U.S.-Africa Policy Working Group: Briefing on Sudan

Refugees International Senior Advocate for East and Southern Africa Abdullahi Halakhe delivered the remarks below at a briefing of the United States-Africa Policy Working Group on the situation in Sudan following a research trip to the Egypt-Sudan border. The briefing originally took place on May 25, 2023.

I want to thank Representative Ilhan Omar, and the members of the U.S.-Africa Policy Working Group for holding this important and timely briefing. I am happy to be included in the first official briefing of this Working Group and look forward to partnering closely with the members of this group in the future.

Refugees International is a non-governmental organization that advocates for lifesaving assistance and protection for displaced people in parts of the world impacted by conflict, persecution, and forced displacement. We conduct fact-finding trips to research and report on the circumstances of displaced populations in countries such as Somalia, Mexico, Colombia, Syria, and Bangladesh among many others. RI does not accept government or United Nations (UN) funding, which helps ensure that our advocacy is impartial and independent.

My briefing today is based in part on my travel to Cairo and Aswan for two weeks. I returned on the 23 of May. While in the country, I was able to meet with refugees who had just crossed the border, NGO workers and journalists, and UN officials working on the response to the crisis.

My key impressions after returning from the region are as follows:

  1. The need for humanitarian aid in Sudan is enormous and has regional implications because of the hundreds and thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict. Even before the conflict broke out on 15 April 2023, Sudan faced severe humanitarian crises. An estimated 15.8 million people – about a third of the population, or one in every three, will need humanitarian assistance in 2023. After six weeks of conflict, that number has increased to 24.7 million in May 2023. That represents 1 in 2.
  2. The Sudanese local initiatives in Sudan and Egypt have been the lifeline in the last-mile delivery of humanitarian aid before and after the conflict. They have been delivering aid in the face of innumerable challenges. Donors must invest in ensuring the centrality of aid localization during the Jeddah negotiations and post-negotiation agreements.
  3. The Egyptian authorities and the United National High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) should explore loosening the requirements for Sudanese refugees’ entry into Egypt for six months, including exploring the use of humanitarian visas.
  4. Relations between the UNCHR and the refugee population in Egypt are fraught due to the historical antecedent, as well as being simply a function of UNHCR’s limited capacity because of years of funding cuts. Donors should increase the UNHCR Egypt funding, and UNHCR should use the funding to clear the backlog of cases and speedy refugee determination of the new arrivals.

Assessment of the Current Crisis

Initially concentrated in Khartoum, the conflict slowly extended to other regions like Darfur, North Darfur, North Kordofan, South Darfur, and Kassala, with el-Geneina as the epicenter.

  1. The current Sudan crisis can be assessed through:
  2. The humanitarian crisis inside the country.
  3. The challenges faced at the border by those fleeing Sudan. The tough situation in the countries of asylum (For this briefing, I will limit my briefing to Egypt, where I was for 10 days).

Inside Sudan, three things make humanitarian access and aid delivery difficult.

The ongoing conflict threatens the safety and security of the people in need and humanitarian workers. Parties to the conflict, despite signing multiple ceasefire agreements, including the Short-Term Ceasefire and Humanitarian Arrangements of 20 May, conflict continues in Khartoum and other parts of the country.

Targeting of health workers and facilities, especially the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Since the start of the conflict, the World Health Organization (WHO) has verified 30 attacks on health facilities, resulting in eight people killed and another 18 injured. A maternity hospital was attacked in Khartoum on 4 May. Sudan’s health system was already struggling even before the conflict because of the 20 years of sanction and chronic underfunding, as confirmed by poor health outcomes; a high infant mortality rate (38 deaths per 1000 live births), high maternal mortality rate (295 deaths per 100 000 live births), and low life expectancy (66 years). The concentration of the fighting in Khartoum has a bearing on the health facilities because of the country’s 820 hospitals across 18 states in Sudan 134 of them are in Khartoum state. 70 percent – are no longer functional, cutting off critical care for people caught in the conflict.

