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Racism and secularism have changed Sudan's treatment of Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees inside a refugee camp on 5 November 2019 [IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP/Getty Images]
Syrian refugees inside a refugee camp on 5 November 2019 [IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP/Getty Images]

Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, around 5.6 million Syrians have been forced to leave the country. A further 6.2 million have been displaced internally due to the war conditions and systematic ethnic cleansing by the regime as well as regionally and internationally-backed militias which targeted certain groups.

The refugees have settled mainly in regional countries, including Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan and even the Gaza Strip. According to the UN Refugee Agency, Turkey hosts around 4 million refugees, including 3.6 million Syrians, while estimates suggest that Sudan is hosting between 250,000 and 300,000 of them. The actual figure is unknown, because the regime of ousted President Omar Al-Bashir did not grant them refugee status so they did not need to register with refugee agencies.

By 2015, Sudan was the only country in the world which did not require Syrians to have an entry visa. Restrictions had been imposed by other countries, including Turkey, due to "fake passports" being used by people from third countries. This month, however, Sudan has introduced visas for Syrians after a year in which they have been almost routinely harassed by the authorities. Sudan is no longer a safe haven for Syrian refugees.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, the regime of Al-Bashir had "accepted the Syrians and Yemenis into [Sudan] based on the concept of Muslim solidarity to 'brothers and sisters'." Moreover, Syrians could apply for Sudanese nationality during Bashir's time in office. Although the Sudanese Constitution says that a foreigner can obtain a passport after living in Sudan for 10 years or getting married to a Sudanese lady, Al-Bashir made an exception for the Syrians who could get Sudanese passports after six months.

READ: Half of Syrians in Turkey will not return to homeland, says report

Now, though, Syria News has reported that the current Sudanese authorities have since 2016 revoked the citizenship of 13,000 out of 18,000 foreign-born citizens. The website suggested strongly that Syrian refugees were the main target of this move.

In 2016, Sudanese spokespersons were quoted as saying that restrictions on Syrians would not be imposed "as long as the Nile is flowing", reaffirming the country's stance to maintain an open door policy. A Sudanese shopkeeper named by Al Jazeera as Khalid said: "Syrians are guests in my country, not refugees. One day hopefully they will be able to go back. But as long as they stay here, they are just like us."

"Syrians in Sudan get access to education and health care as if they were nationals of the country, and have the right to work and run businesses in their names," wrote journalist Jenny Gustaffson last year, when describing the position of Syrians in Sudan. "There are no restrictions on their movement either, because the community is not seen as — or granted the status of — refugees. Instead, they tend to be called visitors or guests. 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."

Syrian refugees [Cartoon/Arabi21]

Syrian refugees [Cartoon/Arabi21]

In late 2018, a bread and fuel crisis and increasing inflation in Sudan triggered a popular revolution. Al-Bashir was ousted the following April. The country's economy was exhausted by tight US economic sanctions imposed after Washington alleged that Khartoum was sponsoring terrorists. Cynics might say that the real reason was because Al-Bashir and his party were Islamists. Sudanese journalist Ammar Mohammad Adam met the current Sudanese Foreign Minister in October and claimed that the leaders of the communists who now share power alongside senior army officers, hold US passports and lobbied for the sanctions to be imposed while they were in America and Europe.

READ: EU provides $59m grant to support Syria refugee training in Turkey

Al-Bashir's ouster was followed by a transitional government, at which point distinct changes in attitude towards the Syrians were seen. According to Sarah Tobin, a researcher at CHR Michelsen Institute who has been researching Syrian refugees in Sudan since 2018, this shift started in October 2019.

"The transitional government shifted national refugee policy away from the relatively 'hands-off' approach… towards the mainly urban Syrian refugees," she explained. "They began requiring a variety of permits for refugees living in the country." Various permits are all now necessary in order to legally enter Sudan legally, live and work there, seek an education and receive health care.

"It will stop now; they cannot do it any more. The policies of the old regime will change," predicted Sudanese journalist Abdulmoniem Suleiman in April 2019, referring to the free-visa programme. The changes also mean that Syrians will no longer be able to get Sudanese nationality.

It is clear that when the transitional Sudanese authorities decided to turn their back on Islam and be influenced by Western secularism, the also turned their back on the refugees and introduced discriminatory and racist laws. In September, the Sudanese authorities announced that they had dropped Islam as the state religion. At the same time, they said that they are re-examining the cases of Syrians and other foreigners who were granted Sudanese nationality during Al-Bashir's era. Sudanese Police Director-General Adil Mohamed Ahmed Bashayer said that a committee has been formed to review the files in order to "preserve Sudanese identity."

Al-Bashir may have been a dictator, but he was neither a fascist nor a racist. It is the new government which is importing such "values" from the West. Even though Sudan was not involved in preparing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — it was still a British colony at the time — Al-Bashir's response to the Syrian and Yemeni refugee issue demonstrated the humanitarian values of his faith.

READ: UNICEF appeals for $2.5bn to aid 39m children in MENA

The discrimination and racism introduced by the transitional regime in Sudan has filtered down to the grassroots. "One Syrian woman I interviewed in Khartoum in early 2020," revealed Tobin, "expressed deep sadness that her two young children are no longer called by name in the local elementary school by the teachers or the students, and they are merely referred to as 'the Syrians'."

She used to be able to go to the market freely, added the researcher. "She was treated like a Sudanese. But now she is viewed with suspicion and anger. People now say to her, 'Hey Syrian' instead of a more respectful term. They also talk about her family's need for permits now." Such a setback has been reported by many refugees in Sudan recently.

No doubt the Sudanese authorities will deny it, but it looks as if it is their secularism that has changed the country's treatment of Syrian refugees, and brought racism into the now very ugly equation.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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