Thursday, December 9

Fleeing Syrians mourn the loss of their last refuge in Sudan | Syria

When Syrian government troops seized Mahmoud al-Ahmad’s hometown, he spent his savings and risked his life to be smuggled across the Syrian border into Turkey. His planned destination was Khartoum, where a former boss had opened a carpet factory and offered him a job.

The only part of the trip that hadn’t bothered him was the flight from Turkey to Sudan. Until the end of last year, it was the only country in the world to which Syrians could travel without a visa, a unique refuge for those seeking a new life away from their country and its brutal civil war.

Now the conflict ends passed the bleak milestone of its 10th anniversary, and even that shelter has been taken away. An abrupt reversal of visa policy in December and the Sudanese government’s decision to review all citizenships granted in the past two decades have left Syrians stranded inside and outside the country. Thousands of Syrians had obtained Sudanese citizenship and hundreds of thousands more had started a new life there.

“You cannot imagine how desperate and disappointed I was when I found out about the decision,” Ahmad said, in a phone call from Idlib, in northern Syria. He had just had his documents in order for the flight when the new policy was announced, leaving him no choice but to return to life as a refugee within his own country.

“I put my life in danger at the border and paid a lot of money for the smuggler and to renew my passport, in addition to the high living expenses in Turkey, to no avail.”

Sudan’s Syrian population increased during the war, and welcoming policies on education and work added to the attractions of visa-free travel. The most recent UN figures put the official number of Syrian refugees at around 100,000. Informal estimates are more than double that number.

Some moved to start a new life, others were seeking to escape mandatory military service in the military known for its brutality and high casualty rates. A decade after the first peaceful uprisings against the Syrian regime, which turned into a revolution and a civil war, the fighting continues and the casualty rate is high.

However, Syrian citizens can bypass the service by paying a fine after at least one year living outside the country.

Sudan even became a wedding center for Syrian families within the country and members of the diaspora, as it is one of the few places that can be easily reached by all sides. A woman told the Observer His ceremony had been put on hold while he waited for the visa he now needs to travel, after a year of pandemic-related delays.

“Now I have to wait again and I don’t know how long because of the visa issue,” he said from Damascus. “They have not yet responded to my visa application and I am afraid it could take a long time to issue it.”

A Syrian government soldier with rifle on soldier in the foreground, with a truckload of troops and a motorcycle escort behind.
Many refugees from Syria are trying to avoid recruitment into the forces of the Assad regime. Photograph: Delil Souleiman / AFP / Getty Images

The Sudanese government also signaled a crackdown on the nationalization of foreigners, revoking 3,500 passports that it said had been obtained illegally over the past 30 years. Many of those who have been stripped of Sudanese citizenship were originally Syrian.

Mohamed Shukrey, a 22-year-old restaurant worker in one of Khartoum’s affluent neighborhoods, said his application for Sudanese citizenship has been pending for three years. Shukrey fled the Syrian city of Raqqa at just 17 years old, after his father and half-siblings disappeared.

“Now I feel like I’m in prison: the only difference between a real prison and here is that I have a bigger space to walk,” he said.

“I cannot go anywhere from Sudan with Syrian papers, and I cannot return home because I will be forced to do military service to fight forever for the regime.”

Syrian refugees are denied entry to most Arab countries with their own passports, with many pretending to use a Sudanese passport to travel to the Gulf states in search of work. Now some are considering working illegally in Egypt, where they face deportation to Syria if caught, or even more dangerous options.

Mohamed Khalid, who arrived in Sudan a month before the visa decision took effect, has been considering trying to reach Europe via the Libyan desert and then the Mediterranean, now that he is unlikely to obtain legal residency. But Sudan’s own economic crisis, amid the lockdown, political turmoil and inflation that has soared more than 200%, means it is difficult to raise the funds to travel.

“The smuggling route to Europe came to mind,” said the 20-year-old. But he sends money from his meager 18,000 Sudanese pound (£ 34) monthly salary to support his mother and siblings in Syria, making it “too expensive.”

For Adham Aldham, a 29-year-old Syrian refugee and law school graduate in Sudan, the ban means a permanent separation from his family, including his mother, who is sick with cancer. He cannot return home due to the risk of being recruited and they can no longer visit him. “My mother cannot come to Sudan and I cannot go back to Syria to see her.”

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