Squalid, dirt-encrusted sinks, a rickety AC unit with exposed wires and a filthy hole in the ground that doubled as a toilet: This is what greeted one Brit as he embarked on the annual hajj pilgrimage.
Ahmed Ali Minhas should have been setting out on the religious experience of a lifetime when in 2015 he left his home in Coventry in the UK bound for Makkah, Saudi Arabia. But the journey itself ended up being more like a nightmare.
Minhas, 64, became a victim of hajj fraud, joining a sizeable – and, some say, growing – number of Muslims suffering at the hands of dodgy travel agents or bogus tour operators.
Major scams typically involve the sale of non-existent packages or travel agents delivering substandard accommodation, and there are reports of many other minor infringements by travel operators.
Up to 25,000 British Muslims are reported to travel for hajj each year, spending a total of £125 million ($167m) on pilgrimages – all of which means there are rich pickings to be had for fraudsters.
It is not a problem confined to one country: There have been reports of hajj fraud cases effecting pilgrims from as far afield as Indonesia and Nigeria – although the true global extent of the problem is not known.
Minhas told his own story, amid claims by one UK-based group that hajj fraud has become a “global phenomenon” in need of a “zero tolerance policy.”
‘Unfit for humans’
Minhas was born in Pakistan and, having moved to the UK with his parents in 1967, is now a British citizen.
He booked a hajj pilgrimage for himself, his wife and son, paying £4,000 ($5,340) per person to a tour operator based in the UK city of Leicester, who used an agent in Coventry.
They had been promised a four-star hotel very close to the Grand Mosque – but upon arrival the accommodation didn’t quite live up to expectations.
“There were live wires coming out from the air conditioning, there was no facility to sit and eat dinner,” Mr Minhas told Al Arabiya English. “It was not fit for a human to stay in that hotel.”
The tour operator used by Minhas, whom he declined to name, had given the pilgrims the address of the hotel so they could Google it before leaving the UK. But when they actually arrived in Makkah they were taken to a different, far inferior hotel about 35 minutes’ walk from the Grand Mosque.
“It was a disused hotel, probably they were going to knock it down,” Minhas said. “There were about 60 people in our group, and everyone started complaining.”
Minhas and his family were later taken to another hotel, but he said that too was of a poor standard given the cost of the trip.
15-hour road to Madinah
The bad experience did not end there. The tour operator hired old, poor quality buses to transport the group to Madinah – a journey that Minhas said took 15 hours.
Because the operator was trying to save money, the group of pilgrims was asked to leave the hotel in Madinah at midnight, forcing the coach party to head to Jeddah airport several hours early.
“We were waiting three hours in the Jeddah streets in the coach… There was no water, no food, nowhere to do the salat [prayers]; we were sitting three hours in the coach.”
The journey back to the UK was no better. The group was travelling via Beirut, with a 17-hour stopover, for which they had been promised hotel rooms. But when they arrived they were informed by airport staff that no such booking existed.
“Then we realized that [the tour operator] tricked us, and that he didn’t have any booking for the hotels,” said Minhas.
“For 17 hours we were sitting on the floor in Beirut airport. When we tried to ring [the tour operator] back in Madinah, his mobile was switched off. We were helpless.”
‘A global phenomenon’
Minhas is by no means alone. Another hajj fraud victim, from London, told Al Arabiya English in 2014 that he had lost £3,795 thanks to a rogue tour operator based in Sheffield in the UK. In that case the operator simply disappeared with his money – without any part of the package being delivered at all.
And according the Association of British Hujjaj UK, a national charity working for the welfare and wellbeing of British pilgrims, it is a problem that is getting worse.
Khalid Pervez, general-secretary of the association, said it strongly condemns the “culture of corruption and malpractice promoted by some rogue and unscrupulous travel operators”, something he added is “tightening its grip” within the travel sector.
“This has now become a global phenomenon. We believe it’s time to adopt a zero tolerance policy against these rogue service providers,” Pervez told Al Arabiya English.
“The most alarming aspect of this growing culture of exploitation and corruption is that it has plagued the hajj [and] umrah service providers to the extent that is becoming a way of life. Values and norms have changed. The rogue and unscrupulous service providers have no hesitation in preying on vulnerable pilgrims including sick, elderly and disabled causing them immense hardship, mental anguish, trauma and difficulty,” he added.
Scale of the problem
But putting an estimate on the scale of the hajj fraud problem in the global travel industry is a difficult task.
In 2014, 87 people in the UK reported to the Action Fraud service that they had fallen victim to hajj fraud, with the total losses running to £237,995, according to the City of London Police. But many say the true scale of this criminality is much greater, partly because many victims are reluctant to come forward.
One study in the UK – conducted between April 2014 to March 2015 – found that 81 percent of hajj tour operators surveyed were not in full alignment with regulations, ranging from minor infringements of the rules to more serious cases of fraudulent behavior.
Typical transgressions range from travel operators not providing receipts or the correct paperwork, to criminal acts under UK legislation, such as not issuing Air Travel Organizer’s License (ATOL) certificates.
There have however been some successes in bringing perpetrators to justice.
Sajeela Naseer, head of Trading Standards at Birmingham City Council, said a temporary initiative set up in 2014 – which saw the council work with other local authorities and two police services in the UK – had seen results.
“That led to a number of interventions, some of them informal and some formal. And the formal ones included penalties of custodial sentences, fines and compensation for victims,” Naseer told Al Arabiya English.
“A lot of the… pilgrims that came forward to us had had very bad experiences… We have demonstrated in Birmingham, by our tough and vigorous stance [that] we’re seeing a reduction in serious infringements.
“What we now have are middlemen and people working from home who are now being the key perpetrators.”
In one case, the director of a rogue hajj travel company was in June 2016 found guilty and sentenced to 12 months in prison at Birmingham Crown Court. His offences related to the description and standard of the accommodation, the distance from the hotel to the mosque, and failing to provide information on insurances needed for the trip during the booking process.
Naseer pointed to other cases where victims of hajj fraud had been awarded compensation through the courts. But not everyone comes forward to complain.
“This… is rather a hidden criminality,” said Naseer “Traders often put off people who want to make complaints by telling them it’s a religious experience and they shouldn’t complain. And hence we don’t actually know the scale of this issue.”
“That is I think the key to success in this area: Ensuring that the public feel confident that they can come to either ourselves, or the police, with issues that they’ve had, and that they can feel comfortable to report that.”
‘We don’t want money’
A member of Minhas’s hajj group did feel comfortable enough to report the issue to local Trading Standards officials upon returning to the UK, and he says the case is ongoing.
The tour operator did make an offer of £100 in compensation – but this, says Minhas, was rejected.
“We said, ‘we don’t want money back when you cheat us. We want you to do the right thing with people who go for hajj. If we can afford to give you £4,000, £100 doesn’t make right what you’ve done’,” he said.
Minhas says he feels “very sad” after his experience – and wants the authorities to clamp down on malpractice by other rouge operators.
“[The] hajj pilgrimage should be protected from that kind of people,” he said.