Myanmar Consolidated Media

Thousands to miss out on Hajj visas

By May Sandy
October 17 - 23, 2011

MORE than 3000 Muslims are likely to miss out on making the Hajj unless the Saudi Arabian embassy increases the number of visas allocated to Myanmar pilgrims, a member of Yangon’s Muslim community said last week.

“The embassy announced that they would grant only 5000 visas this year and this has raised concerns,” said Hajji U Sein Myint, who provides assistance to Myanmar Muslims who want to travel to Mecca for the Hajj.

He said the number of prospective pilgrims had increased significantly this year because of the favourable exchange rate. Last year 4000 visas were issued but approximately 1500 Muslims still missed out, he said.

“With the low rate of the dollar, there are 1500 to 2000 more applicants than last year,” he said. “Travel agents have lists of names of the people who have missed out.”

Mr Abdulrahman Ibrahim Mohammed Al Zaben from the Saudi Arabian embassy in Yangon said a delegation selected by the Ministry of Religious Affairs travels to Saudi Arabia each year to negotiate the number of visas for Myanmar pilgrims.

The delegation then allocates the visas to selected travel agents, who sell the packages to pilgrims. Mr Al Zaben said the embassy wanted to “avoid last year’s Hajj problem” and hoped to “have a new arrangement for the distribution of Hajj [visa] quota next year”.

He also said that, unlike in previous years, the embassy had required all Hajj visa applicants to sign a statement acknowledging the visas had been issued free of charge.

Only 24 travel agents are officially allowed to sell Hajj packages, which are supposed to include a visa, but many of these are on-sold to smaller agencies and brokers. Packages sell for about US$4000-$4500, with a late October departure for Mecca.

The owner of an unofficial Hajj agency said he had 80 customers who had been unable to attain visas, while some other companies had a backlog of about 100.

If they can’t get a visa “clients have to forfeit the plane fare and the costs of booking hotels and accommodation. We also lose a lot in service charges,” he said.

“Each company has around 100 applicants [still waiting for a visa]. If there is a quota of only 5000 visas, there will be more losses.”

U Mohamed Rafique from Tarmwe township said he missed out on a visa in 2010 and had re-applied this year. “I used my savings to try and go on the Hajj. Some pilgrims come from rural areas and have put together their funds by selling livestock or even their homes. The Hajj is something that is cherished and when these pilgrims are disappointed because they were denied visas, they go back broken-hearted. These people are the ones who suffer the most. If 7000 or 8000 visas were granted, I believe everyone would be able to go. If they grant only 5000 visas this year, there will be some left behind.”

Hajji U Sein Myint said that he hoped more visas would be granted if the head of Myanmar’s Hajj delegation submitted a signed request to the embassy.

Hajj is considered one of the five pillars of Islam and a religious duty that every able-bodied Muslim must carry out at least once in their lifetime, provided they have the financial means.