Pilgrim Smugglers on the Prowl

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Mahmoud Ahmad, Arab News

Published — Tuesday 18 January 2005

Last Update 18 January 2005 3:00 am

JEDDAH, 18 January 2005 — Pilgrims without Haj permits have a tough time trying to pass police checkpoints on their way to Makkah. But they are getting help from local Saudis who offer to smuggle them to Makkah.

Pilgrims caught without Haj permits are denied entry to Makkah and forced to go back. Keen to perform Haj, such pilgrims turn to Saudi taxi drivers who are adept at avoiding police.

Saleh Al-Ruwaili, a taxi driver, said, “I do not call it smuggling, I call it helping the poor pilgrims who did not have the time to get Haj permits. I don’t think we are doing anything illegal. We are helping our brother Muslims to perform Haj. To take these pilgrims past the checkpoint is a simple task. Mostly, we do it at night to avoid being noticed by the highway patrol. My job is simple; I take the pilgrims past the checkpoint from Madinah to a waiting person in Jeddah. The man in Jeddah knows the safe routes to Makkah and he is the one who takes them into the holy city”.

Amin M., a taxi driver who is an experienced pilgrim smuggler, said, “The idea is simple: I avoid driving through a checkpoint with pilgrims. I let the pilgrims get off half a kilometer before the checkpoint and I meet them later on the other side. Pilgrims carry their small bags with them and leave nothing in the car to avoid raising the suspicion of police. The pilgrims walk around the checkpoint and meet me on the other side.

“The smuggling usually takes place late at night when security is lax. Once in Jeddah, my partner takes them to Makkah through routes he knows best. I charge SR150 per pilgrim to drive them to Jeddah. There is a higher charge for the driver who smuggle pilgrims to Makkah and usually they charge SR250 per head because the risk is high.”

Arab News spoke to pilgrims without Haj permits in SASCO gas station on Madinah-Jeddah highway. Abdulmaleek, from Bangladesh, said, “I cannot afford to pay for a Haj permit because it is very expensive. To pay SR400 for smugglers is a lot cheaper for me than to go to Haj legally with a permit. There in the holy sites, I can easily find a place to sleep and food to eat because it is available and many generous people offer food, drink and shelter to us. The difficult part is getting to Makkah from Madinah because there are many police checkpoints on the way. The driver told us that if we followed instructions, we would make it to Makkah. I have to listen to them because they are the ones who know how to do the job”.

Muhammad. K., a Makkah resident and pilgrim smuggler, said, “Smuggling pilgrims to Makkah is not a difficult job if you are from the city. The easy way is through the old Jeddah-Makkah road. I have an insider who warns me of all police checkpoints and sometimes I have local people helping me to avoid police or warn when there is police presence. My job is to take them to Makkah. I do not consider my job illegal because I am helping people to perform Haj. They have great sympathy from local people in Makkah. I enjoy what I am doing because I am helping people and getting paid good money at the same time. I have been doing this job for five years now. I cannot describe the way I do it and from where I smuggle pilgrims because that information should not be made public”.

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