The National Hajj Commission (NAHCOM), on Saturday said it was resuming the airlift of prospective pilgrims to Saudi Arabia, an exercise it suspended after Saudi authorities kept deporting female pilgrims who embarked on the journey without male companions.
NAHCOM’s chairman, Mohammed Bello, said at a news conference in Abuja Saturday that the transportation of pilgrims would now resume after the commission’s review of the issues surrounding the repatriation of some female pilgrims from Saudi Arabia.
Nigeria is resuming the airlift of the pilgrims even as Saudi Arabia insists it would continue to deport women who failed to make the journey with male companies.
Mr. Bello did not say what precaution his commission is taking to ensure that airlifted pilgrims are not again deported.
He only said NAHCOM decided to resume pilgrims’ transportation after its meeting on Thursday with officials of the airlines engaged for the exercise.
He said at the meeting, the commission decided to carry out a comprehensive review of all flights for this year’s pilgrimage so as to ensure hitch-free operations that were devoid of any embarrassing situation.
“The suspension of pilgrims’ transportation lapses by midnight today and anytime thereafter, as soon as possible and applicable, the carriers will resume pilgrims’ transportation,’’ Mr. Bello said.
He stressed that the decision to suspend the flight operations for two days was informed by the “urgent need to ensure that the pilgrims in all subsequent flights do not suffer the same plight as the ones before them.’’
He, however, rejected the media reports that the female pilgrims who were brought back to the country were “deported’’, insisting that they were actually brought back by the Federal Government.
“NAHCOM only brought back our female pilgrims in Nigerian airlines,’’ he said.
Mr. Bello said that right now, some 16,000 pilgrims from at least 28 states were ready for transportation to Saudi Arabia.
NAHCOM’s, Uba Mana, had said the agency would not resume airlift of pilgrims until all the issues are resolved.
“It does not make sense to airlift people to be detained on landing. We will resume when all outstanding issues are resolved,” he said.
But despite effort being made by the Federal Government to stop authorities in Saudi Arabia from deporting Nigerian female pilgrims, the Saudi authorities say there is no going back.
Authorities in the Islamic holy land have already deported over 500 Nigerian women while more are still in detention in Saudi Arabia. One thousand women were detained and about of them already deported for allegedly not coming to the country with male guardians.
A statement from Saudi Press Agency, SPA Friday quotes the Minister in charge of Hajj Affairs in Saudi Arabia as saying ”there won’t be any entry to Saudi Arabia for those who don’t comply with terms and requirements of the entry visa to the Kingdom to perform the Hajj pilgrimage.”
Although the statement did not specifically refer to Nigeria, reports from the Holy Land indicate that only Nigerian pilgrims are subjected to the requirement of the entry visa policy.
According to the spokesperson of the Ministry, Hatim Bn Hassan Qadhi, “These terms require women under age of 45 years to be accompanied with a male sponsor during the pilgrimage journey and that is stipulated in the woman’s visa or her sponsor regardless of nationality.”
“This rule is applied to all women in general who want to get an entry visa to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj,” Mr. Qadhi said
The position of the Saudi authorities is despite efforts made by the Federal Government to resolve the impasse.
Government sources say the Saudi Government has treated the Nigerian pilgrims with so much contempt that even diplomats have not been allowed to see them.
Some of the deported women claimed that they had male guardians but were separated from them at the entry point when, as stated by Saudi Arabian laws, men and women had to queue for immigration verifications separately.