Pilgrims' Hajj dreams "shattered" after visas never arrived

Grand Mosque and Kabaa in Mecca
Image caption Up to 25,000 British Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca for Hajj every year.

Almost 200 Muslim families' "dreams have been shattered" after visas for their once-in-a-lifetime Hajj religious pilgrimage trips never arrived.

The families, mainly from north-west England, paid up to £5,000 per person to travel to Mecca before problems with visa numbers emerged.

It is understood the Saudi Embassy is issuing fewer visas this year.

Agents involved in organising travel packages dispute who is to blame and they are trying to refund customers.

The families affected spent a total of almost £1m.

During a meeting in Manchester on Monday, trip regulator the Council of British Hajjis, urged victims to contact police.

Disgruntled Muslims, who should have left for Saudi Arabia, met with the regulator, Greater Manchester Police and councillors after their visas did not arrive.

'People are angry'

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.

This year is it believed fewer visas were issued due to development projects in Mecca.

Each year, up to 25,000 British Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca for Hajj, which is taking place from 13 to 18 October.

Many families had booked through two Greater Manchester travel agents - Ashton Travel on Oldham Road, Ashton-under-Lyne, and City Travel on Dickenson Road, Manchester.

Humayun Khalid said Ashton Travel repeatedly promised him two visas would arrive in time for a flight on 5 October.

Mr Khalid, who paid more than £6,000 for the trips, said: "It not just about money, it's about everything. We were emotionally ready."

Ambia Khatun, who had saved £6,800 for five years for a Hajj trip, said: "I'm very shocked. It has broken my heart."

Bolton-based Council of British Hajjis said many Muslims spend their life savings to perform Hajj.

Chief executive Rashid Mogradia said: "Their dreams have been shattered, people are angry.

"It is seen as an embarrassment that this could happen in the UK."

'Deeply, deeply sorry'

Babar Hussain, from Ashton Travel, said he was "absolutely devastated" and "totally embarrassed".

He claimed there was no indication there was a problem with the visas until they went to collect them from another agent, Travel Star, and was told there were "no visas".

Mr Hussain apologised to customers, saying: "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."

A spokesman for City Travel said it sold 15 packages on behalf of Ashton Travel for a small commission.

He said: "We are deeply, deeply sorry for what has happened to them. We know sorry is not enough.

"Any losses will be covered by indemnity insurance."

City Travel added it expected customers to be given a refund in six to eight weeks.

A spokesman for Travel Star said: "We told agents not to buy any tickets until the visas arrive - we were trying to be helpful."

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, which logs alleged fraud and internet crimes in the UK.

Det Ch Insp Rick Jackson said: "They will collate the information that comes in.

"We will establish whether criminality has taken place or whether this is a civil matter."

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