East Africa: Hard Borders and Little Aid – How Civilians Are Escaping Sudan’s Conflict
Argeen, Egypt and Juba, South Sudan — ‘I never imagined I would find myself in this situation.’
As the fighting between Sudan’s warring generals enters a third week, vast numbers of civilians are escaping to neighbouring states, braving exhausting and dangerous journeys and in some cases being prevented from even crossing.
There are no firm figures for how many people are leaving Sudan or moving to safer areas within the country. But the continued combat in the capital, Khartoum, and battles in other cities suggest it could run into the millions.
Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and South Sudan are among the countries that have received Sudanese – as well as their own returning nationals and residents of other states – since the fighting began on 15 April.
Each country has presented challenges to those fleeing: Borders have been shut, visas have been demanded, and days-long queues have formed at frontiers, further draining people who had already faced harrowing overland journeys through Sudan.
The lack of international aid in many places has also drawn criticism, even as locals try to fill the void. Aid groups are responding in Chad and South Sudan, though both countries have their own humanitarian problems and their resources are limited.
The New Humanitarian has been speaking with civilians and aid workers at different international borders over the past week. Here’s a country-by-country summary of the difficulties people are facing, and a look at the challenges ahead.
Egypt: Gruelling queues and visa demands
Thousands of Khartoum residents have been heading north to Egypt since the fighting began, braving military checkpoints and shelving out large sums of money for extortionately priced bus tickets.
But many have found their ordeals continuing at the main border crossings – Argeen and Qastal-Ashkit – where there is a lack of aid, long waits in scorching heat, and where men of a certain age are being turned back because they don’t have visas.
“This experience has taught me what it means to be a refugee,” a 40-year-old Sudanese woman told The New Humanitarian during a reporter’s visit to border areas over the weekend. “I never imagined I would find myself in this situation.”
Only a limited number of buses are allowed to cross into Egypt each day, which has meant thousands of people are backed up in Sudan without food, water, and shelter. Many have been waiting for days.
At least three elderly people needing healthcare have died while queueing, according to several Sudanese who spoke to The New Humanitarian after crossing into Egypt. They said no medical organisation was present on the Sudanese side of the border.
Ihsan Ahmed, a 35-year-old lawyer, fled to Egypt with her 12-year-old daughter, Menatalla, who suffers from cerebral palsy. She said she has been unable to source medicine since the war broke out, and that conditions at the border made things difficult.
“At Argeen, we stayed for two days in very poor conditions,” Ahmed said. “We sat on the floor in a filthy area. I couldn’t eat anything. As I injected my daughter with food, I was cautious not to let the syringe get contaminated.”
Sahar, a 30-year-old Sudanese woman who gave her first name only, said she had waited for 41 hours at Argeen with her four children. She said the youngest is 38 days old and doesn’t have a passport.
“I had to wait at the crossing from 6am on Thursday until 11pm on Friday to add her name to my passport and get it stamped by border officials,” Sahar told The New Humanitarian.
Like others, Sahar described distressing stories of the violence in Khartoum. She said her family slept on the floor as helicopters and gunfire hovered above their home. They made the decision to leave when houses in the city started being looted, she added.
Egypt’s foreign affairs ministry said on 27 April that more than 14,000 Sudanese have crossed the border since the conflict began, though that number is now likely to be far higher.
The 40-year-old woman – who travelled with her mother and three children – said she had been separated from her husband because of rules requiring men between the ages of 15 and 50 to obtain a visa before entering.
The woman, who asked not to be named, said her husband requested a visa on 24 April from the Egyptian consulate in the Sudanese city of Wadi Halfa – which is close to Argeen – but is still waiting for a response.
The woman said she doesn’t know what to do if the visa is not issued. Their plan had been for the husband to travel to Europe with his Schengen visa – the most common European visa – and then for him to try and bring the rest of the family over.
Many of those who crossed the border described running out of money after spending all of their cash on bus transport in Sudan. Tickets in Khartoum have reportedly fetched hundreds of dollars as demand has surged, and fares are increasing in Egypt too.
At Wadi Karkar bus station in the Egyptian city of Aswan, four hours by car from the border, some Sudanese families were sitting in tents trying to contact relatives in Cairo. They said they needed money to continue their journeys.
