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Lives in transit: Sudan’s growing foreign population battles for basics

Mohamed Hilali
Every foreigner moving to Sudan has a unique story — but they are all confronted with similar hurdles and daily hardships.
16.05.2014  |  Khartoum
عامل هندي في مصنع الجنيد للسكر، يونيو 2010.
عامل هندي في مصنع الجنيد للسكر، يونيو 2010. (photo: النيلان | محمد هلالي)

For a long time Afrim, an Ethiopian day labourer in his twenties, joined a group of Ethiopian, Eritrean and Egyptian workers at 6:00 am at a construction site in Khartoum. With this temporary contract, Afrim earned 30 Sudanese pounds (US$4) a day, which he supplemented by doing odd jobs at hairdressers’ shops.

Despite his long hours, Afrim barely made ends meet. Finally he managed to find a permanent job in a restaurant, taking home 400 Sudanese pounds (US$44) a month. But despite the job, he described bureaucratic hurdles and widespread racism.

\"Sudanese always treat me as refugee, not a human being.\"
\"Sudanese always treat me as refugee, not a human being,\" he told The Niles.

Afrim is part of a social shift in Sudan. Many sectors in Sudan now rely on the unprecedented number of foreign workers, who work as car mechanics, on building sites and in factories. The health and education sectors also have many immigrant workers.

Ethiopians and Eritreans make up the lion’s share of the labour market and Sudan also has significant populations of Turks, Egyptians, Chinese and Indians. Most foreigners live within large communities near city centres.

The number of foreigners living in Sudan has swollen in recent years. Figures show that three million foreigners live in Khartoum State, making up 40 percent of the population. However, many of this group live a precarious existence.  

Only 53,000 of this large group have legal residence permits, according to an extensive survey conducted by the Higher Council of Strategic Planning in the Khartoum State in May 2012. The 1989-2007 Residence Situation Surveys pinned the low rate of legal residences on the leniency of authorities that do not strictly demand official documentation from foreigners”.    

Even if their situation is legal, there are no strict laws or regulations that specify their maximum work hours.”
Hadya Elias
Afrim, however, said a working and residence permit was beyond the reach of many, costing nearly 5,000 Sudanese pounds (US$550). Some local permits are cheaper and cost only 1,000 Sudanese pounds, but they are not that useful because they only permit working within a certain city or state,” he said, adding that his low income makes it difficult to afford the expensive permit.

Most of his friends and relatives, he explained, get a refugee card to demonstrate their status in Sudan. Developmental planning researcher Hadya Elias described the dire conditions experienced by most foreign workers. Large groups live in spaces measuring 100 square-meters, sharing toilet facilities. Few have decent wages or stable contracts.
The majority do not have medical or social insurance and their illegal situation encourages a lot of employers to exploit them. Even if their situation is legal, there are no strict laws or regulations that specify their maximum work hours,” she said.

Many Sudanese have a different perspective, arguing that foreigners accept lower wages, which makes them more desirable than their Sudanese counterparts.

Turkish and Egyptian construction and decor workers are more skilful.”
Taqwa Ali
I prefer Ethiopians to Sudanese when it comes to domestic workers,” says Taqwa Ali, a Sudanese woman. Turkish and Egyptian construction and decor workers are more skilful than their Sudanese counterparts, accept lower wages and finish their work quickly.”

Others point out that the foreign workforce is necessary as it fills gaps in the Sudanese labour market, especially in agriculture, mining and factories.

However, some Sudanese argue that the increased number of foreigners brings with it many disadvantages and threatens Sudanese culture.

The foreign presence has huge cultural, social and economic impact on Sudanese society,” said Zaher Abdurrahman Abbas, a researcher in society affairs. The civil society and the government should coordinate to minimise it.”

I came out of my country to Khartoum only to cross to Europe.”
While a minority of ex-pats work for international organisations and delegations, such as big mining and oil companies, making a decent living, they tend not cross paths with the majority of immigrants who face a daily struggle.

Afrim, like many, never planned to stay permanently in Sudan but holds out hope for better conditions elsewhere. I came out of my country to Khartoum only to cross to Europe,” he said. However, given the high cost of a ticket to Europe, relocation remains a distant dream, especially given his current wages.

This article is part of:
On The Move: Experience is a solid walking stick
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