What is behind the deaths during this year’s Hajj in Saudi Arabia?

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  • author, Sahra Fatima and the BBC World Service
  • stock, BBC News

Hundreds of people are thought to have died during the Haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia – most of them due to extreme heat where temperatures exceeded 51C (123F).

An Arab diplomat said 658 Egyptians had died, AFP news agency reported. More than 200 Indonesian nationals were reported dead. India reported 98 deaths.

Pakistan, Malaysia, Jordan, Iran, Senegal, Sudan and the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq have also confirmed deaths. The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States believed many Americans had died. Friends and relatives have been posting messages online looking for missing people in hospitals.

Jordan said on Friday it had arrested several travel agents who facilitated unofficial trips for Muslim pilgrims to Mecca. Egypt is conducting a similar investigation. Tunisian President Qais Said sacked the Minister of Religious Affairs on Friday after local media reported that 49 Tunisians had died. A report said most of the dead were unregistered pilgrims.

Hajj is the annual pilgrimage of Muslims to the holy city of Mecca. All financially and physically fit Muslims must complete the Hajj at least once in their lifetime. About 1.8 million people participated this year, Saudi Arabia said.

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

Saudi Arabia has increased Hajj security measures in recent years, but it still faces criticism for not doing enough, especially for unregistered pilgrims. It is yet to comment on the deaths.

Here are some factors that contribute to deaths.

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image caption, A woman uses a hand-held battery fan to cool a man during a ‘Devil-stoning’ ritual.

Extreme heat

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

“It was only by the grace of God that I survived because it was incredibly hot,” Nigerian pilgrim Ayesha Idris told the BBC World Service’s Newsday.

“I had to use an umbrella and keep pouring Zamzam water (holy water) on myself,” he said.

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

“Communication with my mother was suddenly cut off. We searched for days, only to find out that she had died during Hajj,” her son told BBC News Arabic, adding that they respected her wish to be buried in Mecca.

image source, Good pictures

image caption, As pilgrims arrive at Mina outside Mecca to perform the symbolic ritual of ‘stoning the devil’, a woman suffering from severe heat is pushed into a wheelchair.

Devotees face dangers due to unaccustomed heat, heavy physical work, wide open spaces etc. Many are elderly or ill.

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

Scientists warn that global warming is causing the conditions to worsen.

“The Hajj has operated in warm climates for more than a millennium, but the climate crisis is worsening these conditions,” Climate Analytics Carl-Friedrich Schlussner told Reuters news agency.

His research suggests that with a 1.5C rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels, the risk of overheating during Hajj could increase by up to five times.

Congestion and health problems

They say accommodation and facilities are poorly managed, with overcrowded tents lacking adequate cooling and sanitary facilities.

Amina (not her real name), a 38-year-old from Islamabad, says: “In the heat of Mecca our tents have no air conditioners and the installed air conditioners have no water most of the time.

image caption, Officials have provided cooling systems

“These tents were so suffocating, we were dripping with sweat and it was a horrible experience,” he adds.

Fauzia, a pilgrim from Jakarta, admits, “Many fainted due to the overcrowding and extreme heat in the tents.

He welcomes improvements but believes “this is the best system of Hajj so far”.

However, the Saudi health minister highlighted the resources allocated to ensure the well-being of pilgrims.

It includes 189 hospitals, health centers and mobile clinics with 6,500 beds and more than 40,000 medical, technical, administrative staff and volunteers, a government statement said.


Devotees were often made to walk long distances in the scorching heat, blaming some roadblocks and poor management.

Muhammad Acha, a Haj organizer with a private group, said that during summer, a regular pilgrim must walk at least 15 kilometers a day. This exposes them to heat, fatigue and lack of available water.

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

“In previous years, U-turns to access the tents were open, but now all those routes are closed. As a result, an ordinary pilgrim, even if staying in a type of tent in Zone I, has to walk 2.5 kilometers. to reach their tent in the summer heat,” he explains.

image source, Good pictures

image caption, The Saudi Transport Authority said it has arranged more than 27,000 buses to transport the pilgrims.

Undocumented pilgrims

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

But some people try to go on the five-day pilgrimage without proper documents, despite efforts by Saudi authorities.

Pilgrims without proper documents evade the authorities even when they need help.

This issue of “unofficial Hajj” is believed to be contributing to the excess deaths and officials have blamed them for some of the overcrowding in the tents.

“We suspect that non-Hajj visa users have infiltrated the Hajj areas,” said Mustolih Siraj, head of Indonesia’s National Hajj and Umrah Authority (Komnas Haji).

Saad al-Qurashi, adviser to the National Committee for Hajj and Umrah, told the BBC: “Anyone without a Hajj visa will not be tolerated and must be returned. [their] country.”

He notes that irregular pilgrims are identified using nusuk cards issued to official pilgrims and barcoded to enter holy sites.

image source, Good pictures

image caption, A temperature of 51.6C helped pilgrims beat the heat

Elderly, infirm or sick pilgrims

One of the reasons for the high number of deaths on the Hajj each year is that many pilgrims are approaching the end of their lives after a lifetime of saving.

Many Muslims also go with the hope that if they die, it will be during the Hajj – as it is considered a privilege to die and be buried in the holy city.

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image caption, Al-Baqi Tomb in Saudi Arabia is said to have been founded by the Prophet Muhammad, making it one of the holiest tombs in the Islamic tradition.

What happens if one dies while performing Hajj?

If a pilgrim dies while performing Hajj, the death is reported to the Hajj Mission. They use wrist or neck IDs to confirm identity. Later, they get a doctor’s certificate, and Saudi Arabia issues a death certificate.

Funerals take place in important mosques such as the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca or the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. The body is washed, wrapped and moved in freezers provided by the Saudi government, who bear all expenses.

Burials are simple, with no markers, and sometimes multiple bodies in one place. The cemetery book lists who is buried, so families can visit the graves if they wish.

The Saudi government, with the help of various groups and the Red Crescent, ensures “dignified and respectful burial procedures”.

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