Indonesians faking as Philippine pilgrims face scrutiny upon arrival

Indonesian pilgrims returning from Mecca are soon arriving in the country and celebrating their new status as Hajji, but many have seen their wishes to bear the venerable title shattered or may face questions on the validity of their pilgrimage after they resorted to go on the pilgrimage illegally, including posing as Philippine citizens.

The Indonesians faking their identities as Filipinos are expected to be among the first three batches of 1,049 pilgrims that the Philippine authorities and an Indonesian technical assistance team will scrutinize as they arrive in Manila on Monday.

The Indonesian team, comprised of immigration, religious ministry and police officials, would help to expedite deportation of Indonesian citizens who might be found among those arriving, after the Philippines authorities suspected hundreds of the arrivals could be Indonesians and Malaysians, who were using Philippine hajj passports.

“We would assist to verify their identities and determine if they are really Indonesian citizens, because their names and identities are being withheld by the Philippine immigration office,” Heru Santoso, a spokesman for the immigration office said.

The team was sent after the Foreign Ministry last week dispatched a special team to Manila. Lalu Muhammad Iqbal, the ministry’s director for the protection of Indonesian nationals and entities abroad who led the team said they held a series of meeting on Wednesday with a task force set up by the Philippine government to deal with the illegal hajj case.

“The meeting agreed on the flow of handling the pilgrims when they arrive in Manila. We expect the flow would ensure that the pilgrims could be deported as soon as possible,” Lalu said in a statement on Thursday.

The first in a string of hajj scams involving Indonesians emerged from the Philippines on Aug 18 when immigration officials at Ninoy Aquino International Airport arrested 177 Indonesians who were about to board their flights to Saudi Arabia. The officials became suspicious when none of them could speak any Filipino dialects despite listing Jolo in the southern Philippines as their addresses. It turned out they were Indonesians using legally obtained Philippine hajj passports but with fake identities and they were going to leave using Philippine’s unused hajj quota.

Further investigation to the case revealed that there could be up to 700 Indonesians that went on the pilgrimage posing as Filipino pilgrims, though many of them could also be Malaysians. In addition, another group of 229 Indonesians, comprised of 155 women, 59 men and 15 minors were detained by the Saudi authorities. They were arrested in two different locations for overstaying and not having the proper hajj permits.

The government has maintained since then that they are victims of hajj scams involving a syndicate in Indonesia and the Philippines, which exploited Muslims eager to skip the lengthy waiting list that could extend as far as 2055 and would go at any length to secure a spot to go to Mecca. President Joko Widodo and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reaffirmed this view when the latter visited Jakarta on Sep 9.

A majority of the 177 Indonesians arrested in Manila – half of them were from South Sulawesi – have returned, while nine of them stayed behind for investigation purposes.

Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association (ICMI) secretary general, Muhammad Jafar Hafsah urged the government to improve its hajj management and impose stricter evaluation on the annual event.

Jafar said in a statement that it has become normal for many Indonesian pilgrims to register to go on hajj through other countries.

“There are also hajj travel operators that use fake visas from other countries. This is a work of mafia and a very serious crime. How could they manipulate this religious ritual to be an illegal trip implicating other countries,” Jafar said.

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