MANCHESTER - Hajj dreams for scores of British Muslims have been shattered after travel agents failed in getting their visas on times for the once-in-a-life spiritual journey.
I'm very shocked. It has broken my heart, Ambia Khatun, who had saved £6,800 for five years for a Hajj trip, told BBC on Tuesday, October 8.
The problems appeared when 200 Muslim families, mainly from north-west England, paid up to £5,000 per person to travel to Makkah.
Though visas were expected days ago, they were shocked after the problems with visa number emerged.
The visas are issued by the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia to a small number of agents including London-based Travel Star, which sells them on to other travel agents around the country.
The problem appeared basically for families who had booked through two Greater Manchester travel agents; namely Ashton Travel on Oldham Road, Ashton-under-Lyne, and City Travel on Dickenson Road, Manchester.
Humayun Khalid, who paid more than £6,000 for the trips, said Ashton Travel repeatedly promised him two visas would arrive in time for a flight on 5 October.
It not just about money, it's about everything. We were emotionally ready, he said.
The issue was discussed during a meeting in Manchester on Monday for Muslims with trip regulator, the Council of British Hajjis, Greater Manchester Police and councilors.
Muslims from around the world pour into Makkah every year to perform hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam.
Hajj consists of several ceremonies, which are meant to symbolize the essential concepts of the Islamic faith, and to commemorate the trials of Prophet Abraham and his family.
Every able-bodied adult Muslim who can financially afford the trip must perform hajj at least once in a lifetime.
This year, an estimated 25,000 British pilgrims will perform hajj to Makkah.
The number was reduced after Saudi Arabia announced last June its plan to restrict the number of pilgrims for this year's hajj over ongoing expansions at the holy sites in Makkah.
According to the new regulations, Saudi authorities said they will reduce the numbers of pilgrims coming from within the kingdom by half and the numbers of overseas pilgrims by 20 percent.
Officials from the travel agencies apologized to British Muslims for shattering their dreams.
We are trying our level best because we have already asked for a refund of the tickets and we are taking professional advice and all the legal advice to indemnify losses, Babar Hussain, from Ashton Travel, said.
Hussain added that he was absolutely devastated and totally embarrassed after he discovered the visa problems.
A spokesman for City Travel said it sold 15 packages on behalf of Ashton Travel for a small commission.
We are deeply, deeply sorry for what has happened to them. We know sorry is not enough, he said.
Any losses will be covered by indemnity insurance.
City Travel added it expected customers to be given a refund in six to eight weeks.
We told agents not to buy any tickets until the visas arrive - we were trying to be helpful, a spokesman for Travel Star said.
Yet, the Council of British Hajjis urged victims to contact police.
Their dreams have been shattered, people are angry, Chief executive Rashid Mogradia said.
It is seen as an embarrassment that this could happen in the UK.
Greater Manchester Police said if families believed they had been victims of fraud relating to services for the Hajj pilgrimage they should contact Action Fraud.
They will collate the information that comes in, Det Ch Insp Rick Jackson said.We will establish whether criminality has taken place or whether this is a civil matter.
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net