Hajj deaths in Saudi Arabia: what to know

This year at least 1,300 people have died during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. It is unclear whether the death toll was higher than usual, as pilgrims die each year from heat stress, illness and chronic illnesses. But the toll has raised questions about whether Saudi Arabia has adequately prepared for intense heat and the influx of unregistered pilgrims who, authorities say, have relied on illicit tour operators to bypass the official authorization process.

Here's what to know about this year's Hajj.

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

People spend years saving to travel to Mecca, Islam's holiest city, to undertake 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 touring the Kaaba and praying near Mount Arafat.

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

According to the Saudi General Authority for Statistics, more than 1.8 million Muslims participated in the hajj this year, including 1.6 million from outside Saudi Arabia.

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 irrigating pilgrims with water and incorporating shade at some sites. Authorities have also issued advisories urging pilgrims to stay hydrated, minimize outdoor activities and carry umbrellas to block direct sunlight.

As temperatures rose, some pilgrims described seeing people fainting and passing bodies in the street.

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

Many relatives of the dead and missing complained that authorities had not set up enough cooling stations or had water for all the pilgrims. Such services, put in place for people who had registered for the hajj, did not necessarily take into account the large number of pilgrims who descended on Mecca without permission.

Saudi Arabia's Health Minister Fahd al-Jalajel said 83% of the 1,301 reported deaths involved pilgrims without permits.

“The rising temperatures during the pilgrimage season posed a big challenge this year,” he said in an interview on state television on Sunday. “Unfortunately – and this is painful for all of us – those who did not have hajj permits walked long distances in the sun.”

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

The companies have been accused of allowing pilgrims to travel to Saudi Arabia on tourist visas and tourist visas, rather than hajj visas, which provide access to medical care and 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.

An Egyptian tour operator said that due to rising rates for Hajj tour packages, as well as the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, many pilgrims have opted for tourist visas, which has put a burden on facilities in Mecca and surrounding holy sites .

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

Ahead of the hajj, Saudi authorities put up billboards and sent a barrage of text messages to remind people that it is illegal to make the pilgrimage without permission; violators risk fines, deportation and a ban on re-entering the kingdom.

Entry to Mecca was prohibited weeks before the hajj to visitors without a permit. Yet many pilgrims have managed to evade the restrictions, arriving early and hiding, or paying traffickers to transport them to the city.

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

The president of Tunisia, which counts more than 50 pilgrims among its victims, fired the country's minister of religious affairs on Friday. Jordan's public prosecutor – which recorded the deaths of at least 99 pilgrims – has opened an investigation into illegal hajj routes.

And Egyptian authorities said 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 travel companies “left pilgrims on the ground and turned off their cell phones” so they could not hear travelers' calls for help.

Saudi officials have repeatedly praised this year's Hajj as a success. It is unclear whether more pilgrims have died than in past years because Saudi Arabia does not regularly report such statistics. In August 1985, more than 1,700 people died at the holy sites, mostly due to heat stress, according to a study at the time.

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

This is not the first time the Saudi government's handling of the pilgrimage has come under scrutiny. The Hajj has been the site of numerous disasters over the years, including a stampede in 2015 that killed more than 2,200 people.

In recent years, as temperatures have risen, 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.

“If global emissions were to continue in a business-as-usual scenario, temperatures in Mecca will rise to levels that the human body cannot withstand,” Shahin Ashraf, the organization's global advocacy chief, said in an emailed statement Friday.

Since the date of Hajj is linked to the lunar calendar, it will gradually move towards colder months in the coming years.

The number of unregistered pilgrims most likely contributed to the lack of clarity on 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 whether the heat caused all the deaths.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, where many pilgrims come from, have released the full death toll of their citizens. The Egyptian government said 31 pilgrims with official permission had died, but that they were still working with Saudi officials to calculate the full number.

Many people are missing and Egyptian families are preparing to face a high number of victims. Egypt has set up crisis centers to receive distress calls and coordinate the government's response.

At least two Americans were among the dead: Maryland residents Isatu Wurie, 65, and Alieu Wurie, 71. Their daughter, Saida Wurie, said she struggled to locate their bodies in Mecca. However, she said she believes her parents were full of joy in their final days.

“They died doing exactly what they wanted to do,” he said. “They always wanted to get to the Hajj.”

Mother Mekay contributed to the reporting.

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