(Beirut) – The Egyptian government’s decision in June 2023 to require all Sudanese to obtain visas to enter Egypt has reduced access to safety for women, children, and older people fleeing the ongoing conflict in Sudan, Human Rights Watch said today. The impact of the new rule, building on a prior rule that already required Sudanese males ages 16 to 49 to obtain a visa, and its implementation without ensuring the speedy processing of visas, violates international standards by creating unreasonable and life-threatening delays in processing asylum seekers.
Egyptian authorities have claimed the new entry visa rule would reduce visa forgery. As of late June, thousands of displaced people remained stranded in dire humanitarian conditions as they attempted to obtain an entry visa from the Egyptian consulate in Wadi Halfa, a Sudanese town near the Egyptian border. Some have been compelled to wait up to a month as they struggled to secure food, accommodation, and health care.
“The need to combat visa forgery does not justify Egypt denying or delaying entry to people fleeing Sudan’s devastating conflict,” said Amr Magdi, senior Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Egyptian government should rescind its entry visa rule for Sudanese nationals during the current crisis, permit them swift entry, and facilitate access to asylum procedures or treat them as the refugees most if not all are.”
Since the start of hostilities in Sudan in April, over 2.7 million Sudanese have been displaced – 2.2 million within Sudan, and nearly 500,000 to surrounding countries. Egypt has received over 250,000 Sudanese, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). This is in addition to the estimated two to five million Sudanese in Egypt before the conflict. UNHCR, which registers asylum seekers and determines refugee status on behalf of the government, reported that 77,000 Sudanese had been registered as refugees or asylum seekers as of June.
Between May and June, Human Rights Watch interviewed five Sudanese nationals by phone – one man and four women, all unregistered asylum seekers – who had entered Egypt in May, before the new visa rules; two Sudanese men in Wadi Halfa requesting an Egyptian entry visa in May and June; and three Sudanese community leaders in Egypt, based in Cairo and Giza.
Mohamed Ibrahim, a 21-year-old Sudanese engineering student, said he managed to extend his expired passport at the Sudanese immigration office in Wadi Halfa in May, but the Egyptian consulate refused his document, leaving him stranded there after other family members had entered Egypt. He is still waiting. He said that he cannot obtain a new passport because the main immigration office in Khartoum has stopped functioning amid the conflict.
Under Egypt’s current rules, Sudanese can request an entry visa at two Egyptian consulates, in Wadi Halfa and Port Sudan, in eastern Sudan. Hundreds or thousands of Sudanese have flooded both cities requesting visas, straining the consulates’ capacity, and resulting in unusually long waiting periods for visas, according to Dabanga, an independent Sudanese news and information broadcaster. In late May, the Port Sudan consulate was reportedly issuing only 20 visas per day.
On June 10, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated that Egypt had introduced new regulations requiring all Sudanese nationals to obtain entry visas to Egypt, including women, children, and older men, whom the authorities had previously allowed to enter without a visa. The ministry justified the requirements by claiming it needed to prevent “illegal activities by individuals and groups on the Sudanese side of the border, who forged entry visas for profit.”
As of June 16, the new visa rules had forced thousands of civilians, including children, many of whom came all the way from Khartoum, the capital, to remain stranded in extremely hot weather at Egypt-Sudan border crossings, media reported. Egypt made no apparent attempt to increase visa processing resources to ensure fast treatment of Sudanese. Two people who are requesting a visa at the consulate in Wadi Halfa told Human Rights Watch that on some days the consulate operates only for four hours, making it extremely difficult for applicants to hand over their passports.
Even before Egypt expanded the visa rule, the previous rule was blocking access to protection for men and boys, and separating many from family members who managed to cross into Egypt without a visa.
Then, in May, Egyptian authorities began to tighten and narrow the requirements. Mada Masr, an independent Egypt-based media outlet, reported that the authorities no longer accepted passports with extended validity periods or temporary travel documents for visa applications, and stopped recognizing children added to their parents’ passports.
As a result, many displaced Sudanese who have lost their passports or are unable to renew them during the war cannot request Egyptian visas. These excessive restrictions, alongside the newer visa rules, have effectively left thousands of displaced Sudanese unable to get international protection.
Ibrahim said that many people waiting for visas sleep on the streets, in mosques, or schools, amid skyrocketing accommodation prices. The sole hospital in Wadi Halfa is unable to meet the medical needs of the large number of people, and the town has started experiencing shortages in essential medical supplies and medicines, such as insulin, he said.
On May 5, UNHCR urged all countries to allow access to their territories without discrimination for civilians feeling Sudan, including people who don’t have their identity documents. UNHCR also advised countries that people who fled Sudan due to the conflict may be in need of international refugee protection.
Refusing entry to asylum seekers at the border or at any point of entry violates the right to seek asylum under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Forcing Sudanese back to Sudan most likely also violates the principle of nonrefoulement under the 1951 UN and 1969 Organisation of African Unity(OAU) refugee conventions and the 1969 Convention Against Torture, to which Egypt is a party.
The principle of nonrefoulement prohibits governments from forcibly returning a person to a country where they are at risk of persecution, torture, or other irreparable harm. Under the African refugee convention, a refugee would include anyone who is forced to seek refuge outside their home country due to ‘events seriously disturbing public order.’
The European Union is a major donor to Egypt, providing financial support to assist refugees and asylum seekers in the country, as well as to stem irregular migration to and through Egypt – two goals that can be at odds. People fleeing their countries to seek international protection may be forced to move irregularly, or without adequate documentation, and should not be penalized or pushed back for doing so under the 1951 Refugee Convention. However, unless human rights due diligence is conducted, EU funding dedicated to border control risks assisting Egypt to continue restricting entry from Sudan or to return Sudanese with irregular legal status, despite the risks people face in Sudan.
In October 2022, the EU approved €80 million in funding for Egypt to enhance the operational capacity of Egypt’s coast and border guards to manage migration flows. Over the past few years, EU-Egypt border management cooperation has lacked a comprehensive human rights monitoring mechanism, EuroMed Rights has reported.
In 2023, the EU allocated €5 million in humanitarian aid for education, basic needs, and protection for the general refugee population in Egypt, in addition to €20 million pledged specifically for new arrivals from Sudan, covering food, water, sanitation, and hygiene items.
The United States, another donor, announced it will provide US$6 million for Egypt to meet increased humanitarian needs resulting from the ongoing crisis in Sudan.
“Egypt’s donors and supporters should ensure that Egypt respects people’s right to seek asylum from the conflict in Sudan and receives adequate support to meet their basic needs once they cross into the country,” Magdi said.