Friday, 21 November 2008

Launch of National Hajj Awareness

Launch of National Hajj Awareness
Week at House of Lords

Dr. Mozammel Haque

Lord Nazir Ahmed of Rotherham, Patron of the Association of British Hujjaj (ABH) launched the National Hajj Awareness Week at the House of Lords on Wednesday, the 22 October 2008. The launch was attended by Lord Hunt, deputy leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action, Hazzaa Hasher, in Charge of Islamic Affairs, Saudi Embassy, representatives from the Department of CAA, Department of BERR, Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), diplomats, community leaders and journalists.

Lord Ahmed
While launching the Hajj Awareness Week, Lord Ahmed mentioned some of the achievements of the ABH: 25,000 British Muslims go for Hajj every year and many thousands do Umrah and there was a need for British Muslims facilities not only consular advice but more important health advice and other kind of advice which is now available in Mina, Muzdalifa and Arafat and particularly in Makkah.

While thanking the British government, Lord Ahmed said, “It was our government, the British government which is pioneer in this particular field that the Foreign & Commonwealth Office at that time under the leadership of Baroness Symonds who first established this service for the British Hujjaj. Now Muslim staffs from the Consular Office in Jeddah actually go to Mina, Muzdalifa, Arafat and Makkah to provide not only No Objection Certificate (NOC) to those people who die by natural causes in these places but also provide other kinds of support when people lose their documents, they need financial help or any medical help required.

Lord Ahmed also said, “This is very important that we held this event in this Parliament every year but this also sent a message to the entire British communities that there is somebody who cares in terms of providing facilities for Muslims who was there on Hajj. The most important is the documents they need; our communities are not usually organised and usually forget that we need meningitis, jabs, we also need to make sure that health and safety aspects. But even now we have these rogue travel agents that have been operating since last year.”

The department of BERR has organised seminars and they have taken some action. Lord Ahmed said, “They are sending the message across the Trading Standard that if anyone is involved with any of that corruption again or any of that mismanagement again they will be prosecuted and they will not be allowed to get away with taking money from the British Hujjaj.”

Referring to Saudi Arabia, Lord Ahmed said, “Saudi government is helping to make those facilities the best possible and I say thank you to the Saudi authorities. When we had influx of 50,000 refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo and we had to make arrangements, we were in a chaos. And here you have made arrangements for three million people. Sometimes things are not so easy but most of the times things do work out well. We want to say thank again to them.”

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi
Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action, said, “I am here to learn today. It is extremely important subject; it is something I am getting letter and email every year from people who travel for Hajj and Umrah and the difficulties they face and the concerns they have. And I think that in terms of my own brief, in terms of Community Cohesion and Social Action, it is absolutely essential that I understand this area and understand it well. I hope it will be going to be a learning exercise.”

Lord Hunt
Lord Hunt, deputy leader of the House of Lords and Minister of Environment and Rural Affairs, who have been attending and giving speeches from the very beginning of the ABH, said, “The ABH have done a lot of efforts and energy into the health awareness campaign. It’s not something that stops after a few meeting; it’s a continuous round the year effort and I do on behalf of the government thank you for all the work that you have done. I have no doubt that it is hugely beneficial impact on pilgrims and on the health and safety aspects of the pilgrimage that they have undertaken. “

While mentioning about the travel agents, Lord Hunt said, “When I went to the meeting in Birmingham which must have been in last autumn I was struck by the report of the pilgrims and some of their concerns about the travel agents and some of the issues that were raised. I said then and I say again to you that if any help that I can in terms of discussion with government about these issues I am very keen and anxious to help you.”

Stephen Gregory
Mr. Stephen Gregory, from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) spoke on behalf of the CAA, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), Trading Standards, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government. “They are considering the issues affecting Hajj pilgrims and to jointly agree initiatives and actions with the aim to improving business awareness of consumer protection regulations, as well as consumer awareness of their rights,” said Gregory.

Mr. Gregory also mentioned, “We are currently involved in a series of Seminars around the UK to raise awareness levels of both Pilgrims attending Hajj and Tour Operators. We have already seen an increase in the number of Hajj specialists applying for ATOLs and we now estimate that around 12,000 pilgrims are protected under the ATOL system, which ids approximately 50% of the UK market worth around £35M a year. We still have a way to go but things are improving.”

It is also mentioned that in July, Gareth Thomas hosted a summit at BEERR for Travel organisers to give them the opportunity hear more about the responsibilities placed on them and to share their views with us on how they believe the Hajj travel industry can improve its reputation and achieve greater levels of consumer confidence.

Officials from BERR and ATOL are currently attending and giving talks at some local regional meetings of pilgrims during October and November.

Finally,. We would encourage you to advise any pilgrims you came across to bring all cases of wrong-doing by Hajj tour organisers to the attention of their Local Authority Trading Standards Department. However, any accusations or threats of dire consequences or bullying where a consumer has suggested they might bring these cases to the attention of the authorities should be brought to the attention of the police.

In reply to Questions & Answers session, Hazzaa Al-Hasher of the Saudi Embassy, said, “We welcome Hujjaj and we wish them to perform Hajj and come back home safely. I am making it clear that The Saudi embassy does not charge fees for Visa or any other services. If somebody charge fees for visa, they are cheating.”

An Interview with Lord Ahmed
Lord Ahmed told me in an interview, “First of all, let me pray for long life and good health for the Custodian of Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah, because he has done fantastic improvements already in the Haram, first of all, in Safa and Marwah and also in Mina as well and the greater arrangements that has been made. This will make Hajj easier for the Hujjaj. Already Saudi Government for many years, late King Fahd, may Allah bless him and give him the highest place in Jannah (Heaven), made fantastic arrangements and also extended the facilities and therefore we are getting the facilities which have now being created will never have the kind of accidents or sort of mishaps that have happened in the past, only small one.”

Lord Ahmed also said, “The Government of Saudi Arabia has really being providing fantastic facilities. We know that in Western Europe when we have influx of 50,000 refugees from Kosovo and Balkans we had great difficulties in dealing with it and to say a temporary arrangement for two and a half million people is made in Mina, Muzdalifah and Arafat. It is almost impossible task fir many many western countries and for Saudi Arabia to provide such good facilities in providing infrastructure, food, healthcare and providing of this great facility of making people relax and pray to Allah the Almighty. Well, I only say thank you them but also pray for their success.”

An Interview with Hazzaa Hasher
Mr. Hazzaa Al-Hasher, In charge of Islamic Affairs, the Saudi Embassy in London told me in an interview, “First of all we are willing to listen and to address all the concerns of the British Hujjaj. Our concern is that the British Hujjaj go to Makkah al-Mukarramah and perform Hajj and come back safely to their country.”

As regard Rogue Travel Agents, Mr. Al-Hashar said, “We always said and advised people to go to the well-known registered travel agent and to have the contract written with them of the services they promised. We also told that Hajj and Umrah visa is free. We do not charge fees for visa or services.”

Mr. Al-Hasher emphasized, “Visa and services are free; if anybody is charging fees they are cheated.”

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