The New Lost Boys of Sudan

This is part of POMEPS Studies 36: Youth Politics in the Middle East and North Africa. Download the full PDF here.

Sarah A Tobin, CMI

Currently, around seven million people are affected by migration and displacement to, from, and through Sudan. Nearly one million people are seeking refuge inside Sudan’s borders from neighboring and regional countries in conflict, both inside the 14 refugee camps and in numerous urban areas and rural settlements. Another two million Sudanese have been displaced within the country as IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) due to the genocide in Darfur and independence of South Sudan.

Over 1.7 million Sudanese have sought protection outside the country’s borders, including the 20,000 well-known “Lost Boys of Sudan” of the 1980s and 1990s. The term, the “Lost Boys of Sudan” was famously coined after the more than 20,000 Nuer and Dinka Sudanese orphans and youth trekked by foot to refugee camps of Ethiopia during the second Sudanese civil war of the late 1980s and 1990s. The United States resettled approximately 4,000 of these refugees, who have been featured in a number of prominent films and television shows.

It may be surprising to discover that among the refugees living in Sudan are an estimated 250,000 Syrians, primarily in the Khartoum area. Up to 90 percent of them are believed to be young men between ages 20 and 30. They live and work all over in the city of Khartoum, and have congregated north of the downtown area in a suburb called Bahri Kfouri and east in an area called Riyadh. As Syria is now entering its eighth year of conflict, the questions and concerns about Syrian refugees and displacement endure.

Why Sudan?

Sudan has a long history of welcoming refugees. For over 30 years, Sudan has hosted refugees from Uganda, Chad, Ethiopia, Congo, and Eritrea with a “generous” refugee policy that aims to be peaceful and humanitarian, abides by non-refoulment, and pushes the goal of self-sustaining livelihoods for the refugees. In addition, porous borders have made more intensive governance regimes for refugees difficult, if not impossible.

Sudan has also been extremely welcoming of Syrians: university and education at all levels are available to Syrians for the same fees as locals. Syrians are able to work, start businesses, and access health care in all the same ways as the Sudanese. Costs to open and operate new businesses are relatively low, and access to new markets is relatively open. Syrian airlines still run nearly daily flights to Khartoum from Damascus. Syrians can apply for Sudanese passports after six months in-country and typically receive one within a few months. This is especially astounding considering the hefty obstacles they have encountered in most other countries, including Lebanon and Egypt. Syrians I interviewed reported feeling relatively well-treated in Khartoum and reported frequently occupying higher socio-economic levels in society.

There are other pragmatic issues at play that make Sudan appealing for Syrians: in 2013, Egypt imposed visa restrictions on Syrians, then Jordan and Lebanon in 2014, and one year later Turkey. Sudan is currently the only country in the worldthat allows Syrians to enter without a visa; Syrians now joke that the only place they can enter with their passports is heaven.

That does not mean it is easy for Syrians in Khartoum. Similar to life for Sudanese, the economy is poor, inflation is on the rise, rents and costs for basic items are high relative to salaries, and jobs can be scarce, even for those with a university education. However, some challenges are specific for Syrians: the weather is much, much hotter than in Syria; they miss a robust middle class and cosmopolitan life of Syria; the Arabic can contain African dialects and words making it different enough that some can struggle to communicate, and most Syrians that I spoke with found Sudanese national understandings of Islam to be quite narrow and the population to be – as those I interviewed often said – “closed-minded.” Expectations for gendered spaces are higher in Khartoum than in much of pre-war urban Syria, alcohol is illegal, and the religious diversity of Syria is one for which Syrians I interviewed spoke nostalgically. As one said, “This is Africa, not the Middle East.”

Furthermore, as the majority of Syrians in Sudan do not register with UNHCR, they are not fully understood as “refugees,” instead occupying an ambiguous space as “guests” or “visitors.” While Syrians in Sudan do have the option to register with UNHCR and become registered refugees and recipients of aid, to do so requires that they first register as such with the Sudanese government. One UNHCR official in Khartoum reported that, as of July 2018, there were only 12,433 registered Syrian refugees in Sudan, of whom 10% were single men. Conscientious objectors do not qualify for asylum. Furthermore, as one UNHCR official I interviewed reported, once registered with the UN Syrians lose much of their mobility and freedoms in Sudan as their asylum claims are processed. Thus, most of the Syrians I spoke with preferred not to register and instead maintain their freedoms of movement, despite the fact that there is then no monthly support for them.  

