When Syrian government troops seized Mahmoud al-Ahmad’s home town, he spent his savings and risked his life getting smuggled over the Syrian border into Turkey. His planned destination was Khartoum, where a former boss had opened a carpet factory and offered him work.
The only part of the journey he hadn’t worried about was the flight from Turkey to Sudan. Until the end of last year it was the only country in the world that Syrians could travel to without a visa, a unique haven for those seeking a new life away from their country and its brutal civil war.
Now the conflict has just passed the bleak landmark of its 10th anniversary, and even that refuge has been taken away. An abrupt reversal of the visa policy in December, and a decision by Sudan’s government to review all citizenships handed out over the last two decades, have left Syrians stranded inside the country and beyond. Thousands of Syrians had taken Sudanese citizenship and hundreds of thousands more had started a new life there.
“You can’t imagine how desperate and disappointed I was when I heard about the decision,” Ahmad said, in a phone call from Idlib in northern Syria. He had just got 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 inside his own country.
“I endangered my life on the border and paid lots of money for the smuggler and to renew my passport, in addition to the high living expenses in Turkey, without any result.”
Sudan’s Syrian population swelled during the war, with welcoming policies on education and work adding to the attractions of visa-free travel. The most recent UN figures put the official numbers of Syrian refugees at around 100,000. Informal estimates are more than twice that number.
Some moved to start a new life, others were looking to escape compulsory military service in armed forces known for brutality and a high casualty rate. A decade after the first peaceful uprisings against the Syrian regime, which spiralled into revolution and civil war, fighting continues and the casualty rate is high.
Syrian citizens are allowed to sidestep service, by paying a fine, after at least a year living outside the country, however.
Sudan even became a hub for weddings between Syrian families inside the country and members of the diaspora, as one of the few places all sides could easily reach. One woman told the Observer her ceremony had been put on hold while she waited for the visa she now requires to travel, after a year of pandemic-related delays.
“Now I have to wait again and I don’t know until when because of the visa thing,” she said from Damascus. “They haven’t responded to my visa application yet, and I am afraid it might take a long time to be issued.”
The Sudanese government also signalled a clampdown on nationalisation of foreigners, revoking 3,500 passports it said had been obtained illegally over the past 30 years. Many who have been stripped of Sudanese citizenship were originally Syrians.
Mohamed Shukrey, a 22-year-old restaurant worker in one of Khartoum’s affluent neighbourhoods, said that his application for Sudanese citizenship has been pending for three years. Shukrey fled the Syrian city of Raqqa aged just 17, after his father and half-siblings disappeared.
“I now feel I am in prison: the only difference between an actual prison and here is that I have a bigger space to walk around,” he said.
“I can’t leave Sudan for anywhere with Syrian papers, and I cannot go back home because I will be forced into military service to fight forever for the regime”.
Syrian refugees are denied entry to most Arab countries on their own passports, and many aimed to use a Sudanese passport to travel to Gulf states in search of work. Now some are considering working illegally in Egypt, where they face deportation back to Syria if caught, or even more dangerous options.
Mohamed Khalid, who arrived in Sudan a month before the visa decision came into effect, has been considering trying to reach Europe across the Libyan desert and then the Mediterranean, now that he is unlikely to secure legal residency. But Sudan’s own economic crisis, amid lockdown, political upheaval and inflation that has soared over 200%, means it is hard to gather the funds for travel.
“The smuggling route to Europe came to my mind,” the 20-year-old said. But he sends money from his meagre 18,000 Sudanese pound (£34) monthly salary to support his mother and siblings in Syria, making it “just 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 ill with cancer. He cannot return home because of the risk of conscription and they can no longer visit. “My mother cannot come to Sudan and I can’t go back to Syria to see her.”