HC Deb 18 October 1990 vol 177 cc1470-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]

9.52 pm
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I wish to raise in this brief Adjournment debate a subject which is probably the saddest constituency case that I have raised in my 17 years' membership of the House.

On 2 July there was a widely reported disaster at Mecca involving religious pilgrims in a pedestrian tunnel. The first reports that I saw—I have since checked them—indicated that up to 100 people had died, but this figure climbed within a day to well over 1,400.

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia caused additional news coverage of the disaster by his remark that the disaster was "God's will" and

had the victims not died in the tunnel they would have died elsewhere at the same predestined moment". The Saudi authorities were quoted on 3 July as saying, "Everything is under control". That statement can be taken several ways, but that is not the purpose of this debate and neither can I go into the reasons for the disaster. What I want to raise is the involvement of British citizens as victims—injured or missing—in the disaster. Given the nature of the pilgrimage, it is clear that other nationalities must likewise be affected.

On the evening of 20 September, I was contacted by my constituent, 17-year-old Zubia Waheed, on behalf of her family. The following day I met Zubia and learned that she and her five brothers and sisters aged between four and 13 had not heard from their mother and father since 2 July. Their parents are British citizens, Mr. Abdul Whaid Khan and his wife, Mrs. Munawar Sultana. The couple had arrived for the pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia on 19 June and were due back home on 23 July. They had telephoned home virtually every day since their arrival to make sure that things were okay. However, since 2 July their names have not appeared on any list of the dead or injured.

They have not been located in any of the hospitals. Furthermore, they have not been identified or located by friends and relatives from photographs taken of the victims. Relatives of the family have travelled from Pakistan to check the photographs in Saudi Arabia because friends of the family living in the United Kingdom have been refused visas to visit Saudi Arabia to check for themselves.

The only figure that I have seen for the number of victims is 1,426 but more than 3,500 photographs of victims have been checked to try to trace the couple. I understand that the counting stopped at 3,500. There were still more photographs to count, although all the photographs had been checked. Last Friday I was given a similar figure for the number of victims by a friend in Birmingham. He was the leader of a group of pilgrims in Saudi Arabia at the same time. He told me that it was common knowledge that over 3,000 people died in the tunnel disaster.

I have met my young constituent Zubia on three occasions. She is a credit to her parents and to the youth of this country—a view shared by every member of the statutory authorities that have come into contact with the young lady in recent weeks. She has given up her course at the local college to look after the other children. But they all, including Zubia, have two simple questions—"Where are mum and dad? When are they coming back?"

Within an hour of my first meeting with the family I telephoned the Foreign Office. Like many people, I remember the press reports of the disaster in July. After that there was nothing at all. There was no reason to suppose that British citizens had been involved. There had been no press reports and no investigations. When I telephoned the Foreign Office and said who I was and that I was telephoning about the Mecca tunnel disaster, Jacqueline Walder of the consular section told me who I was phoning about. She told me the names of my constituents before I gave them. That indicated clearly to me that the Foreign Office staff in London were on top of the matter. The issue was clearly on the desk. Obviously, the family and friends of my constituents had been in contact with the Foreign Office before approaching me in September. That must be contrasted with the attitude of the Saudi Arabian authorities, particularly the Saudi embassy in London. It was asked by The Independent newspaper on 5 October about the disaster and the questions that obviously flow about the dead and injured were put to it. The response from the press office of the Saudi embassy was God, what's brought this back? I believe, as would anyone who read the article, that the matter should never have gone away in the first place. It is clear that there are disputes about the number of victims and that people cannot be accounted for and are missing.

I have subsequently discovered that several other British citizens were involved in the disaster. I presume that the Minister will give us the latest available figures. I have spoken to people in other parts of the country. I spoke at the weekend to Mrs. Shamin, of Nelson in Lancashire, whose husband Mr. Nadir Ali Khan, a British citizen, also disappeared on 2 July without trace. She was with her husband on the pilgrimage but she was not with him that day because her health is not good. She remained behind for several weeks in Saudi Arabia to search for her husband. She also, bless her, came across friends of my constituents and arranged for photographs of Zubia's parents to be sent out to her so that she could look among the photographs when she was searching for her husband—also to no avail.

I contacted the Saudi embassy in London on Monday morning to inform it as a matter of courtesy that I intended to raise this issue tonight. In my letter, I gave an indication of the type of questions that I expected the Minister to be able to answer. What was the final death toll? Given that there were between 4,000 and 5,000 people in the tunnel and having seen the photographs, it is inconceivable that all the injured survived, but no figure beyond the first published has ever been given. How many of the dead and injured were British citizens? Above all, why are some British citizens totally unaccounted for? I told the embassy that Zubia and her brothers and sisters had received no help from the Saudi Government and that they had convinced themselves that their parents are alive.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]

Mr. Rooker

Zubia and her brothers are convinced that their parents are alive and held in some kind of camp or in slavery. In recent months they have spent a small fortune telephoning the authorities in Saudi Arabia.

The fears of Zubia and her brothers are backed up by a known case of another citizen of Birmingham who went on a pilgrimage last year but could not get back to this country until this year. A woman in another part of Birmingham—not in my constituency—was forced to skivvy in a hotel for several months to make ends meet. The local community in Birmingham knows about such cases and thus there are great fears when people go missing.

I told the ambassador that I am not a diplomat but that my job is to push the case of my constituent as hard as I can so that the Foreign Office tells the Saudi Government that this problem must be settled. I told the ambassador that the lack of information from his Government is bound to give rise to fears in this country that Saudis believe that human life is cheap—one might say too cheap to count.

The Saudi Government have contributed to the lack of reporting by the media of the consequences of the disaster, its aftermath and its effect on the families because they do not allow journalists in to make inquiries. Journalists who asked questions after the disaster were thrown out.

People of Birmingham who visit Saudi Arabia regularly are of the opinion that the Saudi Government are incompetent and arrogant when dealing with visitors. It is certain that no Saudi Member of Parliament will raise this matter in the Saudi Parliament.

We also need to know what inquiries and investigations have taken place inside Saudi Arabia. Where were the dead and injured taken? Has the Foreign Office sent any formal notes to the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs? Has the ambassador in London been called to the Foreign Office to try to explain why British citizens are unaccounted for? It is also reasonable to ask whether our Government have had any contact with any other Governments whose citizens were similarly affected. The nature of the pilgrimages means that millions visit the holy places and, by and large, they are not citizens of Saudi Arabia, but come from all over the world.

It is now virtually on record that British citizens died in the disaster. Their families grieve and we grieve with them, but other British citizens have disappeared without trace. What are their families supposed to do? What of the future? What about documentation and compensation? The facts about what happenened to those citizens are crucial to their relatives so that they are able to live in the future.

Many other natural practical questions come to mind about the circumstances of the six children in my constituency. I do not want to raise the questions in public, but I put on record my grateful thanks for the speed and care with which the statutory authorities responded once alerted to the situation.

I cannot accept that constituents of mine and of other hon. Members—I am referring to British citizens—can simply disappear in an allied and friendly country such as that. The tunnel disaster of July 2 occurred a clear month before the invasion of Kuwait. While the invasion has, of course, put extra pressure on Government arrangements there, that is no excuse for inaction, delay and lack of response.

I appreciate—one could not have been in public life and a Member of the House for nearly 17 years without appreciating—that Britain gives the Saudi Government the kid glove treatment on many issues. But I warn that grave offence will be caused to, and taken by, British citizens if we do not receive information and knowledge about what happened to our citizens in that country.

I hope that the Foreign Office has made that abundantly clear to the Saudi authorities. British citizens carrying British passports rely when the chips are down on those famous words on the inside cover of the passport. If those words are to have any meaning, the Saudi Government must realise that the issue will not go away until we know what has happened to the British citizens involved.

10.6 pm

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd)

I wish at the outset to thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) for raising the question of the tragic incident at Mecca on 2 July and express, through him, my sympathy with the families of his two constituents who failed to return from this year's Haj but about whom there is still no information, and to the family of one other British pilgrim who are in the same situation. I can well understand how they feel.

I wish also to express my deep sympathy to the families of the British pilgrims who so tragically died, and to those who were injured in the disaster in the Mowaisem tunnel. We were all stunned by the news of this terrible disaster, affecting so many pilgrims who were carrying out an act of the highest religious devotion.

Her Majesty the Queen and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister immediately sent messages of condolence to His Majesty King Fand. That was before we knew of any British victims. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary sent a similar message to the Saudi Foreign Minister, His Royal Highness Prince Saud al Faisal. We did not know at that stage whether any British pilgrims had been involved.

The disaster struck when the pilgrims were returning from Muzdalifa to Mina, close outside the city of Mecca, on the day of sacrifice, the Eid al Adha. This journey takes pilgrims through the Mowaisem tunnel.

From what we learned from the Saudi authorities, a crowd built up just before 8 o'clock on the morning of 2 July in the area of the tunnel. The 600-metre tunnel, opened in 1979, had previously coped well enough with two-way crowd movements, but, tragically, the volume of traffic proved too much on this occasion.

Apparently, two major waves of people going in opposite directions converged just inside the western mouth of the tunnel. This led to a stampede and the death of many pilgrims. Many were suffocated or trampled in the crush. Some died when they were forced off the raised walkway at the tunnel's western approach. The Saudi authorities have put the total number of deaths at 1,426. Unofficial estimates put the death toll much higher.

I understand that the Saudi authorities have begun an inquiry to determine the causes of the tragedy. They have a difficult task. In the meantime, it would be wrong, indeed impossible, for me to try to anticipate their findings.

The numbers of pilgrims visiting Mecca for the Haj are of course very great indeed. Unofficial sources put the number of pilgrims at this year's Haj at between 1 and 2 million, half from overseas. The Haj authorities give the figure for British pilgrims as about 5,700, based on the number of United Kingdom passports; but many of the British pilgrims are dual nationals, and choose to travel to the holy places on their other passports. Our best estimate of the number of British pilgrims is about 10,000 people.

It may be helpful if I give the House an account of the action taken by our posts in Saudi Arabia in response to this tragic disaster. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Perry Barr for his words about the activities and support of the consular section of the Foreign Office. However, I should like to take the opportunity to rebut recent suggestions in the press of official indifference, and to tackle the implication that the Government are unconcerned about the fate of British Moslems killed in Mecca. I can refute that allegation totally.

As soon as we learned of the disaster on the afternoon of 2 July, before we had any knowledge of British casualties, the consulate in Jeddah tried to find out from the Saudi authorities and others exactly what had happened. Non-Moslems are not allowed into Mecca, so we were unable to send a United Kingdom-based member of staff; none the less, on the following day, 3 July, we sent the pro-consul—who is a Kenyan Moslem—to Mecca to gather first-hand information on the tragedy.

During his visits to Mecca in the days immediately following the tragedy, the pro-consul visited hospitals to look for United Kingdom pilgrims who might be injured. He made contact in Mecca with British pilgrim tour leaders, and was also in touch with the Saudi Haj Ministry. He had no reports of British deaths or injuries until 4 July, when he was able to confirm one death. A further six British deaths were confirmed on 5 July.

In the succeeding days, further casualties and deaths were reported and confirmed. We kept in close contact with the Haj Ministry. The pro-consul visited Mecca again on 11 July; in fact, he visited Mecca almost daily during the first fortnight of July.

Our ambassador in Riyadh subsequently called on the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' consular department and on the Deputy Minister of the Interior. The consulate-general in Jeddah remained in constant touch with both the European section of the Haj Ministry and the Indian and Pakistan sections in an effort to track down dual passport holders. Follow-up action with the Saudi Haj Ministry and with hospital authorities continued during August and September.

There were of course many telephone calls from the public to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and to our posts in Saudi Arabia. The hon. Member for Perry Barr has generously paid tribute to the service provided by our consular department, which kept in regular touch with relatives in the United Kingdom in the weeks succeeding the tragedy.

The British casualty figures now stand at 20 dead, and a further 14 British pilgrims were injured and treated in well equipped hospitals in Mecca; all, I am happy to say, have now been released.

Our posts in Riyadh and Jeddah are continuing, and will continue, to press the Haj authorities for more details. They have built up regular personal contacts with the Saudi officials involved: in our experience, that is the key to successful handling of a problem such as this. Most recently, the consul in Riyadh delivered personally a formal note to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs requesting urgent assistance in tracing the British citizens still missing. The Saudi authorities promised speedy action; we will press them on that.

As to compensation, which the hon. Member for Perry Barr mentioned, that is, of course, a matter for the Saudi authorities. However, the consulate general in Jeddah is pressing to establish where matters stand.

Until recently, six British pilgrims were unaccounted for. That number is now reduced to three. It is, of course, regrettable that any of the missing should remain unidentified, despite the best endeavours of our consular staff, who have pressed the Saudi authorities on every possible occasion, but we must recognise that the Saudi authorities have been working in very difficult conditions. They have been having to try to identify those buried by comparing photographs taken of the bodies before burial with those in the victims' passports.

This has been a difficult and lengthy task—not least because of the numbers involved. What is more, the pilgrims would have handed in their own passports to the Haj authorities, so would not have been carrying them at the time of the disaster. I have already mentioned the further complication that some British pilgrims have dual nationality and were travelling on other passports.

While there has been criticism of the way in which the Saudi authorities handled the disaster, we have also had reports from relatives that they were very helpful to those who were attempting to identify the bodies of their kin.

In conclusion, while I fully understand and share the concern of the hon. Member for Perry Barr, I must recall the very large number of victims of this disaster and the enormous difficulty the Saudis are having in identifying them. For our part, we are dependent on the Saudi authorities for information.

None of this, however, detracts from the pain which the relatives of those who are still unidentified must feel. The Government fully understand their wish to be able to satisfy themselves about this tragedy, so we shall continue to press the Saudi authorities, through the consulate-general in Jeddah and the embassy in Riyadh, and we shall, of course, pass on at once any information they receive to the relatives in this country. The Saudis have assured us that they will grant visas and assist families who wish to continue searching for information in Mecca themselves, and we will be glad to assist those applying for visas if necessary. Our consular staff in Jeddah will of course do everything possible to help, too.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes past Ten o'clock.