Hajj toll

Nevine El-Aref , Tuesday 25 Jun 2024

This year’s Hajj season has been marred by tragedy with hundreds of pilgrims reportedly losing their lives following extremely high temperatures.

Hajj toll


“I got used to seeing worshipers fainting and walking past dead bodies covered in ihram clothes during the pilgrimage,” Mona Mohamed, who recently returned from Hajj, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The Hajj is the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Mohamed said there was not a single ambulance on the roads that the pilgrims took on foot to visit the holy sites. “The Saudi Hajj authorities failed to supply pilgrims with sufficient water, shade, or medical assistance. There were hundreds of thousands of pilgrims this year and not enough medical personnel.”

Saudi Health Minister Fahd Bin Abdul-Rahman Al-Jalaljel announced that 1,301 pilgrims died during this Hajj season which witnessed close to two million participants.

Al-Jalaljel said 83 per cent of those who died did not have official Hajj visas. They entered Saudi Arabia with personal visit visas which do not grant them the privileges afforded holders of the Hajj visa in medical care and other services.

The Egyptian cabinet announced the death of 31 pilgrims suffering from chronic illnesses among this year’s official delegation of over 50,000. Efforts are now being made to determine the exact number of “unofficial” pilgrims who died during the pilgrimage as there is no recorded data with the three relevant ministries — interior, social solidarity, and tourism and antiquities — nor the consulate or the medical mission.

Some media reports put the number of deaths at 650 Egyptian pilgrims and more than 100 Jordanians.

Following directives from Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli formed a committee including officials from relevant ministries and authorities to investigate the deaths as well as help their families.

Madbouli ordered the revocation of the licences of 16 tourism companies that provided the pilgrims with personal visit visas that prevented them from entering Mecca and performing the pilgrimage via official channels.

He said the committee will investigate travel companies that arranged pilgrimages outside of regulatory frameworks, failing to provide necessary logistical support and services. He added that stringent measures will be taken and severe penalties administered to prevent such violations in the future.

Moreover, consulate teams from the Foreign Ministry are making on-site visits to hospitals in Saudi Arabia to collect information about hospitalised pilgrims. The government has also established emergency lines to provide continuous support and communication with citizens needing help.

Hajj visas are assigned to countries based on a quota system and then distributed among individuals through a lottery. However, the high cost associated with the pilgrimage drove many to try undertaking the Hajj without an official visa despite the risks of arrest and deportation if discovered.

In recent years, the cost of the Hajj skyrocketed after the devaluation of the Egyptian pound. This year, the cost of overland Hajj packages ranged from LE191,000 to LE225,000. Air travel packages ranged from LE226,000 to LE260,000 while air travel five-star packages ranged from LE390,000 to LE450,000.

“The unofficial route which can save pilgrims a fortune gained popularity a few years ago when Saudi Arabia introduced a general tourism visa, simplifying entry into the kingdom,” an owner of a tour agency who required anonymity told the Weekly, asserting that the Saudi authorities were the ones to blame along with tour agencies who assigned Hajj programmes for people with unofficial pilgrimage visas.

Some Egyptian travel agencies and Hajj trip operators sold Saudi tourist visas to Egyptian Hajj hopefuls, violating Saudi regulations which require exclusive visas for pilgrims. The agencies left pilgrims in limbo in Mecca and the holy sites in scorching heat.

Pilgrims frequently had to walk long distances in the intense heat, with temperatures soaring to over 50 degrees Celsius with some attributing the difficulties to roadblocks and poor management. This year a typical pilgrim needed to walk at least 15 kilometres daily, exposing them to heatstroke, fatigue and limited access to water.

Saudi authorities faced criticism with eyewitnesses citing mismanaged accommodations and overcrowded tents lacking sufficient cooling and sanitation amenities.

Amina, a 46-year-old pilgrim said that although temperatures reached almost 60 degrees Celsius, the tent in which she stayed in Mount Arafat and Mina had no air conditioning, and the coolers often ran out of water, causing suffocating conditions with pilgrims drenched in sweat.

Fawziya, another pilgrim, noted that her tent was overcrowded and hot. Blackouts were recurrent, halting air conditioners and causing many to faint.

But in general, Fawziya called the organisation “not bad”.

Nora Ali, chair of parliament’s Tourism and Civil Aviation Committee, said that before the beginning of the Hajj season, the committee held numerous meetings and issued several recommendations related to the organisation of the Hajj. These included warnings against granting barcodes to holders of visit visas before the Hajj season and launching awareness campaigns to educate the public about the dangers of unregulated Hajj.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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