Sahar, the 30-year-old woman, said she had queued for hours to buy a local SIM card so that relatives in Cairo could transfer her funds. She said her Bank of Khartoum mobile money application was not functioning.
Also waiting at the bus station was Mayada, a 21-year-old Sudanese nurse. She said her 31-year-old brother – who managed to cross because he has a visa – was suffering from a fever and that no organisation was on hand to help.
Over the past two weeks, Sudanese have repeatedly questioned the absence of the UN and other international humanitarian organisations – both at the Egypt crossing and at other places where civilians need support.
The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said on 29 April that it was awaiting permission from Egyptian authorities to deploy to Argeen. The Egyptian Ministry of Health said it has sent medical clinics and ambulances to help the new arrivals.
(Reporting from Azza Guergues in Argeen and Aswan.)
Chad: ‘Catastrophic’ conditions for Darfur’s displaced
Chad sealed its borders with Sudan on 15 April when fighting erupted, but at least 20,000 people have still fled into the country from Sudan’s long-suffering western Darfur region. That number could soon grow to over 100,000, according to the UN.
Fighting has been intense in Darfur because it is the stronghold of the Rapid Support Forces, the paramilitary group battling Sudan’s army. The RSF descends from the Janjaweed militias that committed major abuses in Darfur during a conflict in the 2000s.
Jamal Abdullah Khamis Ishaq, a lawyer and rights activist from El Geneina in West Darfur state, said seven members of his family escaped to Chad on the first day of the conflict after militiamen, including men wearing RSF uniforms, burnt down his home.
Ishaq described the humanitarian situation in border villages as “catastrophic” and said he was concerned for his mentally unwell grandmother and physically sick mother. Both have both been sleeping out in the open, and lack food and drink, Ishaq said.
“I feel deeply concerned and sad about the tragic situation that my family is going through,” said Ishaq, who is planning to join them in the coming days. “Naturally, the people of Darfur are the ones who pay the biggest price for this war.”
Roch Souabedet, country director in Chad for HIAS, an international aid group that works with refugees, said some of the new arrivals from Darfur had escaped fresh fighting while others had left the region premeditatively.
“There are those who have already experienced violence, and those who tried to find their way before the situation becomes worse,” Souabedet said. “I think it is based on past experience – they know how this situation can be.”
Chad already hosts 600,000 refugees – the majority of them Darfuris who fled in the 2000s. Support programmes were already so underfunded that the UN recently warned of a complete suspension.
Souabedet said humanitarian agencies have been registering new arrivals and providing initial supplies. He said there are plans to move the Darfuris into existing refugee camps.
But Souabedet added that relief agencies had not planned for the influx, and that initial response efforts have been funded from existing pots, which he said were extremely limited.
“Funding is going down and down almost every year,” Souabedet said. “Refugees have been [in Chad] for 20 years and donors think there is no need. But the need is there.”
World Food Programme officials have said funding needs to be provided as soon as possible, especially as Chad’s wet season looms. Rain is expected to fall in a few weeks’ time and could imperil food deliveries to the border.
(Reporting from Philip Kleinfeld in Abidjan, with assistance from Ahmed Gouja in Darfur.)
South Sudan: Mass returns amid ‘donor fatigue’
More than 20,000 people have arrived in South Sudan so far, though that figure is a major underestimation, according to Charlotte Hallqvist, an external relations officer at UNHCR in South Sudan.
“Many more are rushing past our teams [stationed at the border] to reach transport, or are crossing at informal border points,” Hallqvist told The New Humanitarian in an interview on 30 April.
The majority of the arrivals are South Sudanese nationals who left their country when civil war broke out in 2013. Most returned via a road that connects Khartoum to Renk, a South Sudanese border town on the banks of the White Nile.
Many returnees are walking the route in a journey that takes several days. Others have arrived on trucks organised and paid for by a newly formed South Sudanese collective – the Citizens Call for Emergency Evacuations – that is crowdfunding its work.
“We must evacuate our people and bring them home where they can be physically safe,” said Akol Akuei Manhiem, the head of the collective. “We should step in as citizens of South Sudan to help our own people.”
