Sudanese stuck as passports locked in abandoned Western embassies

Sudanese visa applicants are trapped in a war zone after Western diplomats evacuated Khartoum without returning their passports.

In late March, Ahmad Mahmoud submitted his passport and visa application to the Swedish embassy in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. He never imagined they would not give his travel document back.

But when fighting broke out between the Sudanese army and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Swedish diplomats suspended consular services and fled the country within days.

Mahmoud communicated with a Swedish diplomat via WhatsApp, begging for her to find a solution where he could either retrieve his passport or at least receive a stamped copy from the Swedish embassy.


He knew he could not legally escape the country without one.

“Please let me know when I can be ready to take my passport. I need to be ready to leave my country. My building is not safe anymore,” Mahmoud wrote to the Swedish diplomat in a series of texts he shared with Al Jazeera.

“As mentioned, I’m deeply sorry to say that it’s not possible,” the diplomat replied.

Mahmoud is one of the hundreds of Sudanese visa applicants – maybe even thousands – now trapped in war zones after Western diplomats evacuated the country without returning their passports.

Diplomats or civil servants from countries such as England, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain have since washed their hands of responsibility or failed to find adequate solutions, lawyers and those stranded told Al Jazeera.

Sudanese nationals, whose passports are locked up in evacuated Western embassies in Khartoum, said some Western civil servants told them to apply for a new one from local authorities.

However, Sudan’s de facto authorities are embroiled in an armed conflict that has killed more than 500 people and displaced tens of thousands to neighbouring countries such as Egypt, Chad, South Sudan and Djibouti.

Egypt, which is about 900km (430 miles) from Khartoum, is the closest and only viable escape route for many, but those without passports are not allowed in.

“Even if the bombing gets worse then I won’t be able to leave because I don’t have my passport,” Mahmoud said. “I’m sure [the diplomats] don’t care about [Sudanese embassy] staff, let alone myself who applied for a stupid visa.”

Civilians are seen onboard a Saudi commercial ship after being evacuated by Saudi Arabia
Civilians on board a Saudi commercial ship after being evacuated from Sudan [File: Saudi Ministry of Defense via Reuters]

Families separated

Sudanese visa applicants who could not retrieve their passports have been unable to flee with their loved ones to neighbouring countries.

Ashraf Malik, 23, said his sister and mother left for Egypt with their small children. He stayed behind with his brother to try and retrieve his passport from the Spanish embassy, where he had applied for a visa earlier this month to attend a conference.

When the war started, Malik called the embassy’s emergency number but the woman on the other line refused to help him.

“She asked me if I was Spanish. When I said I wasn’t, she hung up and refused to talk to me,” he told Al Jazeera.

Because of the ongoing fighting in Khartoum, Malik left with his brother for Port Sudan, which remains relatively safe from the fighting, for now. Shortly after arriving his brother boarded a ship to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

“He’s going to Dubai and I’m staying in Port Sudan because I don’t have a passport,” Malik said.

‘More frustration’

Sudanese dual nationals living abroad are also struggling to get their governments to find a solution for their loved ones.

One man, who is a doctor in the United Kingdom, said he called the visa application centre multiple times to ask if his wife can get her passport back from the embassy in Khartoum, which is closed.

He asked Al Jazeera not to disclose his or his wife’s name for fear the British Home Office could later deny their visa requests because of his criticism of the way they are handling the situation.

He said he wished the British authorities would at least send his wife an electronic version of her passport.

“I don’t know why things are so slow. Every time I call [them], I just end the conversation with more frustration. I just want a resolution,” he said.

Al Jazeera contacted the UK Home Office, but it did not provide a comment at the time of publication.

However, Home Office Secretary Suella Braverman recently told reporters the UK had no plans to introduce safe asylum channels for Sudanese nationals. She added the focus was strictly on evacuating UK citizens and their dependents.

A man walks near a damaged car and buildings at the central market during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum North, Sudan April 27, 2023. REUTERS/ Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
A man walks near damaged buildings in Khartoum, Sudan [File: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters]

Legally culpable?

Western governments could be liable for restricting the freedom of movement of Sudanese nationals by not returning passports to visa applicants after fighting erupted, according to Emma DiNapoli, an expert in international law who researches Sudan.

She said Western governments have signed and ratified the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, known as ICCPR.

Article 12 of the ICCPR states “Everyone should be free to leave any country, including his own.”

“All of the states who have left people behind or stranded have signed the ICCPR, so I would think they have an obligation to provide alternative documentation,” DiNapoli told Al Jazeera.

“None of these individuals can fully exercise their right to freedom of movement, which is particularly critical at a time like this.”

Toby Cadman, a London-based international human rights lawyer, also questioned the actions of foreign embassy staffers.

“My question is why are European diplomats holding on to passports of Sudanese nationals? It is clearly preventing them from leaving and seeking safe and legal routes to claim asylum as a result of renewed conflict in Sudan,” Cadman said.

‘Very unfortunate situation’

Al Jazeera contacted Swedish and Dutch authorities to ask what they were doing to find solutions for the hundreds of Sudanese visa applicants who could not retrieve their passports.

Didzis Melbiksis, a press communicator at the Swedish Migration Agency, said in a statement the work of the Swedish embassy in Sudan will continue when security improves.

“It is a very unfortunate situation that applicants have found themselves in and that many other countries’ embassies are likely to be having similar experiences,” Melbiksis wrote.

When asked specifically about Mahmoud’s ordeal, Melbiksis said authorities cannot respond to questions about one particular applicant unless that applicant provides Al Jazeera with legal authority to acquire information about his case. The power of attorney would need Mahmoud’s signature.

“It must be clearly written that the person concerned has given their permission for the information to be disclosed by us,” Melbiksis said.

Tessa van Staden, spokesperson for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Al Jazeera a number of Sudanese passports are locked up in their embassy and the sudden outbreak of violence on April 15 forced it to close immediately.

“We have not been able to collect these passports due to the poor security situation. We understand that this has put the people involved in a difficult situation. We are actively investigating possibilities to provide individual support,” van Staden wrote in an email.

Cadman said Western governments can still be liable for not doing enough to return passports to visa applicants despite the closure of embassies brought on by the conflict.

“That doesn’t alter the fact that [Western governments] are preventing individuals from leaving a conflict zone and if it is shown that … those persons are harmed, or worse lose their lives, there may be legal consequences for that with claims being brought against those governments,” he said.

Sudanese crowd at borders to escape amid shaky truce
Members of the media take photos as Moroccan citizens repatriated from Sudan in Casablanca [File: AP Photo]
Source: Al Jazeera