Escaping War in Sudan Doesn’t Mean Survival in Egypt

This investigation reveals the harsh realities and challenges faced by Sudanese refugees in Egypt as they struggle to survive and legalize their status amid bureaucratic delays and legal hurdles.
Sara Elharith

Waiting in the street with two children, the youngest being Maryam, aged two, was not what the 33-year-old Sudanese woman Fatima Mohamed expected when she crossed the Egyptian-Sudanese border in an illegal smuggling journey. She had hoped it would be the last link to danger.

Fatima’s story mirrors that of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese displaced since the outbreak of armed conflict in mid-April 2023 between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces.

It began with the displacement from Khartoum to the safe city of Wad Madani in central Sudan’s Gezira state, which received half a million residents at the start of the conflict. She lost her husband on the way out of Khartoum. She told Zawia3, “We couldn’t find him. We tried calling him, but he didn’t answer, and we don’t know if he’s alive or dead.”

In Wad Madani, Fatima lived for ten months until the city entered the conflict circle. In December 2023, the Rapid Support Forces entered the city, prompting civilians, including Fatima, to flee in February.

This time, her displacement was toward the border. She joined a group of 16 people who embarked on an illegal smuggling journey to Egypt. Along the way, their car broke down, leaving them without food for 15 days.

Fatima arrived in Aswan at the beginning of March. Her entire 3,000 Egyptian pounds ran out during her journey. Despite running out of money, she had to come to the capital, Cairo, where the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is located. Being far from the sounds of bombings and war wasn’t enough; she also had to be far from the Egyptian security forces. She had to start the process of legalizing her status.

Legalization

Unlike the Syrians who came to Egypt during the Syrian war, Sudanese fleeing to Egypt since April 2023 found the decision to “regularize and legalize residency” for foreigners residing illegally.

Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly issued the decision at the end of August 2023, requiring a host of Egyptian nationality and payment of administrative fees equivalent to 1,000 US dollars within three months. The deadline was extended twice: in December for three months and in March for six months.

Although the decision did not specifically mention Sudanese, it was issued while Sudanese were making irregular journeys to Egypt. A report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Egypt on April 3 estimated the number of irregular arrivals at “about two-thirds of new arrivals (72%)” and the number of arrivals from Sudan between April 2023 and March 2024 at around 508,827 people, with Sudanese making up 500,000 of them.

The report attributes the high rate of irregular journeys to “entry restrictions in June 2023,” referring to the Egyptian government’s decision requiring certain categories to obtain an entry visa from June 10, 2023, onwards, which they previously did not need.

Mohamed Saeed, the refugee affairs official at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, told Zawia3 about the impact of the 1,000-dollar decision on irregular Sudanese migrants, saying, “There is no other solution for legalizing status except paying these amounts or registering with the UNHCR.”

This situation did not exist when Syrians registered with the UNHCR, according to Saeed, explaining that Syrians had an alternative option to register through a tourist residence permit.

This resulted in thousands of Sudanese flocking daily to the UNHCR office in the Seventh District of the Sixth of October City, as we observed during our visit to the office. We found overcrowding in the street and long registration appointment wait times.

 

At the UNHCR Gate

Inside a shaded waiting area divided into ten lanes, Fatima stood in long queues at the UNHCR office, waiting to reach a staff member who would set her an appointment to open a file and then obtain the status of “asylum seeker,” qualifying her for aid.

The UNHCR implements a pre-appointment mechanism for registration. The appointment is set either by phone or by attending in person, but setting an appointment by phone has become almost impossible, as Amr Osman (a pseudonym), a fourth-year engineering student who wished to remain anonymous, told us.

Osman said, “I downloaded an app for automatic redial and called 1,200 times, but the numbers were unavailable. I was determined to call because I knew from previous refugee experiences that attending the UNHCR in person was an ordeal.”

Among the hundreds waiting, both Fatima and Amr succeeded in reaching a UNHCR staff member who set them an appointment for September 22. Both expressed surprise at the late date.

While they shared their concerns about the appointment, Fatima, who lives on the street opposite the UNHCR office where we found her, said she would remain without any cash or housing support for six months since the UNHCR requires registration to access its services. Meanwhile, Amr would return to his new residence in the Faisal district, spending his waiting period without official papers, meaning no bank transfers, no phone line in his name, and not even the ability to leave his residence.

 

The overcrowding of Sudanese people in front of the UNHCR office in Sixth of October City.

