in Dubai are on the issue.