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What’s behind deaths at this year’s Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia?

Image source, Getty Images

  • Author, Zahra Fatima and BBC World Service
  • Role, BBC News

Hundreds of people are estimated to have died during the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia – most from extreme heat, as temperatures soared above 51°C (123°F).

The AFP news agency quoted an Arab diplomat as saying 658 Egyptians had died. Indonesia said more than 200 of its nationals had died. India said 98 people were believed to have died.

Pakistan, Malaysia, Jordan, Iran, Senegal, Sudan and the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan have also confirmed deaths. The United States estimates that a number of Americans have died, the Wall Street Journal reported. Friends and relatives search for missing people in hospitals and post messages online.

The consequences of the number of deaths have increased. On Saturday, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly stripped 16 tourism companies of their licenses and referred their managers to prosecutors for allowing illegal pilgrimages to Mecca.

On Friday, Jordan said it had arrested several travel agents who facilitated unofficial trips by Muslim pilgrims to Mecca. Meanwhile, Tunisian President Kais Saied fired the minister of religious affairs after local media reported the deaths of 49 Tunisians, many of whom were unregistered pilgrims.

The Hajj is the annual pilgrimage carried out by Muslims to the holy city of Mecca. All Muslims who are financially and physically capable must perform the pilgrimage at least once in their life. About 1.8 million people participated this year, according to Saudi Arabia.

More than half of those who died were unregistered pilgrims and joined the Hajj through irregular routes, leaving them unable to access cooling facilities such as tents and air-conditioned buses, AFP reports.

Saudi Arabia has stepped up security measures during the Hajj in recent years, but it still faces criticism for not doing enough, particularly for unregistered pilgrims. He has not yet publicly commented on the deaths.

However, AFP quoted a senior Saudi official as saying that 577 people died on the two busiest days of the Hajj alone: ​​Saturday, when pilgrims prayed in the sun on Mount Arafat, and Sunday during the ritual of the “stoning of the devil” in Mina.

“This happened in difficult weather conditions and very harsh temperatures,” the official said.

Here are some of the factors contributing to the deaths.

Image source, Getty Images

Legend, A woman uses a portable, battery-powered fan to cool a man during the symbolic ‘stoning of the devil’ ritual

Extreme heat

Unprecedented heatwaves in Saudi Arabia are believed to be one of the main factors behind the high death toll.

Despite warnings from the Saudi Health Ministry to avoid exposure to heat and stay hydrated, many pilgrims suffered heat stress and heatstroke.

“It was only by the mercy of God that I survived because it was incredibly hot,” said Aisha Idris, a Nigerian pilgrim, speaking to the BBC World Service’s Newsday.

“I had to use an umbrella and constantly sprinkle myself with Zamzam (holy water),” she said.

Another pilgrim, Naim, reportedly died of heatstroke, leaving his family searching for answers.

“Communication with my mother was suddenly cut off. We spent days searching, only to learn that she had died during the Hajj,” her son told BBC News Arabic, adding that they would honor her wish to be buried in Mecca.

Image source, Getty Images

Legend, A woman affected by the scorching heat is pushed onto a wheelchair as pilgrims arrive to perform the symbolic ‘stoning of the devil’ ritual in Mina, outside Mecca.

Pilgrims face risks from the unusual heat, intense physical activity and vast open spaces. Many are also elderly or sick.

However, heat-related deaths during the Hajj are not new and have been recorded since the 1400s.

Scientists warn that global warming risks making the situation worse.

“The Hajj has taken place in a warm climate for more than a millennium, but the climate crisis is exacerbating these conditions,” Carl-Friedrich Schleussner of Climate Analytics told the Reuters news agency.

His research suggests that with a 1.5°C rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels, the risk of heatstroke during Hajj could increase fivefold.

Overcrowding and sanitation issues

According to several accounts, mismanagement by Saudi authorities has exacerbated the extreme conditions, leading to a crisis in many areas reserved for pilgrims.

