The death of pilgrims in Mecca puts the underworld Hajj industry in the spotlight

The deaths of more than a thousand pilgrims in Saudi Arabia for the hajj has shone a spotlight on an underworld of illicit tour operators, smugglers and scammers who profit from Muslims desperate to fulfill their religious duty to travel to Mecca.

While registered pilgrims are shuttled around shrines in air-conditioned buses and rest in air-conditioned tents, undocumented ones are often exposed to the elements, making them more vulnerable to extreme heat. Some pilgrims this year described seeing people fainting and passing bodies in the street as temperatures reached 120 degrees or more.

In an interview on state television on Sunday, Saudi Health Minister Fahd al-Jalajel said 83% of the more than 1,300 deaths occurred among pilgrims who did not have official permission.

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

Al-Jalajel's remarks came after days of silence from Saudi authorities over the casualties, during the hajj, an arduous and deeply spiritual ritual that capable Muslims are encouraged to celebrate throughout their lives.

With nearly two million pilgrims participating each year, many of them elderly or ill, it is not unusual for people to die from heat stress, illness or chronic illness, and Saudi Arabia does not regularly report such statistics. So it's unclear whether the number of deaths this year was unusual. Last year, 774 pilgrims died from Indonesia alone, and in 1985, more than 1,700 people died at the holy sites, most of them from heat stress, a study at the time found.

But because many of the pilgrims who died this year were making the pilgrimage without official documentation, their deaths exposed the underworld of unlicensed tour operators, smugglers and scammers who take advantage of pilgrims desperate to perform the hajj by helping them to circumvent the rules.

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

Ms. Ahmed said she refused to send unregistered pilgrims with hajj packages, but that other Egyptian tour operators and Saudi intermediaries made a lot of money this way.

This year, more than 1.8 million pilgrims have officially registered for the hajj. But around 400,000 others attempted to make the journey without the required documents, a senior Saudi official told the Agence France-Presse news agency, speaking on condition of anonymity. That would mean nearly one in five pilgrims this year bypassed the kingdom's restrictions, including a security cordon around Mecca that blocks weeks before the hajj.

In recent days, several countries that have seen large numbers of pilgrim deaths have moved quickly to address the consequences.

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

In Tunisia, which has more than 50 people among the victims, the president fired the country's minister of religious affairs on Friday.

And in Jordan, where at least 99 pilgrims have died, the prosecutor's office has opened an investigation into illegal hajj routes and the people who profit from them.

In interviews with the New York Times, hajj tour operators, pilgrims and relatives of the dead said the number of undocumented pilgrims appears to have been increased by growing economic desperation in countries such as Egypt and Jordan. An official hajj package can cost more than $5,000 or $10,000, depending on the pilgrim's country of origin, far beyond the means of many hoping to make the journey.

But they also described easily exploitable loopholes in Saudi Arabia's regulations that allowed undocumented pilgrims to travel to the kingdom on a tourist or visitor visa several weeks before the hajj. Once they arrive, they find a network of illegal intermediaries and smugglers who offer their services, take their money and sometimes abandon it to themselves.

Saudi officials did not respond to a request for comment.

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

Ms. al-Tawab, 55, had been unable to obtain a hajj permit but found an Egyptian tour company that offered to take her for about $3,000, said her brother, Ahmed al-Tawab.

She said she didn't realize she was breaking the rules when she traveled to Saudi Arabia last month.

After her arrival, she told relatives that the tour operator had prevented her from going out in unsuitable accommodation. While the company had promised to provide air-conditioned buses to transport pilgrims around Mecca, she instead found herself walking for kilometers in the sun to reach the holy sites, Mr al-Tawab said.

His sister died during the pilgrimage, but when he contacted the tour company, he was assured that she was fine. When the company representative learned that her relatives knew about her death, he turned off the phone, Mr. al-Tawab said.

“The pilgrims were deceived,” Mahmoud Qassem, a member of Egypt's parliament, said in a request for information to government officials.

“They left them alone to face their fate,” Qassem said of the tour companies.

The report was provided by Hager ElHakeem, Rana F. Welding, Aunt ur-Rehman, Saif Hasnat, Mujib Mashal, Shafak Timur, Natural Aida AND Muktita Suhartono.

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