If you are Syrian or have been to Sudan, the chances are you will have seen a Facebook ad saying: “Interested in Sudanese nationality? Call this number.”
Fast-track services offering Sudanese citizenship are openly advertised on social media, many of them targeting Syrians. Since war broke out in Syria, Sudan has been one of the havens for wealthier Syrians. While Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt were overwhelmed by refugees early on in the conflict and have all taken measures to stem the flow, Sudan does not even require Syrians to get a visa.
Behind the cheerful Facebook ads lies an illicit network whose connections appear to reach to the highest levels of government in the capital, Khartoum, and allegedly involve the younger brother of President Omar al-Bashir. For those Syrians who have the means, black-market passports offer an expensive alternative to the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean from Libya or Egypt.
Sudan’s government estimates that more than 100,000 Syrians reside in the country. Their presence is noticeable in the streets of Khartoum, where Syrian bakeries and eateries have been multiplying rapidly since 2012. But not all Syrians want to stay in Sudan, whose economy has been hobbled by a mix of sanctions and its own endless internal conflicts. For most refugees, the route to Europe involves a potentially deadly sea crossing.
However, a select group of wealthier refugees can avoid this risk by buying an illegal Sudanese passport, in order to leave the country legally. In the first part of our investigation, we showed how Sudanese security officials are involved in smuggling refugees from East Africa. But Sudan’s elite, while claiming to act as the E.U.’s partner in countering irregular migration, have found another way to profit from the human traffic.
The Man They Call ‘The Shark’
To investigate the illicit trade in passports for Syrians in Khartoum, we spoke to brokers, smugglers and a passport authority official, as well as examining confidential documents. All sources pointed us to Abdullah al-Bashir, a 71-year-old physician, known in Khartoum’s markets as “The Shark.” His alleged involvement was also confirmed by an individual known to have access to the inner circle of the Bashir family and the highest echelons of the Sudanese regime. We made repeated efforts, during months of reporting, to put these allegations to Abdullah al-Bashir, who has not responded.
Al-Bashir is the brother of Omar al-Bashir, who has been in effective control of Sudan since taking power in a coup in 1989 and has formally been president since 1993. Now 74 years old, he has presided over three decades of near-constant conflicts and the partition of Sudan, and been indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Sudan’s press is completely controlled by the state and the regime orders the arrest and torture of political opponents.
Sudan is in the midst of a profound change in its relationship with Europe, where it is now treated as a partner in efforts to curb irregular migration. The E.U. has pledged $187 million in aid and funding for border control. A regime viewed until recently as a pariah in the West has found that its willingness to warehouse refugees is slowly seeing its reputation being rehabilitated.
Our reporting suggests that not only does the regime benefit from complying with E.U. deals meant to contain migration, but some of its most influential citizens also appear to profit from letting some refugees through.
With a Sudanese travel document, Syrian refugees can board a plane from Khartoum. The route is advertised by travel agencies and smuggler intermediaries who work in the streets of the capital. While some use the flights to avoid overland travel to Egypt, Libya or Turkey, Sudanese traders said that if refugees paid more, they could catch a direct flight to a European country, by getting a passport that includes a visa.
The refugees, who are told to dispose of the passport and visa once on board a flight, can then apply for asylum once they land, using their original Syrian documents. It is not clear how many Syrians travel to Europe, either by air or land, via Sudan. But the number of smugglers in the streets of Khartoum and the public ads on social media suggests that there is a thriving trade in passports.
Refugees looking to buy a Sudanese passport have multiple options. A trader from the Arabic Souq al-Arabia told us his prices: A simple Sudanese passport of 48 pages costs $10,000. This is the cheapest type of passport; a business passport with 64 pages has a longer validity and costs more. The most expensive version is a diplomatic passport.
An employee at the passport-issuing authority told us that most Syrians opt for the ordinary passport. Richer individuals choose to buy the business version. To back up his statements, he showed us a Sudanese passport that was allegedly used by a popular Syrian singer who now lives in Kuwait. According to the official, the artist paid $10,000 for forged travel documents.
These passports are not forgeries put together by market traders. The street-level suppliers are kept at a distance from the real source of the documents, with go-betweens bringing the passports back and forth. Neither do the smugglers appear to know exactly how the illegal passports are issued. All of them point to a powerful individual they call the “The Shark” but whom multiple sources identified as Abdullah al-Bashir.
The Inner Circle of the Bashirs
The extent of the physician’s involvement in the passport trade was confirmed by Ameen Omar al-Ameen, also known as Sheikh al-Ameen, a wealthy businessman and Sufi spiritual leader. Ameen has a large following among young Sudanese and was for a time a spiritual adviser to the Bashir family. His responsibilities included presiding over wedding ceremonies and other official occasions. “I used to have a good relationship with the president. I wouldn’t speak daily – of course, he remains the president, so one would only phone him if it were really necessary.”
He now lives between London and Cairo, where we met him. In a living room replete with gilded furniture upholstered in red and with a self-portrait in each corner of the room, the Sheikh explains his entry point into the inner circle of the Bashirs. “The regime was looking for a point of contact [in 2015], someone who could do business on their behalf with the United Arab Emirates. I could introduce them there, and I did.”
Al-Ameen is no longer close to Sudan’s first family. They fell out in the summer of 2017 over what he claims was the misuse of funds from contacts of his in the UAE by an influential Sudanese politician. But as a veteran of elite circles in Khartoum, al-Ameen was able to confirm Abdullah al-Bashir’s involvement in the illegal passport trade.
“I know many people who bought a passport through Abdullah, even though no one buys a passport from him personally. Abdullah collaborated with the late Syrian businessman Abu Hassan.”
Hassan and al-Ameen were co-investors in three real-estate projects in Khartoum. Al-Ameen was reluctant to reveal much detail about Hassan’s operations, but he did confirm that he “had three or four people working for him in a couple of offices near Amarat in Khartoum, buildings number 47 and 55.”
The offices are next to al-Mashtal Street, where several sources confirmed to us that Abdullah al-Bashir was based.
“Hassan’s employees collect[ed] about 20 customers at a time,” said al-Ameen. “They bring money, a passport photo and the name they want to use. Abdullah collects the money and the information and ensures that the passports can be collected a few days later at Immigration.”
The possible involvement of the president’s brother in the illicit passport trade became the topic of intense speculation in Khartoum in February 2017 after allegations were aired on independent Sudanese media operating outside the country. Documents seen by Refugees Deeply appear to show Syrians being issued with Sudanese passports by presidential decree. One apparently official document dated September 6, 2016, showed 18 Syrians being granted citizenship. Other related documents showed more passports being handed out via the same method.
The documents do not name Abdullah al-Bashir, but the president responded to the allegations by convening a meeting on February 22, 2017, with select Sudanese newspaper editors. According to accounts of the meeting, President Bashir said he saw no problem with Syrians being granted Sudanese citizenship but denied his brother’s involvement.
He was quoted as telling local media that an investigation would be conducted by the interior ministry into individuals “taking advantage” of the situation. No further details on this investigation have been released nearly a year later.
Meanwhile, Sheikh al-Ameen insists that as long as there is money to be earned from refugees, the regime will remain a partner looking to profit from both smuggling and border control: “The deal will only be [fully] honored if Europe pays Sudan.”
Read Part 1: Sudan: The E.U.’s Partner in Migration Crime
This story came about in collaboration with journalists and researchers in Sudan. Their identities have been withheld to ensure their safety. It was produced with the support of the Dutch Free Press Unlimited Postcode Lottery Fund.