CAIRO: More than 1,300 people died making the Islamic pilgrimage of haj in Saudi Arabia this month, the vast majority of whom the Saudi govt said did not have permits. Many walked for miles in scorching heat as high as 51.8 degrees Celsius after paying thousands of dollars to illicit tour operators.
The fatalities included 660 Egyptians, 165 from Indonesia, 98 from India and dozens more from Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Malaysia, according to an AP tally.Two US citizens also died.
While pilgrims with permits are transported around Mecca in air-conditioned buses and rest in air-conditioned tents, unregistered ones are often exposed to the elements.
On Sunday, Saudi health minister Fahd bin Abdurrahman Al-Jalajel said 83% of the 1,301 reported deaths involved pilgrims who lacked permits.
With nearly 2 million participating each year, it is not unusual for pilgrims to die from heat stress, illness or chronic disease. But it is unclear if the number of deaths this year was higher than usual, because Saudi does not regularly report those statistics.
But as 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. An estimated 400,000 undocumented people tried to perform haj this year, a senior Saudi official told AFP.
Haj 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 before haj. Once they arrive, they find 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 such as Egypt and Jordan. An official haj package can cost more than $5,000 or $10,000, depending on a pilgrim’s country of origin – far beyond the means of many.
One unregistered pilgrim who died was Safaa al-Tawab from the Egyptian city of Luxor. Al-Tawab, 55, had not been able to obtain a haj permit but found an Egyptian tour company to take her for around $3,000, her brother Ahmed said. After she arrived, she told relatives she had been put in inadequate housing and prevented from going outside. Although the tour operator had promised air-conditioned buses, she found herself walking for miles in the heat, her brother said. She died midway through the pilgrimage, but when her brother contacted a representative from the tour company, he assured him she was fine, then turned off his phone. Even for the young and fit, haj is a physically challenging event, and many pilgrims are elderly or ailing by the time they can make the journey. Some believe the hajj might be their final rite, and that dying in Mecca will confer great blessings.