Pilgrim’s death in Mecca puts spotlight on underground Hajj industry

The deaths of more than 1,000 Hajj pilgrims in Saudi Arabia have shone a spotlight on an underworld of illegal tour operators, smugglers and con artists who profit from Muslims desperate to fulfil their religious obligation by traveling to Mecca.

Registered pilgrims travel to the shrines in air-conditioned buses and rest in air-conditioned tents, but unregistered pilgrims are more exposed to the elements and more vulnerable to the extreme heat. This year, with temperatures reaching more than 120 degrees, some pilgrims said they had seen people fainting or passing dead bodies in the streets.

In an interview on state television on Sunday, Saudi Health Minister Fahad Al-Jaragel said 83 percent of the more than 1,300 deaths were among pilgrims who did not have the proper permits.

“The rising temperatures during the Hajj season have been a major challenge this year,” he said. “Unfortunately, and this is painful for all of us, those without Hajj permits have had to walk long distances under the sun.”

Aljaragel’s comments came after several days of silence from Saudi authorities about the deaths during the hajj, a difficult and deeply spiritual ritual that able-bodied Muslims are encouraged to perform throughout their lives.

Nearly 2 million pilgrims take part in the pilgrimage each year, many of them elderly and infirm, and it is not uncommon for some to die from heatstroke, illness or chronic diseases, though Saudi Arabia does not regularly report these statistics, so it is unclear whether this year’s death toll was an anomaly. Last year, 774 pilgrims died. In Indonesia aloneIn 1985, more than 1,700 people died near the Holy Land, most of them from heat stroke. study at the time it was discovered.

But many of the pilgrims who died this year had made the pilgrimage without proper documentation, and their deaths have exposed an underworld of unlicensed tour operators, smugglers and con artists who take advantage of pilgrims desperate to perform the Hajj and help them evade the rules.

“There’s a lot of greed in this industry,” said Iman Ahmed, co-owner of El Iman Tours in Cairo.

Ahmed said he refused to send unregistered pilgrims on Hajj packages, but other Egyptian tour operators and Saudi Arabian brokers were making a lot of money by doing so.

More than 1.8 million pilgrims have officially registered for this year’s Hajj pilgrimage, but an estimated 400,000 more have attempted the pilgrimage without the necessary documents, a senior Saudi official said. Said The report was released by AFP on condition of anonymity. This means that nearly one in five pilgrims this year have avoided Saudi Arabia’s restrictions, including the security cordon around Mecca, which is sealed off in the weeks before the Hajj.

Several countries that have seen large numbers of pilgrim deaths have acted swiftly in the past few days to address the impact.

Egyptian authorities have announced that they will revoke the licenses of 16 companies that issued “unofficial” visas without providing proper services to would-be pilgrims.

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

And in Jordan, where at least 99 pilgrim deaths have been recorded, prosecutors have launched an investigation into illegal hajj routes and those profiting from them.

In interviews with The New York Times, hajj tour operators, pilgrims and family members of those killed said growing economic hardship in countries such as Egypt and Jordan likely contributed to the rise in the number of illegal pilgrims. Official hajj packages can cost anywhere from $5,000 to more than $10,000, depending on a pilgrim’s country of origin, far beyond the financial means of many who want to make the journey.

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

Saudi authorities did not respond to requests for comment.

Among those who fell into the trap was Safaa al-Tawab from Luxor, Egypt.

Al-Tawab, 55, was unable to obtain a hajj permit but found an Egyptian travel company willing to accompany him for about $3,000, said his brother, Ahmed al-Tawab.

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

Upon her arrival, she told her relatives that the travel agency had placed her in inadequate accommodation and forbidden her from leaving the premises. Although the agency had promised to provide air-conditioned buses to transport pilgrims around Mecca, she had to walk miles in the sun to reach the holy site, Al-Tawab said.

Al-Tawab’s sister died during the pilgrimage, but when he contacted the tour company, they assured him she was safe. The tour company representative turned off his mobile phone after learning that her relatives were aware of her death, Al-Tawab said.

“The pilgrims have been deceived,” Egyptian parliament member Mahmoud Qassem said in a request for information from government officials.

“They left them alone to face their own destiny,” Kasem said of the travel companies.

Reporting by Hagar El Hakim. Lana F. Swaith, Zia-ur-Rehman, Saif Hasnat, Mujib Mashal, Safak Timur, Aida Alami and Muktita Suhartono.

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