Reuters – Tough steps against Haj pilgrimage without valid papers has pushed down illegal numbers from half a million in previous years to between 100,000 and 200,000 this year, Makkah Mayor Osama bin Fadl Al-Bar has said. But he warned that experienced smugglers continue to ferry the faithful around checkpoints unnoticed.

Text messages and advertisements ahead of this year’s event warned of the tightened punishments for violators: deportation from the Kingdom for ten years, jail for up to six months and fines of SR50,000 ($13,300).

Fear of getting caught was not enough to deter Abu Ahmed and up to 200,000 other illegal pilgrims from attending the Haj.

Regulations limit Haj to once every five years for the most likely group of repeat pilgrims, those coming from inside the Kingdom and especially its population of 8 million mostly South Asian resident workers.

“We’ll all be buried one day. I’m fifty now, how long do I still have? People want to wipe clean their sins and atone for their wrongdoing before they die,” said Abu Ahmed, a Jordanian businessman who has a work residency in the Kingdom but not the special permit needed to attend Haj.

“Coming here is expensive and emotionally taxing, but I feel it’s my duty to come here every year because life is short,” said Abu Ahmed, who withheld his real name for fear of arrest.

Mayor Al-Bar said rocky terrain in the Mina area that witnessed last year’s stampede meant that space for paths and tents was limited.

“(Illegal pilgrims) sleep on roads and bridges … they impede movement, services, traffic and hygiene. Their practices like street vending and cooking anywhere are all obstacles which must be removed,” Bar said.

But Abu Ahmed said the covert ride for him and his three fellow Jordanian illegals was a bargain at SR500 each, though he admits the fear of getting caught weighs on his spiritual experience.

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