The New Arab: A More Humane Approach is Needed at the Egypt-Sudan Border

This piece was originally published in The New Arab.

When Asma, her three children, and elderly mother arrived in southern Egypt after a three-day bus journey from Omdurman, Sudan, they had no money or place to go.

They had been forced out of their home by gunmen, then lived on the street until they found a bus driver willing to let them skimp on the hiked-up fare in exchange for a seat on the floor and a sense of indignity that shook them to the core.

“The driver humiliated us,” the grandmother recalled, fighting back tears.

Their experience has become tragically familiar. Since the outbreak of the conflict in Sudan on April 15, more than 200,000 Sudanese people like Asma have fled to Egypt. But bureaucratic delays and strict entry rules—which became even stricter this month—have kept thousands of Sudanese stuck at the border, separating families and contributing to a brewing humanitarian crisis.

This approach not only contravenes refugee protections, but is contributing to a humanitarian disaster. Egypt must reverse course before the crisis on its border increases.

At the border town of Wadi Halfa, thousands of people seeking visas and travel documents are living amid unsanitary conditions that have led to several deaths. This is in large part due to a decades-old Egyptian policy requiring Sudanese males between 16 and 50 to apply for entry visas.

On June 7, it expanded the requirement to all Sudanese seeking entry to Egypt and has refused to accept emergency travel documents for those who don’t have passports.

Egyptian authorities should ease the rules for entry for the next six months, including through humanitarian visas, at least for certain categories of applicants. Donors and aid groups must meanwhile focus on support to local initiatives operating on both sides of the border.

Asma and her family members, who as females were not required to seek visas at the time, were lucky. They managed to cross the border in three days, braving long lines along the way.

The once-sleepy border crossings at Argeen and Ashkeet/Qustal, the only two official routes overland into Egypt, receive dozens of buses per day. But these crossings are ill-equipped, lacking shaded areas for people to wait, clean toilets, water, food, and basic medicine. A pregnant woman who recently made the journey told us she could not access a toilet for 24 hours.

Egypt is ambivalent about admitting a large refugee population and has securitised its response along its southern border. Egypt openly rejects any refugee camps on its territory and allows only the Egyptian Red Crescent to operate at the borders.

Two months into the crisis, it has yet to grant permission to UN agencies to set up shop in Aswan, the hub for arrivals located hundreds of kilometres north of the border. 

A telltale sign of this ambivalence is that Egyptian officials refer to Sudanese arrivals as “visitors” rather than “refugees,” even though people fleeing conflict meet the legal definition of refugee under the 1969 Organization of African Union convention to which Egypt is a party.

While Egypt did show some flexibility recognising Sudanese-issued travel documents earlier, and the Red Crescent has ramped up support at the border, the government needs to do more to address the backlog.

Instead of increasing restrictions, it should offer a waiver of the visa requirement – at least for certain groups like youth, elderly and disabled people – on humanitarian grounds.

Asma and her family disembarked at the Wadi Karkar bus stop, 35 km south of Aswan. Luckily for them, a local school teacher offered help. He found them shelter in a nearby village, where a dozen other Sudanese families, mostly females, had arrived under similar circumstances.

Similar efforts are underway in other villages and cities where local host communities and volunteers are sharing their homes or arranging for cheap accommodation.

With the response of international aid agencies still lagging, local Egyptian and Sudanese-led groups have filled the gaps. Most Sudanese will rely on community initiatives, just as they do in Sudan. As one volunteer in Cairo told us, “We gave up on the UN a long time ago.”

Donors, aid agencies, and Egyptian authorities responding to the crisis should prioritise getting more support to local efforts, even if they are not registered NGOs, as they are better placed to provide immediate relief like cash, housing, and much-needed psychosocial support.

The warring sides have flouted all ceasefires and as long as fighting continues, more Sudanese will continue seeking refuge in Egypt.

For Asma and her family, the first phase of a nightmare has already played out. A more humane and localised approach will bring some level of respite to them and avoid similar trauma to those refugees at the border or yet to come.

Abdullahi Halakhe is a senior advocate for east and southern Africa at Refugees International. Jehanne Henry is a former director at Human Rights Watch’s Africa division. They travelled to the Egypt-Sudan border in May to examine the humanitarian situation.