Who are these Syrian refugee men?

Some of the Syrians from wealthier backgrounds and means have come to Sudan with the aims of entrepreneurialism. Business owners and others with some capital for investment have come to Sudan opening restaurants and bakeries and to work in specialized craft and trade industries. Other Syrians – and the majority of those that I spoke with – were young, educated, and inexperienced, but generally with enough financial means to leave Syria (rather than move to an IDP or refugee camp) although not enough to open new businesses. They were distinctly middle-class young men. Primarily, they had come to Sudan because they were subject to conscription in Assad’s army because they came of age at exactly the wrong time.

I interviewed a young man named Mohammed who typified the kind of trajectory experienced by many – if not most – of these young Syrian refugees in Sudan. Born in 1994, Mohammed was 16 when the crisis started in Syria in 2011. He finished high school and then attended university, deferring his conscripted military service as long as he was enrolled. Mohammed followed his parents’ advice and pursued mechanical and electrical engineering.

Mohammed detailed the first time that he became embroiled in the war. As he was walking to university just outside Damascus, he and his friends were kidnapped by a military officer and taken to be tortured in a nearby village. The kidnapper, he said, had a son being held by opposition forces. The kidnapper used Mohammed and several of his friends as ransom. Twenty days and an unknown number and types of unspeakable acts later, Mohammed and his friends were released. The kidnapper got the money, and then used it to pay for the ransom for his own son. “They’re in Turkey now. The kidnapper got to Turkey. His son got out,” he explained. 

As he retold the event, Mohammed’s demeanor changed. He spoke more softly; he glossed the hardest events. The series of scars on his arms told the story of nearly three weeks of torture and burns, and he self-consciously scratched his collar bone under his polo shirt with each mention of his time detained. 

I couldn’t go back after that. I couldn’t go back to university. I mean, I did. I sat in class. I wrote the papers. But I just got by for two or three years so that I didn’t have to join the army. I actually became interested in studying psychology instead. But, I only had a year of university left. By then it was too late.

And it was too late in other ways. Through circumstances of time and global politics, the ability to go to or through a neighboring Middle Eastern country that was once possible in 2013 or 2014 was no more. The ability to try one’s luck across the Mediterranean via Turkey of 2015 was no more. By 2017, the Jordanian border was closed. The Lebanese border was closed. Mohammed was denied a visa to Turkey, and later denied one to the United Arab Emirates. Mohammed had three options: 1) find and pay a smuggler for a forged document and pathway out of the country; 2) stay and be conscripted by Assad’s army; or 3) pay the $250 for a one-way ticket to Sudan. He opted for Sudan.

By coming of age at this time, Mohammed, along with the hundreds of thousands of other Syrians who were too late to take advantage of prior options, now lives in a state of limbo: trying to find work in a poor economy; unable to find a Syrian wife; and struggling with the physical and psychological scars of teenage years and a young adulthood spent in a warzone. Because every other country in the world has closed off possibilities of his entry without a visa, there is simply nowhere else for him to legally go. He said, “I feel like my life is completely on hold.”  

Mohammed has avoided getting involved in Sudanese politics and actively avoids the protests. “It’s like bad luck follows me everywhere. All of us,” his arm sweeps across a street lined with Syrian shops with natal place-names like Aleppo Halawayat or Dukaan Homs, “have had this bad luck follow us. Why can’t we get away from it?”

Political Disengagement and the “Deserving Refugee” 

Within the context of a highly politically-engaged Middle East, it may be surprising that Syrian men in Sudan are not more active in local politics and the Sudanese protests; they would readily benefit from an improved economy and relaxation of political oppression just as their Sudanese neighbors. Rather, the Syrians are largely letting more traditional forms of political engagement in this authoritarian context pass them by. The lack of political engagement for Syrians in Sudan is part of a larger trajectory – they avoided being pulled into the Syrian war by completing their education and avoided conscription by moving to Sudan. Still, the lack of engagement in Sudanese politics by Syrians raises an interesting question as to who “gets” to be political and who does not in conditions of displacement. 

