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Sudanese visa applicants trapped in war zone after British embassy fails to return passports

Sudanese nationals who applied for UK visas are trapped in the country after the British embassy failed to return their passports before withdrawing staff from the conflict zone.

The UK evacuated embassy staff from Khartoum on Tuesday 23 April, prioritising their safety amid escalating violence and threats against foreign diplomats.

Passports belonging to people with outstanding visa applications have been locked inside processing facility in the centre of the capital, where the fiercest fighting has taken place.

Heba Elshich, 34, who works as a freelance migration consultant, applied for visa in March, planning to travel to the UK later this month to see friends and watch Manchester United play Fulham in London.

Her holiday plans were soon overshadowed, as clashes between the Sudanese army and paramilitary partner-turned-rival, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), erupted on 15 April.

“We woke up to a full-blown war,” she told i. “We thought the 2019 Khartoum massacre would be the worst thing we witnessed in our lifetime, but this has been 100 times worse.”

At least 100 protesters were shot dead in the capital in 2019 by Sudanese government’s armed forces, with the RSF playing a leading role.

KHARTOUM, SUDAN - APRIL 30: A view of streets as clashes continue between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) despite the agreement on cease fire in Khartoum, Sudan on April 30, 2023. (Photo by Omer Erdem/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Clashes continued between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the RSF in breach of a ceasefire (Photo: Omer Erdem/Anadolu Agency via Getty)

“People are suffering,” Ms Elshich said. “The health sector is deteriorating, the shelling is constant, as are the jets overhead. It’s a continual sense of fear.”

Her father, Hashim Elshich, died on Wednesday from kidney complications.

The 76-year-old, who lived with Ms Elshich’s mother in North Kharthoum, became severely dehydrated after the area lost access to clean water for five days.

Ms Elshich’s, who lives in Omdurman – the area west of the River Nile in Khartoum – arranged for a friend to take her father to a hospital, where he was given an IV.

He was transferred to another hospital for dialysis treatment, but no spare beds were available. Staff attempted to make room for Mr Elshich but he died before they could properly admit him.

“It was very hard, to say the least, not being able to be with him,” Ms Elshich said.

“We buried him on the same day, with around 15 family members present. We were hearing the shelling, bombing and the anti-aircraft missiles around us, but we just had to do it.”

People walk near 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 scene after clashes between the RSF and the Sudanese army in Khartoum North (Photo: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)

On 21 April, Ms Elshich was informed that the visa processing centre in central Khartoum had been closed, but that her passport was stored in a “safe place”.

Ms Elshich said it may be possible to cross into Egypt with an expired passport, but fears her elderly mother would be unable to cope with lengthy delays at the border.

To leave the country via Port Sudan, where unscheduled chartered ships run to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, she would need a Saudi Arabian visa, which requires a passport.

Ms Elshich said: “I wouldn’t say my dad died because the British embassy’s failures, but you can’t help but think – if I had my passport and could have got him better treatment, would he be alive today?”

She added: “More could have been done to ensure that people had their passport in this dire situation. They could have sent us a travel document by email. It has eradicated one of our human rights.”

Finding themselves in a similar situation are Zuhair Bakarat’s family, who live in Khartoum. They applied for UK visas a month before the outbreak of war.

His parents, sister and her three children planned to visit another sibling, who works as an NHS doctor in Cornwall, this summer.

After the outbreak of fighting, they fled Khartoum to Atbara, a comparatively safe city more than 200 miles from the capital, but they are unable to leave the country without their passports.

Mr Bakarat, who lives in Dubai but has been helping chase the documents, said his parents were informed that their applications had been refused on 27 April.

Their documents are at a visa centre in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital while the passports belonging to his sister and her three children are in a DHL courier base in Khartoum.

Mr Bakarat, 54, told i: “The least the authorities could do is properly communicate with us and make arrangements to courier them to another country where I can collect them.”

He added that they have so far received “sporadic responses” from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in South Africa, where the passports are sent to be processed.

“They are good at letting us know where the passports are, but not at sending them,” he said.

Sudanese Army soldiers rest near a tank at a checkpoint in Khartoum on April 30, 2023, as clashes continue in war-torn Sudan. - Heavy fighting again rocked Sudan's capital on April 30, as tens of thousands have fled the bloody turmoil and a former prime minister warned of the "nightmare" risk of a descent into full-scale civil war. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
Sudanese soldiers at a checkpoint in Khartoum as clashes continue in war-torn Sudan (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)

“The reason they moved to Atbara was so they could make the relatively short journey to Port Sudan, where I could meet them. Given my father’s health conditions – being blind, diagnosed with dementia and unable to walk – it would be much more comfortable.

“If I can’t get hold of the passports, they have to travel to the Egyptian border, where they could cross with a temporary travel pass, but I’m not sure my father would survive the trip.”

The UK Government said it had “no option but to close the visa application centre in Khartoum”.

“Where an individual is eligible to come to the UK, we are doing everything possible to provide support, recognising that many people are facing very challenging circumstances and decisions,” a spokesperson said.

“We continue to work intensively, alongside international partners, to bring an end to fighting – the single most important thing we can do to ensure the safety of British nationals and others in Sudan.”

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