A group of umrah pilgrims still waiting for visas will have their passports issued by today. This was the reassurance given by Al Mujahideen Haj and Umrah group, following a visa bungle last week.
A group of nearly 90 mu’tamireen, who were expected to depart from Thursday last week, had their journey delayed due to non-arrival of visas and passports. 30 of those were effectively left stranded at the airport on Thursday evening as they awaited the arrival of their documents.
Al Mujaahiedeen director Imam Isgak Cassiem sought to assure pilgrims that all passports and documentation were submitted to the Saudi Embassy on time. As per embassy imposed regulations, visas are only issued “as per departure dates”.
“On the 15th we had people departing and they departed. On the 19th we had people departing and they left. We had no reason to believe that our subsequent passengers were not going to depart because of visa problems,” he stated.
When the cargo of visas initially arrived during the early hours of Wednesday morning, Cassiem said the operator had discovered that only three passports had been returned. Upon enquiry they were informed that the remained of passports would arrive the following day, hours before pilgrims were expected to depart.
“Our person in Pretoria phoned us at 1pm to tell us that he had the bag of passports, and that they (the embassy) told him the passports of (those departing on) the 24th, 25th, 26th, 27th and 28th were in the bag. He then took a 3:30pm flight out of Johannesburg,” he explained.
When the bag of documents finally arrived, minutes before pilgrims were expected to board their flight, it was discovered that all passports of those departing on the 24th, 25th, 26th and 27th were linked to an operator affiliated with Al Mujahideen.
“None of our passports for those days were in there. I had to break the sad news to people and the airline had to offload them. On Friday night I called a meeting with the people to explain the situation to them,” he recalled.
On Monday, VOC News received complaints from two distressed pilgrims, who said the waiting game was a nightmare. One of them, a first time umrah traveller said she was disappointed as she was looking forward to her first visit to the holy lands. The uncertainty of when they would be departing was creating anxiety for the travellers, she said.
Cassiem stressed that once passports were issued to the embassy, all passport and visa related logistics were out of the operator’s hands.
He assured that once passports did arrive, the operator would seek to approach the airlines to try and arrange the soonest possible flight for those who were delayed. In addition, arrangements have also been made with the respective hotels in the Kingdom to alter the dates of the pilgrims stay.
In the case of those mu’tamireen who wanted to cancel their trip, Cassiem said airlines could be approached to cancel their flight and request a refund. However, he was keen to point out that because the tickets were valid for a year, pilgrims could reschedule their umrah to a later date.
“When it comes to hotels they do not pay money back. If people want to insist on getting that money back, what we will do is that we will sell that accommodation to someone else for a later umrah, so the money that we charge will then be refunded to the them (the mu’tamireen who choose to cancel),” he assured.
Cassiem thanked the pilgrims for their patience during the delay.
“I want to apologise to our clients for this incompetence. If the visas were something we had control over, we would never allow this. It’s taken its toll on all our staff. We humbly apologise.”
The South African Travel and Haj Operators Association (Sathoa) said it was aware of the delays. Al Mujahideen Haj and Umrah Travel is an official member of Sathoa.
The Royal Saudi Embassy in South Africa could not be reached for comment. VOC