How 177 Indonesians obtained fake Philippine passports
MAKASSAR, Indonesia - A total of 177 prospective pilgrims from Indonesia are currently detained by immigration police in the Philippines for carrying illegal Philippine passports.
The Indonesians were arrested in the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on Thursday, August 18, as they attempted to leave for Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj, a mandatory Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslims.
The pilgrims were attempting to check-in into their Philippine Arilines flight, but their inability to speak any Filipino or Filipino dialect raised eyebrows of immigration officials who held their tickets and passports.
Officials ushered the pilgrims into the waiting room, and have been investigated since.
On Tuesday, August 23, Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi said the Indonesians were "victims of organized crime."
"I emphasize that the 177 pilgrims are victims, once again they are the victims," Marsudi said.
The Indonesians are said to have paid illegal travel agencies anywhere between Rp 78 million to Rp 131 million (P273,950 or $5,894 to P460,096 or $9,900), a fee which included a Philippine passport.
The passports were allegedly provided by 5 Filipinos who accompanied the pilgrims.
Based on data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, more than 50% of the prospective pilgrims who are detained hail from South Sulawesi – which has one of the highest hajj quotas in Indonesia.
The small quota encouraged prospective pilgrims to go through unauthorized channels.
The head of the Office of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in South Sulawesi, Abdul Wahid Tahir, said one of the ways that citizens can sign up for the pilgrimage rapidly is by exploiting unused Hajj quotas of other countries.
Indonesia's Hajj quota is 168,800, all of which has been used up. The Philippines, a predominantly Christian country, has a Hajj quota of just about 8,000.
Using the Hajj quota of other provinces is also difficult, since the process requires ID cards from residents of the area.
"It's an alternative way taken by most people, especially for people who do not want to get into a waiting list," Tahir said.
In Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, pilgrims must wait up to 37 years to perform the Hajj due to a long waitlist. According to Joko Asmoro, chairman of the Indonesian Muslim Association for Haj and Umrah Travels, there are 3.2 million Indonesians on the waitlist.
Asmoro said there are 3,500 travel agencies in Indonesia but of that number, only 200 are authorized by the Saudi Ministry to organize Hajj.
Saudi Arabia allocates countries with a Muslim population a quota every year to limit the number of pilgrims who come to Mecca.
This year, Tahir explained, the Hajj quota for South Sulawesi alone is 5,770 people – meaning a wait of up to 20 years. The long wait makes illegal travel agencies an attractive option.
"The travel agent was not registered. We searched and they were not in accordance with our procedures and not included in the list of official South Sulawesi Hajj travel agencies," said Tahir.
He explained that hundreds of prospective pilgrims enter into the Philippines by using the visa-free facility which is used by tourists.
Once there, they are given a Philippine passport to leave for Saudi Arabia.
According to Tahir, the passport was fake – even though information from the authorities in the Philippines said the document is genuine, but acquired with illegal documents.
Tahir said the arrested pilgrims were treated well.
"There was no oppression, let alone violence. They were taken care of, given food, drinks, and a comfortable place to rest," he said.
Officials from the Indonesian Embassy in Manila have also been monitoring the situation. They are scheduled to be repatriated on Wednesday, August 24.
Rappler spoke to one of the Indonesian pilgrim's children Monday, August 22, whose mother remains detained at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
The pilgrim reportedly told her son, they are "fine," and that their situation is "being handled by the Indonesian embassy."
The son said his mother told him that they will likely be repatriated within the next 3 days and "not to worry."
"If we went to the toilet, we were escorted by 3 armed men," his mother reportedly said.
The pilgrim also shared snippets of how they obtained the fake Philippine passport.
She told her son that they went to a Hajj travel agency located on Independence Pioneer Road in Makassar. This travel agency is said to have dispatched 24 worshippers.
The pilgrim's son also told Rappler that in February, he drove his mother to register for the umrah – a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia that unlike the Hajj can be undertaken any time of the year – at the office of PT ST. While arranging the umrah, the agency officer reportedly offered to sign her up for the Hajj through the Philippines.
Prospective pilgrims were told they only had to pay a downpayment of Rp 20 million (P70,395 or $1,513) – a good deal.
The wait was not long. Two months later, they recieved a call to pay the rest of the cost. Those unable to pay the complete downpayment had their spots forfeited.
The pilgrim said she then paid the remaining cost of the pilgrimage. Her total payment reached Rp 120 million (P421,568 or $9,080) – still lower compared to other pilgrims who reportedly paid up to Rp 150 million (P526,961 or $11,333).
"Once the payment was completed, we were asked to wait longer for our documents," she told her son.
Again, this did not take long, 10 days before the month of Ramadan, the pilgrim said their documents were ready and the travel agency told them they would go to Malaysia by sea, then flown to the Philippines.
Upon arrival in the Philippines, prospective pilgrims from Indonesia were scheduled to fly to Saudi Arabia.
It was then that they were stopped by Philippine authorities.
Police have said this is not the first time such an incident has occured.
Indonesian police from Parapare city in South Sulawasi said they conducted raids at a shop owned by PT Batara Maiwa, a company engaged in the procurement and storage of pharmaceutical and medical devices located in Jalan Sulawesi, South Sulawesi.
There, police secured evidence in the form of documents for 62 prospective pilgrims who were scheduled to be sent to the Philippines. The owner, Hasnawati, who like many Indonesians go by one name, was indicted and sentenced to jail for 5 months.
Another pilgrim, who had signed up last year through Hasnawati, had her dreams dashed as well. The pilgrim told Rappler she paid Rp 75 million (P263,507 or $5666). The cost already includes a Philippine passport.
"The information we got is that someone in the regional police supports the practice. We went to the Philippines with an Indonesian passport. Later, a messenger from the police office picked us up at the airport," the pilgrim told Rappler on Sunday, August 21.
It was the official messenger who took care of all the administrative process including obtaining a Philippine passport.
"They certainly do not bid, because you do not have to wait long for a pilgrimage. The costs can also be paid in installments, but must be settled before departure," the pilgrim said.
Hasnawati's whereabouts are currently unknown and his cellphone is no longer reachable. His store at Jalan Sulawesi also looks abandoned today.
Meanwhile, the Department of Foreign Affairs in the Philippines said it would launch its own investigation on how the Indonesians obtained Philippine passports.
DFA spokesman Charles Jose on Monday said they are just waiting for the passports to be turned over by the Bureau of Immigration.
Jose said the Indonesians were carrying special Philippine hajj passports, which are "different from the regular passport."
"This is issued to Filipino hajj pilgrims,” he said.
Jose reiterated that the passports are real, but the means of obtaining them were illegal. – with reports from Syarifah Fitriani/Natashya Gutierrez/Antara News/Rappler.com