In 2018, Ahmed, 17, moved from Syria to Sudan, joining his three brothers who had fled from Damascus five years prior when their family fell foul of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. By the time Ahmed arrived, his brothers had built a life in the country running a fledgling furniture business.
The brothers had started their journey in the capital Khartoum before decamping to the quieter seaside town of Port Sudan. Situated on the crystal-clear waters of the Red Sea, the port city attracts divers, and the weather is cooler and more forgiving than the capital. After fleeing the ravages of the Syrian civil war, it’s a peaceful refuge for the brothers, offering solace and tranquility in exile.
Over the past five years, other Arab countries have raised their drawbridges one by one, restricting the entry of Syrian passport holders. But Sudan has continued to be a refuge for people fleeing the Middle Eastern country. When one government official was asked if Sudan would join other countries in limiting entry for Syrians, he famously gave this response: not “as long as the Nile is flowing”.
As a holder of both British and Sudanese passports, I am often struck by the quiet largesse of the poorer of those two countries, and the vocal meanness of the more affluent one. In debates about immigration, the focus is often that there is not enough to go round, that a country is “full”, and that resources are too tight to be shared with those who need resettlement. But the Sudan example demonstrates how it is will, rather than resources, that determines the welcome refugees receive.
Where there is good will, people will make a way.
Sudan’s history of welcoming refugees
Sudan’s hospitality is ostensibly unusual for a country that has struggled both economically and with its own bloody internal conflicts almost from the moment of its independence from Britain in 1956. But this largesse is nothing new for the north African nation. There are currently more than one million migrants in Sudan, mainly from the horn of Africa and South Sudan. It was also the main port of refuge for Ethiopians fleeing civil war in the 70s and 80s.
Getting rid of visa entry for Syrians, Sudan prevented many of the usual struggles of asylum seekers, effectively creating an open border.
Sudan is currently the only country in the world allowing visa-free entry to Syrian citizens with no restrictions. Since the start of the civil war – which has internally displaced more than six million Syrians and sent another five million to seek asylum abroad – Sudan has taken in more than 100,000 Syrian refugees.
This intake is partly a legacy of pan-Arab bilateral free movement agreements forged in the 60s and 70s that guaranteed visa-free entry to citizens of all Arab countries. The treaty between Sudan and Syria was overwhelmingly to the benefit of Sudanese tourists and students who used it to holiday and study in the more affluent and stable Syria. Since the start of the war, the tables have turned dramatically to the benefit of Syrians.
Sudan’s first step to accommodate Syrians was a simple but radical one: the government abolished entry visas for Syrian nationals. Getting rid of that bureaucratic paperwork prevented many of the usual struggles of asylum seekers, effectively creating an open border.
First, safety and survival
No entry visa into Sudan meant no refugee camps, no long stays in precarious circumstances in inclement weather awaiting processing and entry, no long processions of people trudging through hostile territory to reach a safe haven. All a Syrian needs to access a place of welcome and a chance of shelter is enough money to cover the price of a plane ticket – and a little more to start building a life.
Once in Sudan, there are few restrictions on employment. In a short period of time, Syrian refugees have become established in the capital Khartoum. A few years ago, it was a novelty to see a Syrian-run business. But no longer. Syrians sell their wares at the market; artisanal furniture adorns middle-class homes, assembled by men who honed their skills in the centuries-old markets of Damascus and Aleppo. And Syrian restaurants now dot the main thoroughfares of Khartoum.
What’s more, there are no barriers to public services, however scant. Syrians enjoy access to almost all the rights and facilities free to Sudanese citizens, including education and healthcare. They enrol their children in schools alongside Sudanese students. In some instances, schools have made allowances for Syrian teachers to add classes to the curriculum on Syrian history and geography.
The conditions many Syrian refugees find themselves in may not be affluent, but by-and-large the Sudanese people have been generous, being no strangers to scarcity themselves. On the whole, the two communities happily co-exist. This Sudanese generosity is sorely needed at a time when the number of economic, political and conflict driven refugees globally has reached crisis levels.
Alive but unable to thrive in Sudan
All this said, Sudan’s largesse has been in spite of its infrastructure, which is very weak, not because of it. There are no dedicated funds or paths to citizenship, so refugees and asylum seekers are largely left to fend for themselves on arrival, depending mostly on a large voluntary network of already-settled Syrians. Outside of this network, there is little else. As a result, Syrians on society’s margins have tended to stay there.
