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Sudanese forced to pay for free Egyptian visas on thriving black market

Investigation reveals that a free visa agreement between two countries has been hijacked by private operators
Sudanese visa applications queue outside the Egyptian consulate in Khartoum, May 2022 (ARIJ)
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Khartoum

A free visa agreement between Egypt and Sudan has been marred by corruption as third party agents have hijacked the system, creating a black market that generates thousands of dollars daily, an investigation has found.

The official free visa agreement between the two countries guarantees the right of mobility and residence for their citizens using any identification papers. 

Yet most applicants never make it to the counter. They are forced into paying fees to agents, who are capable of facilitating the swift application processing needed to obtain a visa that is otherwise free of charge.

In addition, the process has created a buoyant underground market for selling required documents, including forged medical forms. 

This violates the Four Freedoms Agreement signed between Egypt and Sudan in 2004. In 2017, the two countries agreed to issue a free two-way entry visa valid for a maximum of six months for each passport holder who submits an application. 

Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) used photo and video evidence to document how security officials control the queues of applicants in favour of networks that sell visas illegally in the vicinity of the consulate. 

Waiting indefinitely

In 2019, Mohammad Balal, then 39, tried to obtain an Egyptian visa from the country’s consulate in Khartoum. 

He says he went there almost every day for over a month, staying overnight in outdoor queues to guarantee his place and submit his visa forms. 

His repeated attempts at following the system proved unsuccessful and he never made it to the front of the queue. So he eventually called a friend who connected him to an intermediary, or a “wasta”, to ease the process. 

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“I met a diplomatic security officer in the vicinity of the consulate through an acquaintance. He took my passport, went to the consulate courtyard, and came back with a receipt from the consulate,” recounted Balal. 

A week later,  he received his passport and visa to enter Egypt. 

According to ARIJ’s findings, Balal is one of hundreds who are denied the right to a free visa on a daily basis because of this black market.

The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues a thousand visas per day for the purpose of trade, tourism, and medical treatment for Sudanese applicants. The Egyptian consulate in Khartoum receives the largest number of applicants, issuing an average of 700 visas daily.

The investigation found that only about 300 of these visas were issued legally over a period of two weeks in May 2021, according to witness accounts gathered from middlemen, brokers, tourism officers, and applicants. 

The cost of corruption 

Prospective applicants learn about the backstreet visa agents through advertisements on social media platforms or from a personal contact. They meet the unofficial brokers in the vicinity of the consulate after hours of waiting, and hand over the required documents, their passport, and most importantly a hefty brokerage fee. 

The brokers return to the travel and tourism offices they are affiliated with and communicate with the intermediary known as the “consulate employee”. 

In collaboration with the government entity, the person delivers the applications directly to the consulate to stamp the visa with a delay of one day to one week maximum, depending on the fees agreed.

The express visa is usually issued within 24 hours for $112 ( 55,000 Sudanese pounds), while the slow visa is completed a week after submitting the application for $88 (35,000 Sudanese pounds). 

Depending on the number of applicants, the black market network can generate earnings of more than $23,000 (10.5m Sudanese pounds) each day. 

The Egyptian consulate in Khartoum refused ARIJ’s request to interview the consul general or to respond to its findings about the alleged violations committed by its employees who might be involved in visa selling networks outside the consulate. 

Role of government 

The Department of Consulates and Communities Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Khartoum refused to discuss the violations of diplomatic norms in the vicinity of the Egyptian consulate because, at the time of publication, the position of the director still remains vacant after the military coup of October 2021.

The director of the information department, Ambassador Khalid Mohammed Farah, apologised on behalf of the foreign ministry's undersecretary but refused to grant ARIJ an interview or answer its questions. 

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On 25 October 2021, the president of Sudan's sovereign council and leader of its armed forces, General Abdel Fattah el-Burhan, declared a state of emergency in the country and dissolved the sovereign and the ministers’ councils.

The council had been in charge in Sudan since August 2019, after former president Omar al-Bashir was overthrown, ending his thirty years in power. 

Since then, obtaining information from official Sudanese institutions has become impossible despite the provisions of Article (25/25) of the Press and Publications Law of 2009 stipulating the right of journalists to obtain information from official sources. 

In the meantime, those seeking travel to Egypt from Sudan continue to suffer and lose money amid a failed visa system that is in direct violation of diplomatic agreements and denies citizens of both countries the right to mobility, residence, work, and ownership.