The death of pilgrims in Mecca puts the underworld Hajj industry in the spotlight

More than 1,300 people died during the Islamic hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia this month, the vast majority of whom the Saudi government said did not have permission. Many walked for miles in the scorching heat after paying thousands of dollars to illicit tour operators.

While pilgrims with permits are transported around the holy city of Mecca in air-conditioned buses and rest in air-conditioned tents, unregistered ones are often exposed to the elements. In recent days, when temperatures soared above 120 degrees, some pilgrims described seeing people fainting and passing bodies in the street.

In an interview on state television on Sunday, Saudi Health Minister Fahd al-Jalajel said 83% of the 1,301 reported deaths involved pilgrims without permits.

“The rising temperatures during the Hajj season posed a big challenge this year,” he said. “Unfortunately – and this is painful for all of us – those who did not have hajj permits walked long distances in the sun.”

Al-Jalajel's remarks came after days of silence from the Saudi government over casualties during the hajj, an arduous and deeply spiritual ritual that Muslims are encouraged to perform at least once in their lives if they can.

With nearly two million participants each year, it is not unusual for pilgrims to die from heat stress, illness or chronic illness. It is unclear whether the number of deaths this year was higher than usual, because Saudi Arabia does not regularly report such statistics. In 1985, more than 1,700 people died around the holy sites, most of them from heat stress, according to a study at the time.

But because many of those who died had no permits, this year's toll has exposed an underworld of tour operators and illicit smugglers profiting from Muslims desperate to make the journey.

The deaths also laid bare what appeared to be a failure of Saudi immigration and security procedures aimed at preventing unregistered pilgrims from reaching the holy sites, including a security cordon around Mecca blocking weeks before the hajj .

Despite these efforts, around 400,000 undocumented people have attempted to make the pilgrimage this year, a senior Saudi official told Agence France-Presse, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment.

In interviews with the New York Times, however, hajj tour operators, pilgrims and relatives of the dead described easily exploitable loopholes that allow people to travel to the kingdom on a tourist or visitor visa before the hajj. Once they arrive, they find a network of illegal intermediaries and smugglers who offer their services, take their money and sometimes abandon it to themselves.

The number of unregistered pilgrims appears to have increased this year due to growing economic desperation in countries such as Egypt and Jordan. An official hajj package can cost more than $5,000 or $10,000, depending on the pilgrim's country of origin, far beyond the means of many hoping to make the journey.

Marwa, a 32-year-old Egyptian woman whose parents performed the hajj this year without official permission, said they paid about $2,000 for their trip, facilitated by an agent in Egypt and an intermediary in Saudi Arabia . She felt they had to leave soon because, as the Egyptian currency loses value, their savings dwindle every year, she said. Marwa asked to be identified only by her first name to avoid legal repercussions.

Several countries that have recorded large numbers of deceased pilgrims have moved quickly to address the consequences.

On Friday, the president of Tunisia, who counted more than 50 pilgrims among the victims, fired the country's minister of religious affairs. In Jordan, where at least 99 pilgrims have died, the prosecutor's office has opened an investigation into illegal hajj routes. And in Egypt the authorities said they would revoke the licenses of 16 companies that issued visas to pilgrims without providing them with adequate services.

“There is so much greed around this business,” said Iman Ahmed, co-owner of El-Iman Tours in Cairo.

Ms. Ahmed said she refused to send unregistered pilgrims with hajj packages, but that other Egyptian tour operators and Saudi intermediaries made a lot of money this way.

One unregistered pilgrim who died was Safaa al-Tawab, a grandmother from the Egyptian city of Luxor, according to her brother Ahmed al-Tawab. Ms. al-Tawab, 55, was unable to get a hajj permit, but she found an Egyptian tour company that took her for about $3,000, she said.

Ms al-Tawab did not realize she was breaking the rules when she traveled to Saudi Arabia last month, her brother said, and after her arrival she told relatives that she had been placed in inadequate accommodation and that her he had been prevented from leaving. While the tour operator had promised air-conditioned buses to take pilgrims around Mecca, she instead found herself walking for miles in the heat, al-Tawab said.

Ms al-Tawab died halfway through the pilgrimage, but when her brother contacted a representative from the tour company, he assured him she was fine, then turned off the phone, Mr al-Tawab said.

Ahead of the hajj, Saudi authorities put up billboards and sent a barrage of text messages to remind people that it is illegal to make the pilgrimage without permission; violators risk fines, deportation and a ban on re-entering the kingdom.

Entry to Mecca was prohibited weeks before the hajj to visitors without a permit. Yet many pilgrims have managed to evade the restrictions, arriving early in Mecca and hiding, or paying traffickers to transport them to the city.

Even for the young and fit, the hajj is a physically demanding event, and many pilgrims are elderly or ill by the time they are able to make the journey. Some believe that the hajj could be their final rite and that dying in Mecca will confer great blessings.

The Saudi government takes steps to reduce the effects of extreme heat, including spraying pilgrims with water mist and incorporating shading at some sites.

Abdulhalim Dahir, 31, a Kenyan pilgrim who performed the hajj with his brother and father using official permits, said his journey was generally uneventful, with air-conditioned tents and buses and easy access to water.

“It was an amazing, once in a lifetime experience,” he said.

But even some who were in Mecca with documentation complained of inadequate facilities due to the heat.

Makhdoom Ali, 36, a Pakistani software engineer who traveled there with his 65-year-old mother, said he saw several pilgrims collapse from the heat with no immediate assistance available.

Despite his joy at completing the hajj, Mr Ali said he was troubled by the difficulties he encountered and feared for his mother's health during the journey.

“Many lives could have been saved with better government arrangements,” Ali said.

Mr al-Jalajel, the health minister, said that a quarter of the health services provided during the hajj were provided to undocumented pilgrims. “We consider them as pilgrims, regardless of their permit, race or nationality, and they receive comprehensive services,” he said.

Among the dead were at least two Americans.

Isatu Wurie, 65, and Alieu Wurie, 71, of Maryland, died during their pilgrimage to Mecca.Credit…Sell ​​Wurie

Maryland residents Isatu Wurie, 65, and Alieu Wurie, 71, had saved for years to make the pilgrimage, paying $23,000 to a local tour operator, said their daughter, Saida Wurie.

But after arriving in Mecca, the operator told them to stay in their hotel until their permits were issued, and the transportation they were promised was not always available, they told their daughter. Her parents were frustrated because they believed they would follow the rules, Ms. Wurie said.

They were still able to perform some of the initial rituals of the hajj, and were “so excited to see the Kaaba,” the cubic structure around which pilgrims circle, he said.

But the last message he received from his mother said that the bus to take them to one of the sites had not arrived and that they had walked for two hours instead.

Despite her frustration with the tour operator, as well as the difficulty of locating their bodies – buried in Mecca – Ms Wurie believes her parents were full of joy in their final days.

“They died doing exactly what they wanted to do,” he said. “They always wanted to get to the Hajj.”

Hager ElHakeem, Rana F. Welding, Aunt ur-Rehman, Saif Hasnat, Mujib Mashal, Shafak Timur, Natural Aida AND Muktita Suhartono contributed to the reporting.

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