Home News Death of pilgrims in Mecca draws attention to the underworld Hajj industry

Death of pilgrims in Mecca draws attention to the underworld Hajj industry


The tragic killing of more than a thousand pilgrims travelling to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj has put the spotlight on a mafia of illegal travel agents, smugglers and con men who profiteer from Muslims eager to fulfil their religious obligation to travel to Mecca.

While registered pilgrims travel the holy sites in air-conditioned buses and rest in air-conditioned tents, unregistered pilgrims are often exposed to the elements and are more susceptible to the heat. This year, some pilgrims said they saw people fainting and bodies littering the streets as temperatures reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

Saudi Health Minister Fahd al-Jalajel told state television on Sunday that 83% of the more than 1,300 deaths were among pilgrims who did not have official permission.

“The high temperatures during this year’s Hajj season are a major challenge,” he said. “Unfortunately – and this is painful for all of us – those who do not have Hajj permits have to travel long distances under the scorching sun.”

Jarajal’s comments followed days of silence from Saudi authorities on deaths during the hajj, a grueling and deeply spiritual pilgrimage that able Muslims are encouraged to complete during their lifetime.

With nearly 2 million pilgrims taking part each year, many of them elderly or sick, it is not uncommon for people to die from heat stress, illness or chronic diseases, though Saudi Arabia does not regularly report those statistics. So it is unclear whether this year’s death toll is an anomaly. Last year, 774 pilgrims died. Only from IndonesiaIn 1985, more than 1,700 people died around the Holy Land, mostly from heat stress, study It was discovered at that time.

But because many of the pilgrims who died this year had made the pilgrimage without official documents, their deaths have exposed a mafia of unlicensed tour operators, smugglers and scammers who take advantage of desperate pilgrims and help them evade regulations.

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

Ms. Ahmed said she refused to arrange Hajj trips for unregistered pilgrims, but other Egyptian travel agencies and Saudi agents made a lot of money doing so.

More than 1.8 million pilgrims have officially registered for the Hajj this year, but a senior Saudi official said about 400,000 more are trying to go without the required documents. Tell said an AFP news agency reporter who requested anonymity. That means nearly a fifth of pilgrims this year have circumvented Saudi restrictions, including a security cordon around Mecca that was sealed off in the weeks before the Hajj.

Several countries that have seen large numbers of pilgrims die in the past few days have taken swift action to deal with the consequences.

In Egypt, authorities said they would revoke the licenses of 16 companies that issued “informal” visas to hopeful pilgrims without providing them with adequate services.

In Tunisia, where the death toll surpassed 50, the president fired the country’s minister of religious affairs on Friday.

In Jordan, where at least 99 pilgrims have died, prosecutors have launched an investigation into illegal Hajj routes and those who profit from them.

In interviews with The New York Times, pilgrims, travel agents and relatives of the dead said the number of undocumented pilgrims appeared to be growing because of worsening economic conditions in countries such as Egypt and Jordan. Official Hajj packages can cost more than $5,000 or $10,000, depending on the pilgrim’s country of origin — far beyond the financial means of many who hope to make the trip.

But they also point to easily exploited loopholes in Saudi Arabia’s regulations that allow undocumented pilgrims to travel to the country on tourist or visitor visas in the weeks before the Hajj. Once they arrive, they say, they find a network of illegal brokers and smugglers who offer their services, swindle them of their money and sometimes abandon them to fend for themselves.

Saudi officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Among those who fell into this trap was Safaa al-Tawab from the Egyptian city of Luxor.

Ms. Tawab, 55, failed to obtain a permit for the Hajj but found an Egyptian travel agency willing to take her on the pilgrimage for about $3,000, said her brother, Ahmed Tawab.

He said she did not realise she was breaking the rules when she travelled to Saudi Arabia last month.

Upon arrival, she told relatives that the travel agency had given her inappropriate accommodation and had not allowed her to go out. Mr. Tawab said that despite the travel agency’s promise of air-conditioned buses to take pilgrims around Mecca, she had to walk for miles under the scorching sun to reach the holy site.

His sister died during the pilgrimage, but when he contacted the travel agency, it assured him she was safe. Mr. Tawab said he turned off his phone when the company representative learned that her relatives knew about her death.

“The pilgrims have been deceived,” said Mahmoud Qassem, a member of the Egyptian parliament, as he asked government officials for information.

“They leave tourists alone to face their own fate,” Mr. Qasim said of the tour companies.

Reporting by Hager ElHakeem, Lana F.Sways, Zia-ur-Rahman, Saif Hasnat, Mujib Mashar, Safaq Timur, Aida Alami and Suhartono.

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