4th Mar 2024


Sudanese fleeing violence find no haven in Egypt or EU

  • The neighbourhood of Masaken Osman on the outskirts of Cairo, where most Sudanese refugees live (Photo: Javier Jennings Mozo)
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Seven months after war erupted in Sudan, clashes between the warring factions are once again reaching a peak of brutality, with the UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan recently saying that violence against civilians was "verging on pure evil".

This follows a massacre from the Sudan's Rapid Support Forces (RSF) starting on 2 November, in which about 1,300 people were killed in a camp for displaced people in West Darfur, local sources told Al Jazeera. Since then, it is rumoured that the faction would be close to capturing the whole Darfur region, which would force thousands more to flee.

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  • Tragic conditions at the bridge where migrants sleep in the Italian border city of Ventimiglia (Photo: Nicolas Romero Silva | The Borders of Paradise)

Since the cycle of violence started in April this year, more than six million people have been displaced. With increasingly fewer safe areas within the country, thousands have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries, especially Egypt.

Ethar Ahmed is one of the estimated 317,000 Sudanese who fled to Egypt after the war started seven months ago. She is an environmentalist and a social entrepreneur whose work centred around discovering the natural richness of Sudan, a task that had to stop on 15 April.

"When it started we thought it was not an actual war and that it would last some days and then disappear, but that did not happen". Ethar told EUobserver that she and her family waited for two weeks until they realized that the time to leave had come: "the day when an attack took place in front of my house's doorstep."

Even if Ethar and her family did not want to leave the country, and rather flee to a neighbouring state within Sudan, the medical conditions of her parents made it clear that they needed a place where their health could be ensured. Ethar, her parents and two sisters took a bus from Khartoum to the Egyptian border with the little cash they had in their pockets. Little would they know that, after crossing, they would still not be safe.

Egypt regulations push Sudanese away

During the first weeks of the war, Sudanese people were able to enter Egypt without any major complication — as they had been able to do since the 2004 Four Freedoms agreement (whereby mutual freedom of movement, residency without a permit, work, and property ownership is granted to both Sudanese and Egyptians within the two countries.)

Nonetheless, these freedoms have been restricted week-after-week after the events in April, Ethar said.

"Exactly the day after we crossed, the Egyptian government issued a decision saying that anyone who has a passport that is not valid in the next six months cannot enter. And after some weeks they made it harder, saying that you needed a visa".

This shocks Ethar and many Sudanese who visited the Arab Republic frequently before the war, for medical checkups, and business or family visits. "We used to come to Egypt often for my dad's medical appointments, it was a very easy process," Ethar also said. "Now, we have to apply for residency, and we do not know for how long they are going to grant it to us".

She confesses considering applying for refugee status, which would take from her the right to work, risking her current position in an environmental initiative in Cairo, and forcing her to rely on the little cash that the UNHCR offers.

According to a Refugees International report, most Sudanese who arrived in Egypt have been living in poor and unsafe neighborhouds relying on Sudanese-led refugee organizations and mutual aid associations due to the latest government policies and broader societal discrimination.

While the UNHCR supports the "access of refugees to health and education services and ensuring that vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers can meet their basic needs", rising demand and chronic underfunding are leaving many waiting for months without a response, the Refugees International investigation showed.

A Sudanese family-of-seven registered with the UNHCR in Cairo told EUobserver that the UN services do not meet their basic needs. They are unable to find jobs to sustain their children's education, and they add that they would even be afraid of sending the kids to Egyptian public schools. "There are instances where Sudanese children are beaten and bullied, we ourselves are already scared of going out, and seeing how they [Egyptians] look at us."

Unhelpful Egyptian policies and racism have for years forced Sudanese to try the European route — but they do not meet a brighter fate there.

Europe is no safe haven

Since the violence started in the western region of Darfur in 2003, thousands of Sudanese have been displaced. Subsequent political turmoil and insecurity continued forcing people out of the country until this year's war, which caught many already on their way towards Europe, seeing no future in Egypt.

Ibrahim is one of them. He fled Sudan's Darfur in 2017 after his family was met by an attack by Janjaweed forces, only to then be enslaved in Libya and find himself living under a bridge after he arrived in Europe.

He tried to seek asylum in France without being successful, having to return to Italy without assistance or protection.

"I am sleeping in Ventimiglia under a bridge, where there are rats, mice and pigs: the situation is tragic" Ibrahim, whose name was changed to protect his anonymity, said with pain. "I just want to know why, as a refugee brother of yours, was treated this way," he asks, sharing his painful experience with EUobserver and a documentary called 'Borders of Paradise', to be released soon.

Francesca Fusaro, a member of an NGO operating from Ventimiglia, called No Name Kitchen, said that the majority of migrants that the city has received in the last months came from Sudan.

"The vast majority had done the Mediterranean route, by sea, going from Sudan to Egypt, then Libya, and they either leave towards Europe from there or from Tunisia," she told EUobserver.

However, she claims not being able to tell with certainty how many came from the war in April and how many had already started their journey years before: "Most do not even want to talk about the migration journey, as it is something that hurts a lot."

EU funded militias, now wipes hands

While European countries respond with hostility towards Sudanese migrants arriving at their borders, seeking protection from a conflict that is being fought by armed groups driven by economic interests; the Union has been responsible for strengthening the power of these militias in the past years.

After the first mass migration waves towards Europe started in 2015, the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF for Africa) has been allocating funds for migration management projects in Sudan. These funds included training, equipment and overall support to the Rapid Support Forces, the main border forces but also the forces responsible for the 2003 Darfur genocide and most of the current attacks.

Ethar Ahmed is outraged by the EU's actions. "The EU has completely funded the RSF under the name of stopping legal immigration. Right now, let's just ask them, did you manage to stop illegal immigration or is it increasing?"

Like her, many Sudanese youth are caught in Egypt, unaware of how long will they be allowed to stay, and scared about the possibility of having to resort to the routes towards Europe that have been mistreating Sudanese refugees during the last two decades.

"I do not want to be a refugee, I do not want to add another minority label to my list," she said with tears about to burst from her eyes. "But at this time it does not feel like a choice, I need to find somewhere else that wants to host me but, surprise, there is no country opening its doors to Sudanese people".

Author bio

Bianca Carrera is a freelance writer and analyst specialising in the Middle Eastern and North Africa, environmental matters, and migration at Sciences Po Paris. She has written for The New Arab, Al Jazeera, Oxfam Intermón,, and others.


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