The banking system is barely functioning, making it difficult for people to access their savings to buy their daily needs and transfer/send those in need. The central bank was set ablaze, local commercial banks closed, and ATMs were not functioning, leaving people without access to cash and financial assets. Internet connectivity has been severely disrupted, operating at only 4 percent capacity. The only way people send and receive money is through a mobile app, Bankak, which can be unsteady sometimes. 

Challenges for People Seeking Safety

Sudan is a destination and transit country for asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants from at least ten countries. Khartoum and White Nile states host two-thirds of all South Sudanese. Refugees and Khartoum has the highest number among all states. After Uganda, Sudan is hosting the second-highest number of refugees fleeing violence in South Sudan.

Since the conflict, an estimated 300,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries – notably Egypt, South Sudan, Chad, Ethiopia, and the Central African Republic. But this number will increase.

Countries these refugees are fleeing to are dealing with multiple crises. Chad, Ethiopia, and South Sudan reeling from conflict and a weak/fraught economy. As a result, hosting more refugees will have dire consequences unless adequately funded. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) announcement of an additional $103 million in humanitarian assistance to support Sudan and neighbouring countries is a welcome step. But more is needed in near and medium term to address the needs of the displaced.

Challenges for Refugees Inside Egypt

I will speak mainly about Egypt because that was where I was. However, some of those challenges apply to other countries, too.)

Egypt is the primary destination for Sudanese refugees. Egypt has been hosting Sudanese refugees for decades. Since the outbreak of the conflict, over 50,000 Sudanese refugees have crossed the border through Aswan, with many heading to Cairo.

The first wave of Sudanese refugees crossing the border were people with means with more than one passport. They arrived in Egypt enroute to Europe or other destinations. Those without a second passport had a historical relation with Egypt; they studied in Egypt, own properties, and had a connection. Now increasingly, those coming are people with limited means.

Before the war, a bus to Wadi Halfa was $33; since the war, the bus ticket is about $1000. It is a two-three-day journey and another two-three day of processing to enter Egypt. But because of the huge number of people coming into the country and limited processing facilities, people are spending weeks at the border, with no adequate sanitation facilities. For people with chronic medical conditions, the wait is difficult. Further, males between 17-49 years will require a visa to enter Egypt. But there is only one visa processing facility. This has been a significant pain point, especially for those without passports or those whose passports are held by foreign embassies, many of whom have been evacuated from Sudan.

Some could not even afford the bus ticket.

Refugees’ access to the labor market is essential for their protection, survival, and preservation of their dignity. However, the existing legal, policy, and administrative framework are restrictive and exclude many refugees from engaging in gainful employment. A work permit costs 3000 Egyptian Pounds (97.08 United States Dollars) per year for the first three years. The fee rises to 5000 Egyptian Pounds (161.81 United States Dollars) for the fourth year with a yearly increase of 1000 Egyptian Pounds (32.36 United States Dollars), up to a maximum fee of 12000 Egyptian Pounds (388.35 United States Dollars). Furthermore, foreigners are prohibited from working in the import, export, and customs clearance sector and as tour guides.

Housing and livelihoods are two principal challenges for many Sudanese refugees living in Cairo. Sudanese-led refugee organizations deliver housing, livelihood, and psychosocial support to the refugees, including the new arrivals. But their capacity is overstretched.

Conclusion and Key Recommendations

Refugees International will continue to closely monitor and report on this crisis as it continues to unfold. Hundreds of refugees are fleeing daily, and their needs will only continue to rise as violence continues.

The United States Congress must continue its leadership role in funding humanitarian aid for Sudan and the region as hundreds and thousands of refugees flee the conflict.

The United States can also lead humanitarian diplomacy in the region by working with the Government of Egypt and UNHCR to facilitate safe entry of Sudanese refugees into Egypt. They can also continue to support UNHCR Egypt’s role at the border through increased funding.

Finally, Congress must also recognize the importance of aid localization during the Jeddah negotiations and post-negotiation agreements. As we have seen in so many contexts around the world, local and refugee-level organizations are best placed to deliver effective humanitarian aid, and the United States should find ways to support their lifesaving work.

Featured Image: A Sudanese woman poses for a photo at the Union of Refugee and Migrant Leaders offices where she resides now with her five children. Photo by Lobna Tarek/picture alliance via Getty Images.