Life in Waiting

Once a Sudanese person receives a paper setting their interview date, they fall under UNHCR protection, as the paper states that the bearer “has expressed a need for international protection,” and should therefore be protected from “forced return to their home country or any country where they would be at risk of indirect forced return.”

As a result, arresting the paper bearer as an illegal resident is not supposed to occur. However, this is not the case in reality, according to Nour Khalil, executive director of the Refugees Platform in Egypt.

He explained, “The Refugees Platform in Egypt has documented various deportation operations of Sudanese people from Egypt to Sudan through land border crossings in recent months.” He noted that the deportations included registered refugees, asylum seekers with UNHCR interview appointments, and people who crossed illegally and could not apply for asylum.

He pointed out that the Egyptian authorities’ methodology in these cases is that “deportation decisions are not handed over to people, nor are they allowed to appeal them. If they manage to do so, forced deportations are carried out before appeal procedures are completed.”

Thus, staying confined to the residence until the interview appointment and limiting movements to “buying food and essentials” became the only option for Amr Osman and thousands of Sudanese waiting for their interviews.

Darfur Lawyers Association Vice President Nafisa Hajar criticized the situation in her statements to Zawia3, saying: “Appointments have become a means of detaining asylum seekers for months, which contradicts the measures and rights guaranteed to protection seekers by the United Nations’ protection systems.”

Nour Khalil, executive director of the Refugees Platform, agreed, considering the detention of asylum seekers and irregular migrants by Egyptian authorities a daily violation of “international conventions and treaties that Egypt has signed and ratified, which bind Egypt internationally and obligate states to facilitate and enable people to seek asylum, and prohibit detention due to irregular entry and forced deportation.”

According to Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which Egypt has signed, “the Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened, enter or are present in their territory without authorization.”

The second part of the same article guarantees refugees the right to move freely and grants them “a reasonable period and all necessary facilities to obtain admission to another country.”

Besides the security surveillance and limited movement imposed on those waiting for registration, Khalil said that even if an asylum seeker avoids the authorities, they would live their waiting period without full services like “education, health, social security, vaccinations, and access to communication and internet services.”

Khalil stated that his platform had documented some people receiving appointments in 2025, meaning their holders would remain without security or services until next year.

A statement issued by the management of the Ashkeet land border crossing says, “Entry into the Arab Republic of Egypt will only be allowed after obtaining a prior entry visa from the Egyptian consulate in Wadi Halfa or the Port Sudan consulate.”

Post-Registration

The UNHCR queues and long appointment times are not the only issues in the asylum process. After registration, the next step involves contacting UNHCR’s partner organizations, 13 in total, operating in Greater Cairo, Aswan, the North Coast, and North Sinai. They provide various services, ranging from protection and legal support to mental health and psychosocial support, and healthcare, and education.

Despite the apparent organization, there have been delays, as recounted by the Sudanese Safaa Abu Bakr, who gave birth to her baby last April without any support to help her care for her newborn and five other children, the oldest being 12 years old.

Safaa arrived in Egypt on November 29, 2023, after an irregular crossing journey, and received her UNHCR card on January 3. Since then, she has been trying to get cash assistance to no avail.

She said that when she arrived in Cairo, she was in the early stages of pregnancy. “I went to the UNHCR, and they told me that any complaints are received after receiving the card,” she continued. “After receiving the card, I told them I was pregnant and couldn’t work, so they directed me to Caritas.” Caritas is one of the largest UNHCR partners and provides support in areas such as protection, healthcare, and psychosocial support.

On January 7, Safaa had an interview at Caritas to assess her eligibility for support, as cash assistance is limited to the most in need due to “limited resources and declining funding sources due to various international and regional crises and the increasing number of arrivals from Sudan,” according to Ibrahim Naji, general manager of strategic programs at Caritas.

Although Safaa believes she belongs to these eligible categories, it did not qualify her for support yet. She explained, “Some Sudanese have received assistance, but I have not received anything yet.”

Naji acknowledged the challenges in providing services, attributing them to “limited resources amid expanding needs.”

 

Mass Migration

Registering with the UNHCR, the first step toward establishing a stable life for those fleeing wars, has encountered many obstacles for Sudanese in Egypt. However, it is not the only issue. Since mid-last year, the Egyptian government’s decisions have been perceived as dealing with the refugee issue from a “financial benefit to the treasury” perspective rather than a “humanitarian or international obligation,” according to the report “Searching for Dollars: The Impact of the Economic Crisis on Refugees and Migrants in Egypt” by the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.

