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For Sudanese fleeing to Egypt, a hard border and an uncertain future

‘We spent the night in open areas without shelter or toilets.’

This picture is taken from the second floor of a house. Through the railings we see a woman a floor below, sat on the ground with an elbow propped on a bed. Hala Ali, a Sudanese displaced woman, takes a rest in a shelter offered by a Cairo-based center, after braving a perilous journey from war-ridden Khartoum, in the capital city of Cairo, Egypt, May 13, 2023. Hadeer Mahmoud/Reuters
Hala Ali, a displaced Sudanese woman, takes a rest on 13 May in a shelter run by a Cairo-based centre, after braving a perilous journey from war-ridden Khartoum.

Sudanese escaping to neighbouring Egypt are facing daunting obstacles at the border, with many also experiencing tough living conditions on the other side despite receiving help from local organisations, relatives, and friends.

 

Egypt has received the highest number of Sudanese refugees since conflict between the army and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces erupted in mid-April, with more than 250,000 people crossing over, most from the besieged capital city, Khartoum.

 

Yet despite their need for safe passage, Egyptian authorities have been consistently slow at processing people, and have recently tightened border controls, requiring all new arrivals to carry travel documents and entry visas that can take weeks to obtain.

 

Tens of thousands of Sudanese – including women, children, the elderly, and individuals with serious medical needs – are currently marooned in border towns as a result of the restrictions, according to nearly a dozen refugees and community organisers.

 

“This is a very miserable situation. If the Egyptian authorities didn’t want us to enter, then they should have said from the beginning instead of letting us be stranded here,” Ahmed Hussein Ali, a resident of Khartoum, told The New Humanitarian late last month.

 

Ali said he had been waiting for an entry permit at a border town for 12 days despite his father nursing a bullet injury to his leg. Though he is angry at Egyptian authorities, he said the leaders of Sudan’s warring factions are the most to blame for his situation. 

 

Meanwhile, several Sudanese who have crossed the border said they are struggling with homelessness, limited job prospects, and rising prices amid an economic downturn in Egypt that has been accelerated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

 

International humanitarian groups in Egypt say they are underfunded and constrained by the government’s policy of not setting up refugee camps. Local Egyptian and Sudanese community groups are filling the void, though their resources are limited too. 

 

“Although we got the safety we sought, we have still been deprived of food, drinks, and cash,” a Sudanese woman who asked not to be named said, while queuing to register for aid last month outside the Cairo office of the UN’s migration agency, IOM.

 

After several hours in line, guards posted leaflets on trees requesting that those in the queue register online. “Our goal is to serve you promptly and satisfactorily, but due to a backlog of work, it may take several weeks,” the document stated.

 

Visa rules and corruption allegations

Egypt isn’t the only country to restrict the entry of Sudanese fleeing the conflict, which has displaced nearly three million people. Other neighbouring and regional states have adopted similar policies, and Western nations have failed to open safe corridors too.

 

Still, the restrictions in Egypt – already home to millions of Sudanese migrants – have been especially harmful given the influx of people, and given that the rules have been hardening even as rights groups say they contravene basic refugee rights.

 

“Since the beginning of May, I moved to Wadi Halfa to try my luck from there, but up until now I failed even to enter my passport to the consulate. I am now running out of money.”

 

As people began arriving at the border in April, authorities restricted the number of buses allowed to cross each day, causing long delays. They also insisted that men aged between 16 and 50 obtain entry visas – a requirement that led to family separations.

 

In late May, authorities stopped accepting individuals with temporary travel documents issued by Sudanese authorities, shutting out those whose passports have expired, were lost during chaotic escapes, or were left in shuttered foreign embassies.

 

In June, they ruled that all refugees crossing into Egypt obtain visas from consulates in Sudan, extending the policy that previously applied only to men. One-month single entry visas are also now provided, instead of longer multiple-entry permits.

 

The new measures have resulted in fewer arrivals over the past month, and major bottlenecks in places with operational consulates, including the eastern city of Port Sudan and the town of Wadi Halfa, which is close to the Egyptian border.

 

Khartoum resident Abdallah Abdul Kareem said he spent a month trying to get a visa in Port Sudan before moving to Wadi Halfa, where he then waited for a further three weeks without making any progress.

 

“Since the beginning of May, I moved to Wadi Halfa to try my luck from there, but up until now I failed even to enter my passport to the consulate,” Kareem said in a recent interview. “I am now running out of money.”

 

Several Sudanese trying to cross the border also made allegations of corruption. They said Sudanese and Egyptian brokers operating around the consulates have been offering to facilitate fast-track visas for up to $1,000 per person.

