Smuggled into Mecca: How some Muslims illegally perform Hajj
Being one of the 3.7 million Muslims who make the Hajj each year requires a great deal of advance planning and luck: not just anyone can fly into Saudi Arabia and make their way to Mecca to perform the traditional pilgrimage.
Instead, Saudi Arabia has a lottery system with quotas for each country. Becoming selected sometimes takes years of applying and re-applying, a cyclical process that can be frustrating for devout Muslims who believe that performing the Hajj is a commandment from God.
The futility of the process pushes some would-be pilgrims to make the journey without permission. In a variety of ways, some Muslims cheat visa requirements or pay thousands of dollars for smugglers to get them to Mecca without any Saudi entanglements.
The Saudi government, however, has committed to clamping down on illegal pilgrims during the Hajj season. According to Al-Arabiya, over 160,000 pilgrims without official permission were detained, fined, and even deported during last year’s Hajj.
The intercepted pilgrims are generally foreign workers from Muslim countries or visiting Muslims who have overstayed their Umrah visa (a smaller, non-mandatory trip to Mecca that happens throughout the year) and want to perform Hajj while they are still in the country.
Others are foreign workers in the Kingdom, skipping the smuggling and visa process all together by trekking through the mountains of nearby Ta’if and attempting to descend on Mecca undetected. Just last week, 4 foreign workers in Saudi were rescued by the Saudi Air Force after they lost their way and became trapped in Ta’if’s mountains on their way to the holy city.
There is even a bustling human trafficking industry designed to sneak Muslims into Mecca. During the 2015 Hajj, the Saudi government shut down 58 travel agencies for providing unauthorized trips to Mecca. Though many intentionally break Saudi laws, many fall victim to fake travel agencies only to be turned away on the way to Mecca.
From the local government in Mecca’s official Twitter account: “Deportation awaits any expat/foreign worker headed for Hajj without permission, as well as a ban from entering the Kingdom for the next ten years.”
For those who decide to make the trek, they face steep punishments from the Saudi government. With dozens of checkpoints set up on the way to Mecca, any individual who tries to enter the holy city without official documentation from the Saudi government faces a 1,000 Saudi Riyal fine ($267) and 15 days in prison. For foreign workers and expatriates, it means the cancelling of any previous visas and prompt deportation.
Despite the high risk and steep penalties, making the Hajj is an important pillar of Islam and considered mandatory for those who are financially and physically able.
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