28 Oct, Wednesday
26° C

Closing the Umrah Visa Loophole Is a Good Thing

AHMAD (not his real name) stopped talking a few weeks ago when the truck he was hidden in came to a sudden stop on the highway from Riyadh to Jeddah. A few minutes later the truck resumed its journey, and he slowly recovered from the fear of being discovered as a stowaway, stashed behind a cargo of bathroom fixtures.

This story was told to me recently by an Indian acquaintance about this friend of his who had run away from his sponsor in Riyadh after not being paid for three months. Three years had passed since during which Ahmad had worked as a waiter in an Indian restaurant in the Saudi capital, saving enough money that he now wanted to go home to Kerala.

In order to be deported as quickly possible, Ahmad had to make his way to Jeddah, where the Passport Office rapidly sends overstayers home at the expense of the Saudi government. Without his passport or Iqama (residency and work permit), Ahmad had to pay a truck driver SR300 to take him clandestinely to Jeddah. He was not alone. Another nine other fellow travelers joined him in the back of the truck where they had water, a little food and a phone link to the driver with which to survive the 900-km trip.

Once in Jeddah, Ahmad rested a few days with relatives before going to the Sharafiah district where hordes of overstayers live under a bridge, awaiting their turn to be deported.

The problem here is that just standing under the bridge will not ensure one’s deportation. Here too a payment must be made to a fixer to ensure that one will be picked up. Ahmad paid SR150 to an Indian guy who promised that he would be picked up soon. The first night Ahmad spent under the bridge, several Passport Office buses came but only took away women and children to the deportation center. Crestfallen, Ahmad left Sharafiah and returned the next day. He was luckier this time and ended up spending three days in the deportation center. On the fourth day he was back in New Delhi, India, catching a train home to Kerala.

I recount this story to help explain why the recently announced new regulation restricting the ability of foreign Muslims under the age of 40 from performing Umrah, or the lesser pilgrimage to Makkah, is so important.

The Saudi government announced on Tuesday that persons under the age of 40 from India, Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria and Chad would no longer be given Umrah visas as individuals, but would be obliged to perform the pilgrimage in groups. This measure was introduced after thousands of foreigners used this loophole to easily enter the Kingdom to look for work.

While many of these illegal overstayers have provided cheap labor to scores of Saudi businessmen, they have also been a burden on Saudi society when they become beggars or turn to crime to support themselves.

The Umrah visa loophole was so well-known and used by people seeking jobs in Saudi Arabia, that many people were using it as a virtual merry-go-round mechanism to keep coming back to the country every time they were deported. Begging syndicates from Africa and Afghanistan likewise targeted the Kingdom, sending in professional beggars and conmen on Umrah visas, knowing full well that if they were caught and deported, they could always easily regain entrance in a few months time on a new Umrah visa.

While some foreigners believe it is their God-given right to get an Umrah visa as many times as they can, it is a fact that Umrah is not obligatory for Muslims, unlike the Haj which all adult Muslims are supposed to perform at least once in their lifetimes.

Ahmad did not enter the Kingdom on an Umrah visa, but the ease with which he left the country by claiming to be an Umrah overstayer is an indication of how corrupt the whole system has become and what a mockery job-seekers were making of it.

While it is an undeniable fact that the millions of pilgrims who come to Makkah and Madinah ever year are a boon to the economy with the money they spend on food, accommodation and souvenirs, those among them who choose to overstay illegally are also responsible for depressing wages for both Saudis and foreigners who are here legally.

Saudis who employ overstayers are obviously taking a risk, but owners of dress workshops and other businesses that do not entail much employee-customer contact have been willing to take the risk of getting caught.

While Filipinos have not been included in this new restriction, possibly because the high cost of performing Umrah from the Philippines has discouraged Filipino Muslims from using this avenue to look for work in the Kingdom, there are still many of them who do overstay their visas to earn some money before returning home.

The relative affordability of performing Umrah for Muslims who live closer to the Kingdom, such as Indians who only have to pay around 24,000 rupees each to come here, has also been a factor in fueling the surge in overstayers. Perhaps the Saudi government could insist that each pilgrim put up a bond of say $500 each with it, which they would only get back if they returned on time after performing Umrah. Those who stayed behind here illegally would obviously lose this bond. That would certainly be an incentive not to overstay.

Overall, I think that overstayers have been a drain on the Saudi economy and have contributed to increased levels of criminality. While it is true that many of the overstayers have contributed to our economy by working hard at lower wages, the whole rotten system of sponsorship needs to be rethought and perhaps scrapped entirely. The artificial controls put on the job market just distort it, with employers and employees forced to find ways around it. Wouldn’t it be much better if we could keep out the beggars but legalize some of the skilled overstayers who are contributing to our country?