For Syrians in Sudan, the pressures to engage politically are great. Not only are they experiencing a wider context that is protesting daily, they are subject to international demands for Syrians – and especially young male Syrians – to reflect a specific kind of political subjectivity on the global scale, to “perform” their refugeedom and demonstrate again and again their vulnerability and needs for protection. International agencies and governments look to political agency as a particular marker of refugee “deservedness” and “worthiness”.

The challenges experienced by outsiders assessing the “deservedness” of these Syrians in Sudan was explained in an interview I conducted of Embassy officials from a Western European country in Khartoum. One described his frustration saying, 

We process resettlement requests from amongst the Syrians here in Khartoum. We see a number of different cases, and vulnerable Syrians are referred to us for resettlement, but many are young men who just don’t want to go back to Syria; they don’t want to fight for their country. We now also have the ability to process ‘family reunification’ applications in the Embassy here. So the Syrian man in Khartoum who has been granted asylum to [European country] will meet his wife and children who fly in from Damascus. They submit their application together, then the wife and children return to Syria, and the man stays here in Khartoum until their case is settled. I don’t understand it – he doesn’t want to go back [to Syria] and he doesn’t want to go on [to European country]? Isn’t that the point? If Syria is a war zone and we are supposed to be taking them in for their protection, how can anyone say these people are “refugees”?

Citizenship Aims and the Long Term

Syrians in Sudan thus live in a paradox of political (dis)engagement. While experiencing pressures to engage politically as a marker of their deservedness, they also feel the distinct pressures of living under precarity in the midst of tremendous political upheaval once again. One way that some Syrians have tried to resolve this paradox is by applying for Sudanese passports and citizenship. For Syrians, attaining a Sudanese passport is not about proving one’s deservedness as a new citizen. Rather, obtaining a Sudanese passport is engagement in a technical-political process aimed at reclaiming one’s mobility and safety in order to escape again – should the need arise.

Six months after arriving in Sudan, Syrians who have a residency permit are able to apply for a Sudanese passport. Syrians I spoke with said Sudanese passports could be in-hand as early as nine months after arrival in country. With a Sudanese passport, Syrians are able to live and work in the Gulf states that might otherwise reject Syrian passport holders (with the exception of Kuwait). They have easy access to other Arab countries that now demand that Syrians obtain visas to enter, including Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. Syrians with Sudanese passports are able to apply for visas to Europe much more easily, and enhanced mobility means that these young Syrian men are able to visit family inside Syria for up to 90 days without risking military conscription.

It is believed that over 10,000 Syrians have obtained a Sudanese passport. The passports are legal documents, but the process by which one obtains one is highly corrupt. In short, for $10,000USD one can buy a Sudanese passport (more for a business or diplomatic passport) from a network of Al-Bashir’s family members, with Omar’s brother, Abdullah “The Shark”, sitting at the top. For a bit more money, the passport can come with an EU visa already in it. Once in the EU, Syrians are able to apply for asylum using their Syrian documents. 

With the recent political turmoil and removal of Omar Al-Bashir, the black-market passport industry is likely to end for Syrians. However, many are now attempting to capture the last moments and obtain one if possible. Mohammed has now applied for a Sudanese passport, in hopes that it will improve his prospects for mobility. “At least I could go to Egypt then. Just like the lost boys of Sudan did,” he noted. Mohammed, along with several hundred thousand other young Syrian men, has become one of Sudan’s “new lost boys,” hoping for a chance to regain a life lost.

Moving Onward?

For many refugees in Sudan, including Syrians, the country is merely a transit point along a longer trajectory to hopefully resettle somewhere else – often Europe, but also North Africa. For others, Sudan is the new home. Many of those who have been able to secure economic opportunity and open successful business are less incentivized to move on. Some that I interviewed have viewed Sudan as a mid-range or even longer-term option as they contribute to the development of the country with their educational and managerial acumen. One Syrian I spoke with has started an NGO in Sudan to help raise the literacy level among Sudanese. He said, “I hope that I can do enough in Sudan so that one day I can go get my Master’s degree in education somewhere in Europe. Maybe they’ll accept that I contribute to the society I live in and that I can use it to rebuild Syria someday.” Even in longer-term calculations, Syrians find the paradox of political engagement is nearly impossible to avoid.


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