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Syrian refugees are no longer guests in Sudan

Sudan is changing its rules for Syrians wishing to reside in the country after years of being able to travel to Sudan without a visa, and the right to work, education and medical care.

Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria a decade ago, over 11 million Syrians have been displaced, with about half of them fleeing the country. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, all bordering countries, have received most of the refugees. Yet, although largely unnoticed, Sudan had been also welcoming tens of thousands of Syrians, especially since it became the only Arab country that did not require a visa.

For years, Syrians arriving to Sudan could reside, work, start a business and access services, like education and health care, on equal footing with Sudanese citizens. Syrians did not even have to process residence permits as they were considered neither refugees nor residents but guests, said Adham Aldaham, director of the Khatwa Initiative for Syrians in Sudan, an organization working with refugees.

This situation, however, is rapidly changing under Sudan’s transitional government. Since it took the reins of the country in 2019, the authorities have been gradually issuing new regulations that are making the access to residence, jobs and services increasingly difficult for foreigners, including Syrians. In December, the process reached a whole new level when an entry visa was imposed for the first time on Syrians arriving from Syria.

“When I went [to Sudan] in early 2018 and 2019, it was very easy. Syrians were able to enter freely; they did not need a visa, they had no work permit restrictions, they were able to access the Sudanese society as Sudanese,” said Sarah Tobin, a professor at the Christian Michelsen Institute researching Syrian refugees in Sudan since 2018. She told Al-Monitor, “With the transitional government, this has all been slashed.”

Syrians started to arrive in Sudan in increasing numbers in 2014. By then, other countries like Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey had been barring the entry of Syrians one after the other, by closing their borders and imposing visas. Sudan was the only exception. “The people are what make Sudan a good place to live. It is a tough economic situation and conditions are different, but what makes it a good place are the people,” Salam Kanhoush, a Syrian living in Sudan since 2016, told Al-Monitor.

Because of this hands-off policy, there are no official figures on how many Syrians reside in Sudan. Aldaham told Al-Monitor that, according to unofficial statistics by the Office of the Syrian Diaspora in Sudan, there were some 250,000 Syrians in the country in 2016. Local media have reported the same number. As of Jan. 31, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, had registered 93,496 Syrians, yet Aldaham believes that the current number does not exceed 70,000.

Under the Islamist regime of Omar al-Bashir, Syrians and other foreigners also had the possibility of obtaining the Sudanese nationality, which gave them greater mobility than the Syrian passport and, ultimately, the possibility of flying to other countries. According to the Sudanese Nationality Act of 1994, last amended in 2018, foreigners could apply for citizenship by naturalization after having resided in Sudan for at least five years, among other requirements. In 2014, Aldaham said that Bashir, in accordance with the powers conferred upon him by the act and the constitution, approved an exception by which Syrians, Palestinians, Yemenis and Iraqis who had resided in Sudan for six consecutive months could be granted Sudanese nationality through naturalization. 

In practice, obtaining the Sudanese passport through legal procedure was not easy, and the granting of the Sudanese nationality largely depended on a corrupt network whose connections reached Bashir’s brother, according to an investigation by journalist Abdulmoneim Suleiman. It is thus not clear how many Syrians obtained the Sudanese nationality. “There was corruption. Syrians and especially businessmen could come here and within a week, or in one month, get a Sudanese passport. They bought it,” Kanhoush said.

This whole situation has drastically changed under the Sudanese transitional government, which has complained about the lack of accurate information about foreigners in the country and has gradually moved away from the old regime's “hands-off approach” toward refugees. The consequences of this policy shift are heavily affecting Syrians.

In September 2019, members of the Syrian community in Sudan held a meeting with the director of the Foreigners Control Police to learn about their new legal status. A statement from the Committee for Supporting Syrian Families stated at the time that Syrians had to start obtaining a residence permit and that employers had to start issuing work permits for their workers, with the exception of those who had acquired nationality. Since then, the authorities have launched a number of raids and inspections against Syrian businesses, and those who do not have their documents in place risk being sent to prison on high bails unless they allegedly engage in bribery with the police.

The transitional government has also turned to businesses of Sudanese nationals who did not acquire the nationality through birth. On Nov. 2019, Anadolu reported that Sudan’s Ministry of Industry and Trade banned foreigners from practicing commercial activities in areas of imports and exports.

“Syrians really attributed this change to economic success — that Syrians were feeling better economically and that this is what prompted the social shift,” said Tobin based on her research. “There was jealousy, a sense of unfairness, maybe even corruption that the Sudanese perceive, and what is perceived as a competition in the labor market, which is enough to turn notions in a negative way toward visiting populations.”

In parallel, Sudan’s Ministry of Interior announced Dec. 9 that the chairman of the Sovereignty Council, Abdel Fatah Al Burhan, had issued a decree to withdraw citizenship from 3,548 people who had obtained it by naturalization without meeting the conditions stipulated in the law. It is not clear how many of them are Syrians, but they are believed to represent the majority. In July 2020, national IDs had been frozen and the renewal of passports for those who had acquired nationality between January 2014 and April 2019 were suspended, according to a statement by the Ministry of Interior. Sudanese authorities had previously announced the formation of a committee to review the files of foreigners who had been granted Sudanese nationality between 2014 and 2019, Aldaham said.

The Sudanese Ministry of Interior also announced Dec. 9 that the country would start imposing an entry visa on Syrians arriving from Syria. Entry visas for Syrians traveling to Sudan from countries other than Syria had already been imposed before.

 Kanhoush said that fees for immigration procedures have been increased 100% this year.

He noted that the consequences of all these measures are already noticeable. “Many people have started leaving from Sudan to Syria. My family is an example of this. Two of my brothers have gone back. And when I go to Khartoum, there are less [Syrians] there,” he added. “People who are running businesses are still working and functioning, but these are old businesses. The workers are suffering now and salaries are very low. The government needs to make it easier for them."

Tobin concluded, “If the transitional government is going to require things like visas for entry, residence permits, work permits, then efforts need to be made to incorporate Syrians into local societies and the economy of the country. If you make it transparent and legal, you can also make it human and safe."

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