 

“It is cheaper to pay [the brokers] than stay for months in Port Sudan or Wadi Halfa, and spend a lot of money…. while I am waiting for the visa,” said Abdul Rahman Ahmed, a recent arrival in Egypt.

 

Overwhelmed border towns: ‘There are no services here’

Sudanese interviewed in Port Sudan and Wadi Halfa described harsh conditions in the towns, with tens of thousands of people forced to live in makeshift shelters or on the streets.

 

Odai Mohamed, a member of a mutual aid organisation in Wadi Halfa, said his group is providing shelter to some 15,000 people. He said many more are stranded, however, and that some have been suffering from heat stroke amid a lack of water.

 

A medical doctor in the town, who asked not to be named, said pharmacies are running low on key medical supplies including intravenous fluids and insulin. A local dialysis centre is also about to run out of materials, Mohamed added.

 

The World Food Programme in Egypt said last month that it had opened a humanitarian corridor from southern Egypt to Wadi Halfa, and had delivered 50 metric tons of food assistance. But Mohamed said food supplies remain limited in the small town.

 

Meanwhile, at the Argeen border crossing – a short distance from Wadi Halfa – refugees have described a lack of shaded areas for people to wait, unsanitary toilet facilities, and insufficient supplies of food and water.

 

“The problem is that there are no services here, so we spent the night in open areas without shelter or toilets,” said Amna Ahmed, who had been waiting for several days in Argeen with her three children. “The humanitarian situation here is too bad.”

 

Life in Egypt: High costs and work restrictions

Those who have arrived in Egypt said they are struggling to get by, especially as the economy nosedives. The Egyptian pound has weakened significantly in recent months, there is a dollar shortage, and inflation has been rising.

 

Although refugees are technically eligible for a work permit, obtaining a job is complicated. They need to find an employer sponsor, and jobs cannot go to foreigners if there is a similarly qualified Egyptian candidate. 

 

“Refugees are treated as foreigners, and they need a work permit,” said Ashraf Milad, an Egyptian lawyer. “When refugees ask me for advice, I tell them to ask the employers if they can employ them as interns and pay them compensation.”

 

“I have no money, no flat, or anything here... I sleep on the floor with my kids in a relative's flat, with other families living in the same apartment.” 

 

To cope with the challenges, several Sudanese said they are living with relatives, with volunteers in host communities, or are sharing apartments with other refugees who they met during their journeys to Egypt. 

 

Sudanese and Egyptian associations and initiatives are also assisting new arrivals – offering support for housing, employment, and legal issues – though the refugees who spoke to The New Humanitarian all called for more support.

 

Aya Hassan, a 21-year-old Sudanese and single mother of two children, said she has been unable to afford basic supplies, including diapers and formula milk, since arriving in Cairo in May.

 

“I have no money, no flat, or anything here... I sleep on the floor with my kids in a relative's flat, with other families living in the same apartment,” Hassan told The New Humanitarian.

 

International aid organisations, including the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), are offering some financial assistance to new arrivals, but they have not managed to reach large numbers of people.

 

Nour El Islam Ababakr, a 27-year-old Sudanese doctor, said she received around $14 of financial aid from UN agencies upon her arrival last month. But Ababakr said the minimum rent in her Cairo neighbourhood is around $200 per month.

 

Ababakr was working as a full-time physician in Khartoum before the war broke out. She said she has been seeking opportunities at local hospitals and medical NGOs since arriving in early June, but that doors have been closing all around her.

 

Back to Sudan

Given the lack of camps and job prospects, Abdullahi Halakhe, a senior advocate for east and southern Africa at Refugees International, said Sudanese refugees should be provided with shelter, food, and psychosocial support upon arrival.

 

“If Egypt opts for a no-camp policy, it should, as a matter of course, provide… an environment for the refugees to earn a livelihood,” Halakhe said. “Camps are hardly ideal, but at least in camps the refugees get humanitarian assistance.”

 

Still, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has repeatedly refused the idea of establishing refugee settlements in the country, and even said recently that “we never use the word refugee here in Egypt”.

 

Due to the difficult living conditions, Khartoum resident Muna Alshiekh told The New Humanitarian that she had decided to return back home to Sudan, even as prospects for peace deteriorate.

 

“After staying for two months without a clear source of income, our situation was worsening and we started thinking of going back to Sudan despite the war,” Alshiekh said.

 

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

 

This project was funded by the H2H Network's H2H Fund, which is supported by UK aid.

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