Hajj Deaths in Saudi Arabia: What to Know

At least 1,300 people died during the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mecca this year. It was unclear whether the death toll was higher than usual, as each year pilgrims die from heat stress, illness and chronic disease.

But the toll has raised questions about whether Saudi Arabia made adequate preparations for intense heat and the influx of unregistered pilgrims who, the authorities say, relied on illicit tour operators to skirt the official permit process.

Here’s what to know about this year’s hajj.

The hajj, a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, is one of the five pillars of Islam, and all Muslims who are physically and financially able are obliged to perform it at least once in their lives.

People spend years saving up to travel to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, to embark on the five-day pilgrimage, which takes place in the days before and during the holy period of Eid al-Adha. Pilgrims visit several holy sites, including circling the Kaaba and praying near Mount Arafat.

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

More than 1.8 million Muslims participated in the hajj this year, 1.6 million of them from outside Saudi Arabia, according to the Saudi General Authority for Statistics.

They encountered scorching temperatures that ranged from 108 Fahrenheit to 120, according to preliminary data.

The Saudi government’s measures to reduce the effects of extreme heat have included misting pilgrims with water and incorporating shade into some sites. The authorities also issued advisories urging pilgrims to stay hydrated, minimize outdoor activities, and carry umbrellas to block direct sunlight.

As the temperatures climbed, some pilgrims described watching people faint and passing bodies in the street.

Some pilgrims succumbed to chronic illnesses or died from natural causes, according to their governments. In many cases, however, heat was suggested as a contributing factor.

Many relatives of the dead and missing complained that the authorities had not set up enough cooling stations or did not have water for all the pilgrims. Those amenities, put in place for people who had registered for the hajj, did not necessarily account for the large numbers of pilgrims who descended on Mecca without permits.

Saudi Arabia’s 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 Sunday in an interview on state television. “Unfortunately — and this is painful for all of us — those who didn’t have hajj permits walked long distances under the sun.”

An official hajj package can cost more than $10,000, depending on a pilgrim’s country of origin — far beyond the means of many hoping to make the trip.

Companies were being blamed for letting pilgrims travel to Saudi Arabia on visitor visas and tourist visas, rather than hajj visas, which provide access to medical care and the holy sites. 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.

One Egyptian tour operator said that because of increasing fees for hajj package tours, as well as the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, many pilgrims opted for tourist visas, which had burdened the facilities in Mecca and the surrounding holy sites.

The man, who spoke from Mecca on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns, said unregistered pilgrims had no tents and were exposed to extreme heat. He said there also were too few buses, so many pilgrims walked more than 12 miles.

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 early and hiding out, or paying smugglers to ferry them into the city.

Several countries that recorded large numbers of deaths have moved quickly to address the tragedy.

The president of Tunisia, which counted more than 50 pilgrims among the dead, fired the country’s religious affairs minister on Friday. The public prosecutor for Jordan — which recorded at least 99 pilgrim deaths — opened an investigation into illegal hajj routes.

And the authorities in Egypt said that they would revoke the licenses of 16 companies that issued visas to pilgrims without providing adequate services.

Mahmoud Qassem, a member of Egypt’s Parliament, said the travel companies “left the pilgrims stranded and turned off their mobile phones” so they could not hear the travelers’ calls for help.

Saudi officials have repeatedly praised this year’s hajj as a success. It is unclear if more pilgrims died than in years past, because Saudi Arabia does not regularly report those statistics. In August 1985, more than 1,700 people died around the holy sites, mostly from heat stress, a study at the time found.

But a number of social media users have accused the government of mismanagement over the deaths this year, and an opposition party founded by Saudi dissidents in exile condemned what it described as “negligence.”

This is not the first time the Saudi government’s handling of the pilgrimage has drawn scrutiny. The hajj has been the scene of several catastrophes over the years, including a stampede in 2015 that killed more than 2,200 people.

In recent years, with rising temperatures, many pilgrims have also succumbed to heat stress. Islamic Relief, a global aid agency based in London, has been warning about the impact of climate change on the hajj since 2019.

“Should the world’s emissions continue in a business-as-usual scenario, temperatures in Mecca will rise to levels that the human body cannot cope with,” Shahin Ashraf, the organization’s head of global advocacy, said in an emailed statement on Friday.

Because the date of the hajj is tied to the lunar calendar, over the next few years it will gradually shift into cooler months.

The number of unregistered pilgrims has most likely contributed to a lack of clarity around the toll. Official numbers have been slow to come out, with several countries saying they had consular staff searching hospitals, clinics and morgues for missing citizens.

Indonesia has so far reported the most deaths, 199, and India has reported 98. They said they could not be sure that heat had caused all the deaths.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, where many pilgrims come from, have released complete death tolls for their citizens. The Egyptian government said that 31 pilgrims with official permits died, but that they were still working with Saudi officials to tally the full number.

Many people have been reported missing, and Egyptian families are bracing for a high death toll. Egypt has set up crisis centers to receive distress calls and coordinate the government response.

At least two Americans were among the dead: the Maryland residents Isatu Wurie, 65, and Alieu Wurie, 71. Their daughter, Saida Wurie, said she had struggled to locate their bodies in Mecca. Still, she said she 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.”

Emad Mekay contributed reporting.

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