Additionally, Sudanese have faced societal rhetoric blaming them for price increases.

These factors have led to a “mass migration” of Sudanese from Egypt, as observed by Salah El-Din Mohamed, a community leader within the Sudanese refugee community in Egypt, in his statements to Zawia3.

He noted that “from January to March, more than 150 families traveled to Libya specifically,” pointing out that the situation there is better for refugees and “most of them left Egypt through smuggling.”

 

The UNHCR’s Response

The UNHCR office in Cairo does not deny the crisis of overcrowded Sudanese and registration issues but addresses it in its monthly reports from the perspective of its efforts against the growing numbers.

The September 2023 report estimated an increase in the overall registration process by 470%, noting an increase in its staff to cope with the numbers. According to the January report, there were 424 staff members.

To accommodate the numbers, the UNHCR worked on weekends according to the January report and improved infrastructure, expanded the information line, and communication channels, and studied with the Egyptian government “the possibility of issuing appointments online.”

Given his dealings with the UNHCR as a community leader among Sudanese refugees, Salah El-Din Mohamed believes that the UNHCR’s efforts to accommodate the problem are “insufficient.” He stated, “The change is slow and minimal. They used to receive about 200-300 families daily, and now they receive 400 families, but there is still overcrowding.”

He questioned the UNHCR’s announced figures regarding the number of individuals they receive daily, ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 people. He said, “About 500-600 people sit in front of the UNHCR gate, and they cannot register them, so how can they register 2,000 people daily?”

This is corroborated by Aya Khogali, a 20-year-old who arrived in Egypt in mid-March. She told us that despite spending a night in front of the UNHCR office to ensure entry the next morning, she failed. She explained, “They started working at eight in the morning and finished by nine, meaning they opened the booking window for only one hour.”

Salah El-Din described the UNHCR’s handling of the crisis as “poor,” attributing the reasons to the insufficient number of UNHCR staff compared to the number of asylum seekers. Reflecting on the pre-crisis period, he said that “slowness” was a fundamental characteristic of the UNHCR in Cairo, expressing dissatisfaction with their “slow response” to the detention of some cardholders by security, despite the protection provided by their cards.

He indicated that the problems between refugees and the UNHCR office in Cairo are longstanding and not exclusive to the current crisis, highlighting refugees’ suspicions about the disbursement of funding from donor countries and their complaints about the difficulty of communication, with “emergency numbers always busy.”

Darfur Lawyers Association Vice President Nafisa Hajar rejected the UNHCR’s narrative that attributes the crisis to increasing numbers and funding shortages. She stated that the association had prepared a complaint and intended to meet with Hanan Hamdan, the representative of the UNHCR Commissioner in Egypt and the Arab League. She confirmed, “We are keen to meet her personally to hold her accountable, and if that is not possible, we will resort to sending the complaint through the established means.”

Falling Short?

Between the UNHCR’s reports attributing the crisis to increasing numbers and Salah El-Din’s view that the refugee community sees the UNHCR as “falling short,” we attempted to contact the UNHCR for a response but received none by the time of writing this report. Therefore, we turned to their figures.

We compared the performance of the UNHCR office in Egypt from the start of the Sudanese conflict in April 2023 to May 2024 with the performance of the UNHCR office in Lebanon during the Syrian war in a similar period from April 2013 to May 2014, based on the monthly reports issued by both offices during the comparison period.

Total Registrations to Date

As of May 31, the number of registered Sudanese with the UNHCR was 367,147. The number of registered Sudanese before the Sudanese conflict began in March 2023 was 60,779, meaning the total number of registrations since the conflict began until the end of May was 306,368 Sudanese.

In comparison, the number of registered Syrians in Lebanon in April 2013 was around 343,843. By May 2014, this number had reached 1,030,413 Syrians, meaning the total number of registrations during the mentioned period was over 686,000 registered with the UNHCR.

The numbers indicate a lower registration rate in Cairo compared to Lebanon, which exceeded it by 380,202 registrations during the mentioned period. Thus, Sudanese migrants must either continue coming to Egypt under its government’s conditions and the UNHCR office’s performance or seek an alternative country.

Sara Elharith
An Egyptian journalist specializing in covering societal issues, with a particular focus on women's rights and refugee affairs.

Search