When rival factions began fighting across Sudan in mid-April, thousands of people crossed into Egypt to escape the air strikes and machine gun fire.
At the time, the horrors unfolding in Sudan were widespread: reports of rape, a healthcare system close to collapse and soldiers trashing homes hit global headlines.
By 17 May, almost 90,000 people had made it into Egypt, mainly via the Argeen crossing, one of two border points connecting the two countries. Conditions were improving, charities reported, following initial delays and a lack of basic sanitary amenities.
Then, everything changed. The Egyptian administration decided it was time to step on the brakes, despite the large volume of people still trying to escape.
They introduced a series of restrictions at the border including banning the use of emergency travel documents and announcing that men between 16 and 50 must obtain security permissions to enter the country.
“They have not released any information about where to get the security permission, or from which institute,” Executive Director of Refugee Platform Nour Khalil tells MEMO.
“For a while, they said that everyone with permission to study at a college in the US, EU, or Canada can enter without permission. But after a while they stopped even this.”
Then the government announced that all Sudanese nationals had to apply for a visa, not just men aged between 16 and 50 as before.
“Egypt allowed people to move in the first weeks of the conflict as they are the people with money, passports, and many of them had family in Egypt as we already have 4 million people from Sudan in Egypt,” explains Nour, adding: “And then they realised that a lot of people are trying to move, and the number is increasing very fast. It’s going to be a long war.”
Whilst the Egyptian government has said these new restrictions are designed to stop “illegal activities, including forging visas,” charities working with the refugees themselves believe there are other reasons the flow has been limited.
“It’s not about security reasons,” says Nour, explaining that a lot of the people who have been pushed back already have passports and the correct documents. “It’s about showing we need more funding to open our borders.”
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi laid the groundwork for this when he announced that Egypt was struggling with the volume of Sudanese refugees entering Egypt, a burden on Cairo’s already failing economy.
“I think Egypt is showing EU and US donors that we can’t welcome people anymore, even though we didn’t have a problem with them in the beginning. I think it’s part of Egyptian negotiations with the EU to get more money,” says Nour.
Right on cue, earlier this week, EU High Representative Josep Borrell announced that the EU would provide Egypt with “immediate assistance of €20 million [$21.8 million]” to help with “this new wave of Sudanese refugees on your southern border.”
Borrell added that the EU was allocating €80 million ($87.4 million) for “border management, search and rescue and anti-smuggling operations.”
A humanitarian catastrophe
The Egyptian Network for Human Rights (ENHR) has said that Egypt’s decision to change the visa restrictions could ignite a humanitarian catastrophe at the border.
“You are closing the legal way for people who are moving because of the war there,” says Nour.
They have no other option. People can’t go back, and they can’t move to another part of Sudan because all services in Sudan now are bad and most people who want to move are old and want to reach hospitals.
“Many are pregnant and need specific health scans that are not available in Sudan now. At the same time all costs have increased in the last weeks, movement is expensive now, and to go back is difficult. They can’t move to Egypt in a legal and regular way, and they can’t go back because Sudan has been totally destroyed and basic services like food, medicine and water don’t exist.”
For the people who do make it through, they do not leave their problems at the border. They must make their way to Cairo, where the cost of food, health care and especially housing is increasing as so many people are now in need.
Many are given permission to stay in Sudan for three months, casting uncertainty and more turmoil over their future. “They don’t know if the Egyptian government will renew their permission to stay in Egypt,” says Nour.
Applying for asylum is a lengthy process, and people can be arrested and deported if they don’t have the right documents. Then there is racism. Sudanese refugees are arriving in Egypt amid a toxic debate about “Afrocentrism” and a series of accusations that have seen an American stand-up comedian and a museum in Holland accused of stealing and rewriting ancient Egyptian history, Nour explains.
Sudanese refugees have been targeted in the street: “Why are you here, do you want to turn the water off, why are you a friend of Ethiopians?” Some have asked, linking the arrival of refugees with a long-running conflict between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the dam being built by Addis Ababa on the Nile. “Some Ethiopian migrants are saying, ‘we are Sudanese people’ to avoid being targeted,” says Nour.
“On the other hand we can see a huge solidarity movement from people, especially the Nubian communities, who have opened their houses from the beginning of the conflict until now to host people from Sudan,” he adds, describing how there are several initiatives close to the border and across the country greeting people with medical support, legal advice and food.
“At the same time we see another face to Egypt, of people acting with Sudanese people. This solidarity movement is really big.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.