Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: News

Syrians trapped in Sudan turning to smugglers to escape

Syrians in Sudan fear returning home, but their only other option is a dangerous smuggling route

Leon Spring Raed Al Halabi
26 June 2023, 8.39am

Internally displaced people in Port Sudan.


Photo provided by the authors. CC (by-nc)

Between 60,000 and 90,000 Syrian citizens are currently trapped by armed conflict in Sudan after the promise of free passage back to Syria failed to materialise. Reports estimate that since fighting broke out between the Sudanese army and a paramilitary group two months ago, more than 700 people have died and over one million people have been internally displaced in the northeast African country.

Ahmed D., 41, from Aleppo, is one of the many Syrians who had settled in Sudan. “I arrived in Khartoum in February 2018,” he said. “I stayed in Syria until finding work and the means to [support] my family became really impossible.”

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Sudan has maintained easier entry requirements for Syrians than other countries in the region. Ahmed moved to Khartoum when a former colleague offered him a job in a textile factory. The work allowed him to send money back home, making his family one of thousands across Syria that use remittances from abroad as a lifeline.

Safety comes at a price

When the fighting in Khartoum broke out in mid-April, Ahmed was not expecting it to have such devastating consequences. “The fighting I’ve seen in Khartoum was so different to what I witnessed in Syria,” he said. “It erupted all of a sudden all over the city. Nowhere was safe anymore. It was so difficult to recognise who is on which side, who is fighting who. There are no front lines and the fighting is everywhere.”

With much of the clashes concentrated in urban areas, civilians have been seeking refuge in Port Sudan, the country’s main port on the Red Sea. Some hope to be evacuated by boat to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Others have fled over land borders to cities like Al Kassala, on the border with Eritrea, and Wadi Haifa, on the border with Egypt. But for many, reaching somewhere safe is proving difficult – and unaffordable.

Ahmed, a Syrian friend of his from Khartoum, and two others managed to convince a taxi driver to take them to Port Sudan shortly after the fighting started. “It was impossible to find bus tickets, so paying a taxi was our only option,” said Ahmed. The 850km drive cost $400 each. “It took us 20 hours to get there, because there are over 30 checkpoints on the way,” he said. “We were stopped at every single one of them.”

[If you don’t pay the bribe,] you might buy the ticket but never get to board the plane.

Before the conflict broke out, the price for a bus ticket from Khartoum to Port Sudan was 15,000 Sudanese pounds, the equivalent of $25. This rose ten-fold after the first shots were fired. “Today the cost of a ticket to Port Sudan is around $250,” said Ahmed. “If you are lucky to find a bus with available tickets.”

The huge price hikes for transport are largely due to a lack of available fuel. Diesel and gasoline can’t be legally purchased anymore, since all petrol stations in Khartoum were closed to civilians when conflict broke out. Fuel is only available on the black market at five times the normal price.

The problems, however, don’t stop at the pump. Across Sudan, civilians also face acute shortages of water, food and housing. “The price for basic needs like bread and water are so high that most people cannot afford them,” said Ahmed. Even in Port Sudan, the lack of humanitarian aid means that many people sheltering there are homeless. “I spent over $1000 in the month I was in Port Sudan, and I was just living on the street,” Ahmed said.

Evacuation of Syrians mired by bribes and illegality

Yahyia, 38, moved from Damascus to Khartoum in 2016 to work in a plastics factory. He used to earn $800 a month, half of which he sent back home to his family in Syria. When fighting broke out in Khartoum, he paid $350 to a minibus driver for a ride to Port Sudan. “It is really hard to witness how other foreigners get easily evacuated while Syrians are left waiting for some miracle to happen,” Yahyia said.

Many foreign governments have been using Port Sudan as an evacuation point for their citizens. Yahyia said his colleagues from Pakistan and Turkey were able to leave almost immediately. At the beginning of May, Syria said it would do the same using the private Syrian airline, Cham Wings. The programme was to see four to five repatriation flights a week from Port Sudan to Damascus, free of charge to passengers.

According to Ahmed, Yahyia and others interviewed in Port Sudan, the reality has been very different. Despite being promised free transport, Ahmed said his family was only able to secure his ticket after paying $1,590. They first had to go to the main Cham Wings office in Damascus and book a flight for the price of $590. They were then asked to pay a bribe of $1000 to put his name on the actual passenger list.

Internally displaced people sleeping on the carpets inside a mosque in Port Sudan

IDPs shelter in a mosque in Port Sudan


Provided by authors. CC (by-nc)

During the first week of the conflict, Yahiya said he tried reaching the Syrian embassy to enquire about repatriation flights. “I tried calling them every day after hearing that our government was going to help evacuate Syrians. No one responded to my calls,” he said. Like Ahmed, Yahyia said he was only able to leave Port Sudan after family members had bought a ticket and paid bribes back in Syria.

“Cham Wings and the regime are taking advantage of the situation and establishing discretional prices for the flight tickets according to the people buying them,” said Ahmed. “Bribes range from $500 to $1000 … [and if you don’t pay] you might buy the ticket but never get to board the plane.”

This is not the first time Cham Wings has been accused of illegal or exploitative practices. In 2021, the company was sanctioned by the EU in response to claims that it was facilitating the smuggling of Syrians to Belarus. Those sanctions have now been lifted, but in 2023 the airline was again accused of working with smugglers – this time by flying Bangladeshi migrants from Syria to Libya so they could attempt the dangerous boat crossing to Europe.

When it’s not safe at home either

Ahmed arrived in Damascus on a flight with over 190 other Syrians. While going through controls, he said that airport police stopped more than 10 men who were wanted by the regime for missing their compulsory military service. They were given 15 days to present themselves for military service in their local governorates, he said.

“Many Syrians still stuck in Port Sudan are afraid of taking a plane back, even if they can afford to pay the bribes… and even if the regime doesn’t consider them a political opponent,” said Ahmed. “This is because of the compulsory military service”.

In addition to the more obvious risks, military service in Syria can also be indefinite. “Some people are enrolled for more than eight years and others for less, but it is not clear how long military service can be,” said Ahmed. He also described conscription as “basically forced labour,” since those serving are paid a monthly salary of 100,000 Syrian pounds, around $11.

“I am lucky. I had already been given leave by the military service in Syria, and I was not part of opposition groups or wanted by the regime,” said Ahmed. Since arriving back in Syria, Ahmed has been searching for a job, but to no success. He is also in debt to his family members for the cost of the ticket that got him out of Sudan. “I am thinking of moving to Turkey,” he said. “Staying in Syria and finding decent work here is not an option.”

He worries about many of his friends and colleagues who are still stuck in Sudan. But he knows that many cannot return to Syria for fear of either being jailed or enrolled in the military. In their case, making use of the dangerous smuggling routes out of Sudan to get to a third country may be the most viable option.

According to sources interviewed in Port Sudan who preferred to remain anonymous, smugglers are already setting up routes to reach Egypt by sea from Port Sudan, and by land from Wadi Halfa. Costs of smuggling currently range between $1000 and $2000 per person, with sea routes as the pricier option. They will not lack customers – many are just waiting for news of the first safe arrivals via the new routes. For Syrians trapped between conflict in Sudan and conflict at home, a dangerous journey may be the only way out.

The names of people interviewed in this article are pseudonyms used to protect their identity against fear of retaliation by authorities in Syria.

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