Philippine national Maya and her husband lost their low-paying jobs in the United Arab Emirates early in the coronavirus pandemic and with it their work visas and health insurance.
Now they say they face a mounting bill of daily immigration fines because their one-year-old child remains undocumented, as the hospital where it was born withholds the birth notification required to get a certificate until the couple settles a 14,000 dirham ($3,800) bill.
Dozens of women have told the Do Bold non-profit organisation, which promotes migrant workers' rights, that they had not obtained birth certificates in the UAE as of late 2020.
The group said the issue came to light when it was approached by migrant workers who had lost jobs in the pandemic or could not travel home to give birth.
Without the documentation, children in the UAE are unable to get passports, visas or Emirates identification, or to access healthcare and education.
Do Bold said 166 women who filled out a survey did not have birth certificates at the end of last year, of which 63 cited unpaid hospital bills as the cause. Other reasons included being unable to provide valid marriage certificates or visas.
"We want hospitals to provide birth certificates regardless of immigration status, regardless of civil status, and regardless of economic status – whether they can or cannot afford to pay a hospital bill," said the head of Do Bold, Ekaterina Porras Sivolobova.
The UAE Ministry of Health, which oversees health in the federation of seven emirates, did not respond to requests for comment on the issue.
Immediate birth registration is a fundamental human right recognised in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and in a 2016 UAE law.
Each emirate also imposes its own regulations on health and other sectors.
Abu Dhabi was the only emirate that responded to a request for comment. Its health ministry said a 2018 regulation prohibits licensed obstetrics facilities from refusing to provide a stamped birth notification and certificate "for any reason".
'No one has money'
Maya, who declined to give her full name because of the sensitivity of her situation, said she was discharged by a government hospital in Ras Al Khaimah emirate after paying 1,800 dirhams ($490) of the 14,000-dirham bill.
For the birth certificate, she said, it asked her to sign an agreement to pay the full amount within three months.
She refused. "If I am not able to pay the full balance they can make a legal case against us," said the 33-year-old, whose monthly salary working at an office had been less than 3,500 dirhams ($950).
Outstanding debt and bounced cheques can lead to jail, fines and travel bans in the UAE.
Ras Al Khaimah's media office did not respond to a request for comment.
Maya's was one of three families Reuters spoke to who said they could not certify births because of outstanding hospital fees.
A private birth document services agency in the UAE said it was common for hospitals, especially private ones, not to release birth notifications – required to get a certificate – if bills were not paid.
In June, Imram, a Sri Lankan national, got his wife discharged from a private Dubai hospital by leaving her passport there. He said he was told they would receive the birth notification once he paid the 11,600 dirham ($3,160) bill.
Having lost his hospitality job and health insurance a year ago, Imram paid only a small amount. "I am trying to get money, but in this pandemic no one has money, none of my friends either," he said.
Dubai's media office did not respond to a request for comment.
Health insurance is mandatory in Dubai and Abu Dhabi but insurance quality varies and can end soon after an employment visa terminates.
The other five emirates do not require employers to provide health insurance, according to websites of the UAE government and private insurance companies.
The UAE last year repealed criminalisation of premarital sex, but barriers remain for unmarried women in accessing health insurance for pregnancies and obtaining birth certificates, which requires a court process.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.