Prospective umrah and haj pilgrims planning to travel to Saudi Arabia will have to go for biometric fingerprint and facial recognition tests to obtain a visa from the Saudi Embassy. This was confirmed by the South African Haj and Umrah Council (Sahuc) on Friday, after the Saudi government made the announcement this week. The implementation of biometric visas will generate the digitalisation of the visa applicant’s face and fingerprints.
Biometrics refers to the identification of humans by their characteristics or traits. Contrary to reports that pilgrims would need to travel to the embassy in Pretoria for this process, Sahuc president Shaheen Essop said it would be rolled out in the Western Cape soon. A company called VFS is the operator and will open two offices in Gauteng and Cape Town. “Anyone living in the Western Cape region would have to travel to Cape Town for the biometrics. We have also asked them to open an office in KZN in order to accommodate people from Durban, as we can’t expect them to be travelling for this purpose,” he told VOC Breakfast Beat.
The biometric technology aims to reduce the amount of time that people spend at the immigration upon arriving at the airport in Saudi Arabia. “Nine out of ten times you will find that the systems are not working and there can be delays for up to eight hours at immigration,” said Essop. Essop said 33 countries would be required to have the biometric visas. The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already rolled out the process in 16 countries. “It’s going to be an inconvenience for us, but we have to do it. The great thing about this is that there is an age limit on it and only people between the age of 12 and 70 are required to do it.” VFS plan to roll out the process for umrah in June this year.
From Monday next week, anyone travelling to Saudi Arabia on a business or ziyarat visa will have to go through this process. “We have told the Saudi Embassy that the most important factor is making it as easy as possible for our mu’tamireen and hujjaj. We have been assured that once that an appointment is made at the VSF office, it should take ten minutes for the process to be completed,” Essop said. Sahuc has urged VSF to embark on an educational drive to inform hujjaj. Registered umrah operators will be briefed on the process. VOC (Tasneem Adams)