A rising number of British Muslims who pay thousands of pounds to make the annual Haj to Mecca are being cheated by rogue travel companies.
Community leaders are warning travellers to the Haj next month to be vigilant after almost 1,000 British pilgrims were conned out of their savings by travel agents and tour operations last year, more than double the number of complaints in previous years, according to the Association of British Hujjaj UK (ABH).
An investigation by Eastern Eye newspaper found that travellers were sent forged airline tickets for non-existent flights, and some were forced to sleep on the floor of cramped rooms despite having paid for five-star hotels.
Khalid Pervez, the general secretary of ABH, said the problem had escalated as unlicensed tour operators sought to cash in. Mr Pervez has sent a petition with 5,000 signatures to the foreign and home offices, demanding action against rogue agents.
"Tour operators and travel agents want to make money through Haj trips. Normally it is a one-man show working from home, he is not licensed. The majority of people who travel are not very literate, people aged 70-plus, who are not fully aware of their rights. They are very easy targets for leaflets with false promises," he said.
Lord Ahmed, who hosted a Haj Awareness Event at the House of Lords this week focusing on rogue travel agents, highlighted the problem, saying that most of the scams were led by travel agents in the south of England.
"Last year was one of the worst because the demand was bigger than supply. Visas are given free by the Saudi authorities but agents are charging £500 to £700 per visa. When people complain, the agent says 'Haj means struggle. You shouldn't complain or your Haj will be void'. That is complete nonsense. Haj means comfort, worship, being in touch with your creator. It is the minority [of agents]. Most of them are south-based. There must be a zero tolerance towards these illegal, unscrupulous agents. People must report them to the police and Trading Standards," he said.
Up to 25,000 British Muslims are estimated to go to Haj this year. More than 80 per cent of them are aged over 65, and many have saved for many years to meet the cost of the trip.
The Foreign Office has launched a website offering advice to British Muslims. Its guidelines include booking airline tickets through a company which holds an Air Travel Organiser's License (Atol), as well as using a tour operator who has been accredited by the Saudi embassy. The Foreign Office also advised that copies of passports and travel insurance policies should be left with family members in Britain, and receipts for airline tickets obtained from travel agents.
Naheed Kayani, who fell victim to a Haj scam, paid £9,000 to travel to Mecca with her mother and 22-year-old son with a tour operator approved by the Saudi embassy. She said the trip left her traumatised. "We were promised direct return flights to Jeddah, but a week before travel, we were told we have to pay £1,000 more. When we refused, we were sent by chartered plane to Medina and we had to make our own way to Mecca.
"[The agent] would not give us our plane tickets [to London]. We were stranded in Medina for 18 days. My son is a medical student and didn't get the results he expected because he missed 10 days of lectures," she said.
Qaisar Rizvi, 68, also had a bad experience after travelling with a group of 80 people last year. "[The agent] said it was £2,000 if we wanted to go by British Airways and £1,800 with any other airline. We chose BA. My wife stressed that I am a diabetic, I have asthma, and had a heart bypass. When we got to the airport, it was some Italian airline with a small plane. We got to Jeddah airport. We didn't know where to go, where our luggage was. It was absolute chaos.
"We got to the hotel in Mecca and I haven't seen anywhere more dirty. According to [the agent] it would be a five-star hotel. There was waste all over the place. We used our suitcases as tables. The food was really awful."Reuse content