Pilgrim Deaths in Mecca Put Spotlight on Underworld Hajj Industry

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More than 1,300 people died making the Islamic pilgrimage of hajj in Saudi Arabia this month, the vast majority of whom the Saudi government said did not have permits. Many walked for miles in 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, as temperatures surpassed 120 degrees, some pilgrims described watching people faint and passing bodies in the street.

On Sunday, in an interview on state television, the Saudi health minister, Fahd al-Jalajel, said that 83 percent of the 1,301 reported deaths involved pilgrims who lacked permits.

“The rise in temperatures during the hajj season represented a big challenge this year,” he said. “Unfortunately — and this is painful for all of us — those who didn’t have hajj permits walked long distances under the sun.”

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

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

But because so many of those who died had no permits, this year’s toll exposed an underworld of illicit tour operators and smugglers who profit off 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 that locks down weeks ahead of hajj.

Despite those efforts, an estimated 400,000 undocumented people tried to perform the pilgrimage this year, a senior Saudi official told Agence France-Presse, speaking on the 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 exploited loopholes that allow people to travel to the kingdom with a tourist or visitor visa ahead of hajj. Once they arrive, they find a network of illegal brokers and smugglers who offer their services, take their money and sometimes abandon them to fend for themselves, they said.

The number of unregistered pilgrims appeared to have been driven up this year by rising economic desperation in countries like Egypt and Jordan. An official hajj package can cost more than $5,000 or $10,000, depending on a pilgrim’s country of origin — far beyond the means of many hoping to make the trip.

Marwa, a 32-year-old Egyptian woman whose parents performed hajj without an official permit this year, said that they had paid around $2,000 for their journey, facilitated by an agent in Egypt and a broker in Saudi Arabia. They felt that they had to go soon because, as Egypt’s currency loses value, their savings shrink every year, she said. Marwa asked to be identified only by her first name to avoid legal repercussions.

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

On Friday, the president of Tunisia, which counted more than 50 pilgrims among the dead, fired the country’s religious affairs minister. In Jordan, which recorded the deaths of at least 99 pilgrims, the public prosecutor opened an investigation into illegal hajj routes. And in Egypt, the authorities said that they would revoke the licenses of 16 companies that issued visas to pilgrims without providing them with adequate services.

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

Ms. Ahmed said that she refused to send unregistered pilgrims on hajj packages but that other Egyptian tour operators and Saudi brokers made big money doing so.

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, had not been able to obtain a hajj permit but found an Egyptian tour company to take her for around $3,000, he said.

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

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

Before the hajj, the Saudi authorities posted billboards and sent a barrage of text messages reminding people that it is illegal to perform the pilgrimage without a permit; violators face fines, deportation and bans on re-entering the kingdom.

Entry to Mecca was barred weeks before hajj for visitors who did not have permits. Yet many pilgrims were able to evade the restrictions, arriving in Mecca early and hiding out, or paying smugglers to ferry them into the city.

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

The Saudi government deploys measures to reduce the effects of extreme heat, including spraying pilgrims with mists of water and incorporating shading into some sites.

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

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

But even some who were in Mecca with documentation complained about inadequate facilities for the heat.

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

Despite his joy at completing the hajj, Mr. Ali said that he was troubled by the hardships they encountered and that he had feared for the health of his mother throughout the journey.

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

Mr. al-Jalajel, the health minister, said that one quarter of the health services provided during hajj were rendered to undocumented pilgrims. “We look at them as a pilgrim, regardless of their permit, race or nationality, and they receive full 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…Saida Wurie

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

But after they arrived in Mecca, the operator told them to stay in their hotel until permits were issued for them, and transportation they had been promised was not always available, they told their daughter. Her parents were frustrated because they had believed they were going “by the book,” Ms. Wurie said.

They were still able to perform some of the initial rituals of hajj, and they were “so excited to see the Kaaba,” the cubic structure that pilgrims circumambulate, she said.

But the last message she received from her mother said that a bus to take them to one of the sites had not arrived, and that they had been walking for two hours instead.

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

“They died doing exactly what they wanted to do,” she said. “They’ve always wanted to make it to hajj.”

Hager ElHakeem, Rana F. Sweis, Zia ur-Rehman, Saif Hasnat, Mujib Mashal, Safak Timur, Aida Alami and Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting.



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