Ahmed knows this only too well. At first Khartoum had offered relative stability and promise for the teenager with a large middle class, a steady stream of remittances from Sudan’s expats in the Gulf, and a thriving social scene. But after a few months, Ahmed began to despair at his living conditions. He and his brothers all shared a small, two-bedroom apartment and made a living by hustling among Khartoum’s cut-throat small businesses.
A country’s resources and infrastructure are important, but they’re a secondary consideration to those whose lives are under immediate threat.
Mostly the brothers had worked odd jobs in the capital, as handymen, salesmen, and furniture makers in Sudanese-owned companies. But all struggled with long bouts of unemployment and financial distress. For his part, not being able to enrol in higher education, or take up meaningful employment due to his age and lack of experience, Ahmed became socially isolated. He spent his time alone at home, pining for his mother who had left Syria for Turkey when he was twelve, and who he’d not been able to join because the open borders between the two countries had been shut.
As a result, Ahmed struggled to integrate into Sudanese society or make local friends. He began to feel trapped, unable to return to Syria or gain entry legally into any other country. One day, he confided in his brothers that he felt as though dying in Assad’s army would have been a better fate.
A country’s resources and infrastructure are important, but they’re a secondary consideration to those whose lives are under immediate threat. Before you can thrive, you need to survive.
Seeking a way out for $10,000
A Syrian passport says to the world the holder will claim asylum wherever they land. A Sudanese one may not be exactly viewed favourably abroad, but it offers some leeway for employment, particularly in Turkey and the Gulf countries. For Syrians, a passport from Sudan allows mobility in a world where their own is no longer a travel document.
Sudan became a pitstop where Syrians separated from their families could cool their heels, earn a living, process their papers, and then rejoin their loved ones in countries with better living standards, such as Turkey. But getting Sudanese travel documents have not been as easy as anticipated and a black market has blossomed, exposing Syrians desperate to rejoin family in other parts of the world, to exploitation.
In Khartoum’s black market passport trade, Sudanese documentation can see for up to $10,000. A junior police officer who works in customs described to me the network of suppliers, starting with the traders who position themselves in Khartoum’s souqs, working from small airless rooms and flogging everything from real estate to travel documents. This trader usually has a contact, a relative or friend, who works in the passport office or has access to someone who can issue them.
Through the black market there is little guarantee of success. Ahmed’s eldest brother Khalid spent years devising schemes to leave but his contact for a Sudanese passport never delivered, derailing his plans to rejoin his family in Turkey. With an eye always on the exit, he too has struggled to settle into life in Sudan and toyed with the idea of making the treacherous trip by land to Libya, then crossing the Mediterranean in an even more treacherous journey to Europe.
Welcoming ‘guests’ as long as the Nile is flowing
Despite the challenges, Sudan’s commitment to refugees far outstrips that of more affluent countries. Compare Sudan’s intake, for example, to the UK’s pledge to resettle 20,000 refugees by 2020. Since the pledge in 2015, the UK has taken fewer migrants than promised while misrepresenting the number for political virtue points. In that time, Sudan got on with the business of opening its doors to any Syrian who needs safe haven.
The numbers of refugees to whom Sudan has provided safe haven with relatively little fuss suggests that a receptive local population is a more important factor, than available resources, in ensuring that people move safely and are welcomed in a new country. How else to explain the lack of resistance to the reception of asylum seekers and refugees in such a poor country? Rather than resenting their peers from different countries, those who had very little felt some sort of empathy because of the congruity of their experiences.
But empathy alone is not sufficient if the right robust political leadership and messaging are absent. The rhetoric and language around refugee resettlement in Sudan is benign. State-controlled media frequently broadcasts stories and interviews with the new community. “Guests” is a popular way of referring to the Syrians in Sudan. The “as long as the Nile is flowing” sentiment runs deep.
Rather than resenting their peers from different countries, those who had very little felt some sort of empathy because of the congruity of their experiences.
In travelling between wealthy, anti-immigrant UK and struggling Sudan, it is clear to me how much political culture dictates attitudes to migrants. Sudan’s political system is one party, prohibiting anti-immigration rhetoric that can be used to agitate and to convert that agitation into votes during a free and competitive election, which happened in the UK, for example.
Sudan’s political culture and a very specific historical strand of hospitality created a haven where Ahmed and his family can dock as their country is roiled by conflict. Khalid speaks less of leaving now, and when he does, it seems more out of habit than intent.
For every Ahmed who is safe in Sudan, there are thousands of others who remain in jeopardy as they knock on the borders of Fortress Europe. More than anything, Sudan shows how sympathy for a fellow human in need of a safe haven is natural. Even though Sudan struggles with the way to help, at least it shows that humans inherently have the will to do so.
Some names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals.