GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip —Three months ago, some 20 young Gazan men went on the umrah pilgrimage (the non-mandatory, lesser pilgrimage) in Saudi Arabia and never returned to the Gaza Strip.
Saudi authorities grant Gazan pilgrims a one-month visa to Saudi Arabia for hajj and umrah through travel agencies in Gaza. Pilgrims ought to leave Saudi territories upon completing their pilgrimage. Their passports remain in the travel agencies' possession and are given back to them upon their return to Gaza.
This, however, did not stop some of the travelers to stay illegally in Saudi Arabia. They obtain a passport replacement from the Palestinian Embassy after declaring they lost the original. They then try to flee to other Gulf countries to find work.
Many young Gazans consider the umrah trip an opportunity to escape the densely populated enclave to travel to countries where they have a chance to find work or study. In fact, the pilgrimage trip is less trouble than going through the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip and security checks by the Egyptian police.
“I am 34 years old. I graduated from Al-Quds Open University in 2006 with a degree in finance and banking. I thought I would lead a decent life, but there is no such thing in Gaza. I tried to get married but I could not afford it. I also tried to emigrate and I also failed because of the crossings and the blockade,” Mostafa, one of the Gazans who fled to Saudi Arabia and who declined to give his family name, told Al-Monitor via Skype.
“I don’t want to die in Gaza. I left on an umrah trip and now I will be moving to the United Arab Emirates [UAE] and look for whatever work I can find. One of my friends who has been living in Saudi Arabia for 10 years encouraged me to take this step. I am now waiting for a new passport as a replacement for the one I lost. Then I am planning to find work in the UAE,” Mostafa added.
When Mostafa and other pilgrims did not return, two travel agencies in Gaza shared their personal information on social media so people could report them. The agencies have to pay a fine to the Saudi authorities for every pilgrim who does not return to Gaza.
“Gazans who flee during umrah trips look for ways to travel to Kuwait or the UAE to join the illegal labor force or try to flee to other countries and then to Europe, especially under the difficult procedures to exit the Gaza Strip through the crossings. They want to work abroad,” said the owner of a travel, hajj and umrah agency in Gaza.
He told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that more than 20 pilgrims managed to escape during umrah trips in the past three months. “Some travel agencies share information on the fugitives, while others remain silent as they are negotiating with their parents in Gaza to pay the necessary fines. Also, some of the fugitives' families insist on keeping a low profile for fear of scandal,” the source added. This happens without any coordination with the Saudi authorities, which only collect the fines.
According to Awad Abu Mazkour, head of the Association of Owners of Hajj and Umrah Agencies in Gaza City, 12 pilgrimage trips with 9,400 pilgrims have been organized in the last three months. “The association received the names of six people who disappeared after the umrah trip to look for work,” Mazkour told Al-Monitor.
He noted that he was at the head of the negotiating team with the Egyptian side to facilitate umrah trips from Gaza to Saudi territory at the beginning of the year, especially since Gazans had not been able to go on pilgrimage for four years due to the closure of the Rafah border crossing.
The first pilgrimage tour to Saudi Arabia after the four-year hiatus departed March 3, after the Palestinian and Egyptian sides agreed to allow 800 pilgrims to leave the Gaza Strip for Saudi Arabia every week.
Mazkour explained that in case pilgrims fail to return, pilgrimage and travel agencies are fined 25,000 Saudi riyals ($6,666) to be paid to a Saudi intermediary agent. However, travel agencies are now forcing Palestinian pilgrims to sign a document whereby they pledge to pay the fine in case they violate the pilgrimage conditions.
“We have reported the fugitives to the Saudi security authorities and the Islamic Affairs Ministry so that Palestinian travel agencies would not have to pay the fines and that the Saudi security could track them down to be punished according to Saudi laws. Should the fugitive stay in Saudi Arabia after the umrah — more than one month — he would be fined 50,000 riyals [$13,333] and six months in prison,” Mazkour said.
He added that many pilgrims eventually head to China, India or other countries for work or other purposes. “For these people, the umrah trip is the best way to travel through the Rafah crossing instead of waiting up to three months or paying money for travel up to $1,200,” Mazkour said.
The Hanif Travel, Hajj and Umrah Agency reported a month ago that two pilgrims disappeared, according to the company’s media officer Mohammed Abdul Bari. The company notified the fugitives’ families that they need to come back or pay the fine.
Abdul Bari told Al-Monitor that pilgrims are now required to sign a document that states the fine to be paid in case they do not return, in the presence of family witnesses.
“The travel agency also confiscates the travelers’ ID and passports to be returned upon their arrival in Gaza. However, pilgrims stay in Saudi Arabia without passports until they have replacements issued by the Palestinian Embassy. We know they are running away from the dire conditions in the Gaza Strip, but we cannot be held accountable for this,” Abdul Bari concluded.