They say housing and facilities were poorly managed, with overcrowded tents lacking adequate cooling and sanitation facilities.

Amina (pseudonym), a 38-year-old woman from Islamabad, says: “There was no air conditioner in our tents in the heat of Mecca. The coolers installed had no water most of the time.

Legend, Authorities have proposed various cooling methods

“It was so suffocating in those tents that we were sweating and it was a terrible experience,” she adds.

Fauziah, a pilgrim from Jakarta, agrees: “Many fainted due to overcrowding and overheating in the tents.

She would appreciate improvements but believes that “this is the best organization of the Hajj so far”.

The Saudi Minister of Health, however, highlighted the resources allocated to ensure the well-being of pilgrims.

A government statement said they include 189 hospitals, health centers and mobile clinics with a combined capacity of more than 6,500 beds, and more than 40,000 medical, technical, administrative and volunteer staff.


Pilgrims were often forced to walk long distances in intense heat, with some blaming roadblocks and mismanagement.

Muhammad Acha, a Hajj organizer for a private group, said that in summer, a typical pilgrim may have to walk at least 15 kilometers a day. This exposes them to heat stroke, fatigue and lack of available water,

“This is my 18th Hajj, and in my experience, the Saudi controllers are not enablers. They control, but they don’t help,” he said.

“Previously, U-turns to get to the tents were open, but now all these routes are closed. As a result, an ordinary pilgrim, even if staying in a category A tent in Zone I, has to travel 2.5 kilometers in the summer heat to reach their tent,” he explains.

“If there is an emergency on this road, no one will come to you for 30 minutes. There are no life-saving devices and there are also no water points along these roads “, adds Acha.

Image source, Getty Images

Legend, Saudi Transport Authority says it has made more than 27,000 buses available to transport pilgrims

Undocumented pilgrims

To perform Hajj, a pilgrim must apply for a special Hajj visa.

But some people are trying to make the five-day pilgrimage without the proper documents, despite attempts by Saudi authorities to crack down.

Undocumented pilgrims often avoid authorities, even when they need help.

This issue of the “unofficial Hajj” is believed to contribute to excess mortality and authorities have blamed it for some of the overcrowding in tents.

“We suspect that those using non-Hajj visas have infiltrated Hajj areas,” said Mustolih Siradj, chairman of the Indonesian National Hajj and Umrah Commission (Komnas Haji).

Saad Al-Qurashi, advisor to the National Committee for Hajj and Umrah, told the BBC: “Anyone who does not have a visa for Hajj will not be tolerated and will have to return to (their) country.” »

He notes that irregular pilgrims are identified using Nusuk cards, which are given to official pilgrims and contain a barcode for entry to holy sites.

Image source, Getty Images

Legend, Temperatures of 51.6°C contributed to pilgrims being overwhelmed by the heat

Elderly, infirm or sick pilgrims

One of the reasons why there are many deaths each year at Hajj is that many pilgrims leave towards the end of their lives, having saved for their entire lives.

Many Muslims also go there in the hope that if they die, it will be during the Hajj – because dying and being buried in the holy city is considered a blessing.

Image source, Getty Images

Legend, Al-Baqi Cemetery in Saudi Arabia is believed to have been founded by the Prophet Muhammad, making it one of the holiest cemeteries in Islamic tradition.

What happens if someone dies while performing Hajj?

When a pilgrim dies while performing Hajj, the death is reported to the Hajj Mission. They use identification bracelets or necklaces to confirm identity. They then obtain a medical certificate and Saudi Arabia issues a death certificate.

Funeral prayers take place in important mosques like Masjid al-Haram in Mecca or the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, depending on. The body is washed, packaged and moved to freezers provided by the Saudi government, which covers all costs.

The burials are simple, without markers, sometimes with several bodies in one place. The cemetery book shows who is buried where, so families can visit the graves if they wish.

The Saudi government, with the help of different groups and the Red Crescent, claims to guarantee “dignified and respectful funeral processes”.

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