Over the last weeks, it has become increasingly difficult for Sudanese people to flee to neighboring Egypt. According to an official statement, Egypt has changed its entry requirements on June 10th, 2023, to better regulate the influx of people, and to counter ‘unlawful activities.’
As a consequence of the new policies, many people find themselves stuck between the raging war and the Sudan-Egypt border.
As observers point out, the new rules with which Egypt has restricted cross-border movement are part of a broader trend in the securitization of migration policies. This, in turn, is not an isolated development but is affected by the EU’s agenda on migration, which centers around the externalization of its borders.
Long hauls in search of refuge
On April 15th, 2023, clashes erupted between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Security Forces (RSF) commanded by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (‘Hemedti’). Finding themselves caught in the fighting, many Sudanese civilians have been forced to leave their homes behind and cross long hauls in search of refuge. Since the war broke out in Sudan, about 820,000people have fled to surrounding countries, of which more than 250,000 to Egypt, according to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Like many other Sudanese people, Somaya Hassan, 25*, was stranded north of her country. She had traveled about 2,100 kilometers to reach the border with Egypt from the city Nyala in Darfur, a province in the far-west of Sudan.
At the outbreak of the war, Hassan was far away from her family who lived in Khartoum. “When the shooting got worse, my family had to leave their house and flee to Egypt. I was stuck in Nyala for six weeks before I could finally find a way to escape the city and go north.” Following her family’s pursuit, Hassan had no choice but to make the long and dangerous journey by herself to meet them.
After traveling for eight days, during which she got robbed by three men, Hassan reached the Arqeen border crossing on June 8th. She had her travel documents ready and had arrived just in time before Egypt would implement its new visa restrictions – or so she thought. When Hassan tried to cross the border, she faced a major setback: the border police were not letting anyone pass.
The visa waiver for women, children, and people above 50 had been revoked, and passports that had expired after the outbreak of the war were no longer accepted. According to an official statement by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the new visa rules were supposed to take effect on June 10th.
However, Hassan says that the rules were already being applied when she got there. She wasn’t the only one devastated to find out the new policies were already in practice. On Twitter, a video circulates showing Sudanese people at the border begging to be let in, only to be answered by border patrols firmly denying them entry.
Crisis near the border
The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs explains the implementation of stricter border policies as a necessary security measure. According to its official statement, “the Egyptian authorities detected during the last period a spread of unlawful activities by some individuals and groups on the Sudanese side who issues fraud visas, […] Because of these activities, the Egyptian authorities introduced regulatory procedures that rely on electronic visas to counter these crimes, […].”**
Some who managed to flee Sudan before the restrictions confirm that they had to pay around 400 USD to get a visa stamp – a travel requirement that is normally free of charge. The Egyptian authorities state that its new policies are aimed at countering such exploitation of Sudanese refugees.
The new regulations however seem to negatively affect rather than improve the situation of Sudanese people that wish to seek asylum in Egypt. Like many others, Hassan was stuck near the border for a long time.
Even though her circumstances should have made it relatively easy for her to be allowed entry – she owns a valid passport and had applied for a visa in early June – Hassan had to wait for nearly a month before she could continue her journey to Cairo. Until the very moment of receiving her visa, Hassan was unclear as to if, and when, she would be allowed to cross the border.
Reem Abbas, research fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), points out that many Sudanese who headed north initially planned on staying there. Not only because that is where they are originally from, but also because it is relatively safe. The dire circumstances near the Egyptian border that people are currently facing, however pushes them across the border. Those who are among the 360,355 people that have fled to the north say that basic facilities and provisions are lacking, and that aid organizations are largely absent.
Abbas says that people’s resources are drying up because they are paying huge amounts for shelter. “Some people are staying with family members, but they are the lucky ones. Then there are others who are paying rent. They are running out of money because renting is extremely expensive. House owners charge up to 2000 USD a month, which people can’t afford,” Abbas told Fanack.
For many, the only alternative to renting a place is to sleep in the streets, where scorpions are said to be widespread. As housing costs and living expenses are more affordable in Egypt compared to Sudan, the imperative to cross the border is pressing.
“You don’t stay there unless you really don’t have any other means basically,” Abbas added.
EU’s border externalization
Although the circumstances in Sudan have only recently been so rapidly declining, some of the premises shaping the bad conditions near the border have been put into place long before the war started, different observers explain.
According to Mark Akkerman, a fellow at the Transnational Institute and member of Stop Wapenhandel, the reality at the Egypt-Sudan border at present is impacted by the EU’s border externalization policies. Through bilateral and multilateral agreements, the provision of materials and training, and the exchange of information, the EU has outsourced part of its border control to surrounding non-EU-countries such as Egypt.
As Akkerman points out, Egypt has for years now been one of the EU’s most important partners with regards to migration control. “Since 2015, the EU has allocated tens of millions [of euros] from the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa to projects to strengthen Egypt’s capacities in terms of border surveillance and control.”
The Guardian reported in June that the EU had entered into new negotiations with Egypt to ensure that the country stems irregular migration flows to Europe. During his visit to Cairo, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell disclosed that the EU will provide 20 million euros to Egypt “to help you address this new wave of Sudanese refugees on your southern borders.”
Although indeed a wide range of factors contribute to the sufferings that Sudanese people in the northern region now face, they are exacerbated by these international developments, Akkerman explains.
“With the externalization policies, the EU contributes to the fact that people in countries in the wide surroundings of the EU are stranded at borders and are forced to live in severe circumstances.”
The criminalization of migrants
The Egyptian borders have not always been as strictly controlled as they are now. In the EU-Egypt Migration Cooperation report (2019) by EuroMed Rights, a trend is identified whereby criminal law and security-based policies are given further prominence in migration management in Egypt.
According to Muhammad al-Kashef, co-author of the report and human rights lawyer, cross-border movement between Sudan, Egypt and Libya used to be relatively easy for their citizens before the EU sought collaboration with Egypt for its border control.
“People only needed a national ID to travel, not a passport.”
The considerable freedom of movement that Egypt allowed on its southern and western borders started to crumble down with the arrival of the Euro-Mediterranean Agreement in 2004. Through this cooperation framework, the process with which the EU has externalized part of its border to Egypt was set in motion.
The securitization of Egypt’s border control was especially intensified by the Khartoum Process in 2014, al-Kashef told Fanack. “After the Khartoum Process, the Egyptian authorities started to treat the migrants themselves as criminals,” he said.
Indicative of this is that migrants – including refugees – have since been regularly detained or deported back to their homelands.
According to Akkerman, “the Egyptian border control, police and security forces are known for their brutal treatment of Sudanese refugees and refugees that arrive from Sudan. Although Egypt seems to be a bit more open now to receive refugees, as a consequence of the current armed conflict in Sudan, there are still many stories about the severe conditions and treatments, the long waiting periods, and the lack of support.”
Hassan has now reached her family in Cairo and is recovering from what she says has been a very stressful period. Unlike Hassan, there are however many refugees of war that have not managed to escape the severe situation. Large numbers of people are still stuck south of the Egyptian border.