UNHCR said it has set up a transit centre in Renk and is distributing basic relief items, including mats and plastic sheets. Yet the agency said services are limited and that Renk lacks the infrastructure to support a humanitarian response.
Some families have managed to return to the capital, Juba, after chartering a plane from a town near Renk. Among them was Anyiel Balebuk Malyiel, a 30-year-old aid worker and mother who endured several days of fighting in Khartoum with her infant son.
Speaking on arrival at Juba airport on 29 April, Malyiel said her priority was getting medicine for her sick child. “It was something above imagination,” she said of the fighting. “I was very scared and stressed, and up to now I can’t even sleep in the night.”
Thousands of other returnees remain stuck in the Renk transit centre, said Hallqvist, who is currently in the town. She said onward travel is constrained by bad roads, costly transport, and because some people just don’t have a plan for where to go.
South Sudan’s humanitarian affairs minister said the government is considering using barges to transport people downriver from Renk. But Hallqvist said conversations on this are still at an early stage.
The UN is planning for 125,000 returnees, though that number could rise given that more than 800,000 South Sudanese reside in Sudan. Many live in camps and in major cities like Khartoum.
Moi Santino Adari of Community Aid for Relief and Development, a national NGO, said he was concerned about South Sudan’s capacity to receive returnees, especially as the country is suffering its own “internal humanitarian crisis”.
A peace deal signed in 2018 has not ended violence in the country – in some places it has fanned it – and climate shocks and economic breakdown have further impacted people. Three quarters of the population is currently in need of aid.
“With an expected increase in returnees and refugees from Sudan, humanitarian agencies are seriously concerned about that number, which could be overwhelming,” said Adari.
Sourcing funds to help the returnees will be a challenge, said William Ngabonziza, who leads the Humanitarian Development Consortium (HDC), a South Sudanese aid agency that is monitoring the new arrivals.
“The country is facing what they call donor fatigue,” said Ngabonziza. “In 2023, the money that is coming is reduced, and when you talk to donors, they say, ‘no, no, there are many competing crises in the world’.”
Majok Majok, a 57-year-old returnee, said he faces the challenge of starting a new life. Majok had lived as a refugee in Khartoum for many years but described the city as “hell”.
“I will rest and then see what I will do for my life here,” he told The New Humanitarian from Juba airport. “I just prefer to rebuild my life in South Sudan and pray we don’t witness fighting here again.”
Manhiem from the Citizens Call for Emergency Evacuations said his priority was helping more South Sudanese return home. “Many are still remaining there,” he said, referring to Khartoum. “They are in dire need of help from the people of South Sudan.”
(Reporting from Okech Francis in Juba.)
Central African Republic, Ethiopia, South Arabia: Obstacles abound
Almost 13,000 Sudanese have crossed the border from Darfur into northeastern Central African Republic, where they are living in spontaneous settlements in an isolated area with few aid groups, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination agency, OCHA.
This part of CAR was already experiencing high levels of food insecurity prior to the Sudan unrest. The added disruption of cross-border trade due to events in Sudan has caused a “sharp increase in the price of basic commodities”, OCHA said.
Sudanese and foreign nationals have also fled to Sudan’s coastal city of Port Sudan. From there, many have been trying to board Saudi Arabian warships crossing the Red Sea to Jeddah.
This evacuation route is reportedly available to residents of Saudi Arabia, foreign nationals, and Sudanese with valid visas, but people on the ground have said the process and rules are unclear.
Many are sleeping rough on Port Sudan’s waterfront in extreme heat, with local communities acting as first responders. Aid groups have been largely absent over the past two weeks, though some relief supplies are now arriving.
Thousands of people of different nationalities are also arriving in Ethiopia, according to the UN. News reports and social media postings suggest there are long delays, visa demands, and cases of Sudanese being denied entrance.
(Reporting from Philip Kleinfeld in Abidjan.)
Edited by Andrew Gully.
Azza Guergues, Multimedia journalist based in Cairo
Okech Francis, Freelance journalist covering South Sudan
Philip Kleinfeld, Correspondent and Editor, Africa