Stopping rogue firms blighting the Hajj pilgrimage
FOR British Muslim Sami Minhas his pilgrimage to Mecca was supposed to be the greatest spiritual journey he would ever take.
Like millions of others he trusted a local travel firm specialising in pilgrimages to Mecca to help organise and arrange his trip. But like countless others he became a victim of a rogue firm.
Over the past few years there has been a worrying increase in the number of complaints lodged by disappointed British Muslims who have found their once in a lifetime trip to Mecca has been anything but. In some cases failed promises and deceitful assurances have led to pilgrims being forced into poor quality cramped rooms despite having paid for five-star hotels, visas and flight tickets not arriving and in extreme cases not even making it to Mecca despite paying thousand of pounds for their trip.
Out of the 25,000 British Muslims estimated to make the trip each year, a high number are defrauded by disreputable tour operators. And the increase in numbers suffering has led the Government to take action.
For Sami though he remains a victim. Recounting his experience the 43-year-old from Surrey accused the rogue firm he used of mistreatment.
“We were told the package would include everything we needed; all we had to do was pray”, he said. “Our accommodation in Mina would be a tent to be shared by 10 people, all equipped with mattresses and bedding.
“However, the whole group was forced to share three tents with 55 women squashed into one tent. There were no mattresses, so we were left to sleep on the floor.
“We were then supposed to move on to three and four-star accommodation but again we were let down. Our rooms were cramped and of really poor quality.
“Transport was meant to be laid on, but even when transport was supplied, it was late and we were forced to pay tips to the coach driver on every trip. We also paid £35 for flights from Medina to Jeddah but we came back by coach and the group leaders refused to refund our money. Clearly the group leaders lied and mistreated us.”
Khalid Pervez, from the Association of British Hujjaj (Pilgrims) UK has been instrumental in the campaign to get better protection for Hajj pilgrims. He described the current situation as “deplorable”.
“The distress, hardship and mental agony these people cause is highly deplorable and has no place in a civilised and democratic society, like the UK”, he said.
“This issue is directly or indirectly affecting over 2 million British Muslims. We unanimously condemn the fraudulent, illegal activities, corruption, inhumane and degrading treatment from the rogue Hajj & Umrah tour operators who think that rules, regulation, procedure and the law do not apply to them.”
With the annual Hajj pilgrimage just three months away, the government is stepping up in its efforts to help British Muslims by advising them how to avoid falling victim to rogue firms.
Consumer Minister Gareth Thomas wrote to every MP encouraging them to raise awareness of this issue in their constituencies and met tour operators and pilgrims’ groups in July to discuss improving the situation for those travelling to Mecca.
“With Hajj tour packages costing an average £2,500, falling foul of a rogue firm can be an expensive and traumatic experience”, he said.
“Ramadan is a time of year when many Muslims will be thinking about going on Hajj, and there are simple steps they can take to protect themselves.
He added it was imperative pilgrims dealt with operators who were ATOL – Air Travel Organiser’s Licence – protected which ensures if the company went bust pilgrims will be protected. Travellers will be refunded, or can finish their trip and be flown home if they are already abroad when the company collapses.
After the collapse of Luton-based tour operator Go4 Hajj last year, pilgrims were refunded £270,000 thanks to the firm’s ATOL protection.
Richard Jackson, Director of the Consumer Protection Group at the Civil Aviation Authority, which administers the ATOL scheme, urged pilgrims to check tour operators held an ATOL before handing over any money.
“We urge pilgrims to check with us before they book that that their operator has an ATOL by coming to our website and make sure they get an ATOL Invoice when they pay. That way they can be sure the money they’ve paid across is safe if the operator fails.”
ATOL applications to the Civil Aviation Authority from Hajj tour operators have risen since Mr Thomas met with pilgrims’ groups in July.
Unfortunately, the Government believes many cases of pilgrims losing out go unreported – preventing them from getting the help, refunds or compensation they may be entitled to.
If pilgrims find no solution in addressing their concerns with the travel operator, Trading Standards and the Police are viable alternative options.
Trading standards teams can investigate if a firm fails to honour its responsibilities and can advise pilgrims on how to seek compensation if the service they get is worse than they were promised.
Their investigations have also led to court cases against fraudulent firms.
In April 2007 Leicester City Council’s trading standards team were successful in their action against Mohammed Salim Ismael who admitted ten counts of breaking travel regulations and was fined £20,000.
And in May this year AN Travel Ltd and its director Abdul Noor were ordered to pay almost £13,000 for making false claims in advertising pilgrimages to Hajj, following a prosecution brought by Tower Hamlets Council’s Trading Standards.
The news is good then for the thousands of British Muslims planning their Hajj pilgrimage in the coming years. With increased protection for pilgrims and rogue firms being monitored with a watchful eye, the days of the ‘Hajj Rip-off’ may well be coming to an end.
To avoid being the victim of a rogue firm, Pilgrims should:
* Check that the person selling the trip holds an Air Travel Organiser’s Licence (ATOL)
* Consider booking with a company that has been independently recommended by friends or family
* Use a tour operator who has been accredited by the Saudi Embassy
* Check whether the company is a member of a reputable trade organisation such as ABTA or AITO.
* Agree their travel itinerary in writing before parting with any money.
* Keep documents such as contracts, invoices and letters in a safe place, as this helps with redress if things go wrong
Pilgrims can check whether their operator has an ATOL on the Civil Aviation Authority’s website at http://www.atol.org.uk or by calling 020 7453 6424.
Contact details for nearest local authority trading standards offices are available from Consumer Direct 08454 04056 http://www.consumerdirect.gov.uk or local town halls.
More detailed information for pilgrims and Hajj travel organisers can be found on the BERR website http://www.berr.gov.uk/consumers/fact-sheets/page38205.html.