The Independent Hajj Reporters, a civil society organisation, has said that facilities for the newly introduced compulsory data capture of intending pilgrims ahead of the Hajj 2018 should be established in all the 774 local governments across Nigeria.

In the past, pilgrims’ bio-metrics are captured on arrival in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Authorities, however, changed the policy this year.

In Nigeria, a firm VFS, was contracted to conduct the biometrics in only three centres, Abuja, Kano and Lagos.

The decision has led to setback for umrah (lesser hajj) pilgrims who are made to travel to any of the three centres and spend days waiting to be attended to.

“About 80 to 85 per cent of pilgrims from Nigeria come from rural areas and are mostly farmers. To successfully capture the biometric data of all hajj pilgrim requires having data capture centres in all the 774 local governments,” a statement Monday by the civil society’s national coordinator, Ibrahim Muhammed and publicity secretary, Abubakar Mahmoud, said.

President Muhammadu Buhari had recently raised concern over the hardship being faced by Nigerian intending pilgrims over the new biometric policy when the Chairman of National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) Abdullahi Mohammed briefed him on the preparations for 2018 hajj.

The group said apart from Nigeria, other countries with high number of pilgrims, such as Pakistan had also officially protested the decision.

“The hajj and umrah tour operators in Nigeria also expressed their concern saying the policy has exposed its intending pilgrims to various challenges,” it said.

The group added that “a large number of people who wanted to travel to Saudi Arabia to perform their religious ritual had been inconvenienced by the new policy as they had to spend days in Abuja, Kano or Lagos for their biometric verification, wasting precious time and resources.

“Since only Kano, Abuja and Lagos have the data capture centres, we wonder how the three centres will cater for a country with 95,000 hajj and over 1.5 million umrah pilgrims,” the group said.

“We are concerned that our pilgrims will be subjected to serious hardship unless the government of Saudi Arabia suspends this policy in the interest of the Muslim ummah,” the statement said.

The statement also said: “since the Saudi security officials have to screen and capture biodata of all pilgrims on arrival, it is our opinion that such biometric records should be used for whatever security or other purposes this new policy is intended to achieve.

”While we acknowledge the enormous security and logistic challenges faced by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in her quest to make hajj a memorable experience for pilgrims, we urge them to consider the implication of this policy on the millions of Muslims who may be discouraged from fulfilling their fifth pillar of Islam.”