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Sudanese Evacuees in the UK*

Updated: Dec 27, 2023

Fidaa Mahmoud Hussein

Following the calls for the UK government to react to the war in Sudan that erupted on the 15th of April 2023, the UK coordinated the evacuation of 2,450 people. The plan started on the 25th of April and ended on the 3rd of May. The 30 military planes which carried out the 8-day multi-route evacuation departed from Wadi Sayedna military base located in Northern Omdurman ( Karrari locality, Omdurman state). The British government aimed to focus exclusively on the evacuation of its citizens, their partners and any children they might have who were under the age of eighteen.

There are no exact numbers of British citizens in Sudan, but they likely constitute one of the largest groups of individuals holding dual Sudanese-Western citizenship within Sudan. In the turmoil of the war, many British citizens and their families were unable to meet the deadline set for a short-term evacuation plan. People residing outside the Capital–with the exception of Port Sudan city– were not included in the plan. In fact, some British citizens were arbitrarily denied access to the evacuation planes for unexplained reasons, while other persons who were not specified in the guidance were allowed to board the planes. Some examples include parents of some British citizens, some offspring over the age of eighteen, individuals not carrying identification papers as well as some Sudanese citizens in possession of valid British tourist visas.

The evacuees arrived at various UK airports, and they were initially aided by the British Red Cross, which provided placements of families within hotels on a temporary basis. These families were then advised to approach diverse local councils in order to gain more permanent and settled accommodation. The next steps were to demonstrate how complex these procedures would prove. At first, the evacuees were under the false impression that they would be promptly helped to settle into the UK since they had been brought in by the British government. In their minds, the plan included not only the actual journey from Sudan to the UK, but also assistance with their basic needs in the UK. Many of the evacuees had never set foot in the UK before, some did not speak any English and others were in need of extensive support. While many evacuees had established support networks within the UK and therefore did not need to rely on the state system for support; managing to quickly find jobs and adjust well to their changed life circumstances, others found themselves unfamiliar with the system within the UK. Many, for example, did not know they had to apply for a NIN (National Insurance Number) which serves as proof of eligibility to work in the United Kingdom . A standard welcome pack could have well served those British citizens who had recently arrived. Many of them quickly became at risk of destitution.

In May 2023, in my capacity as a community activist, I provided advice and assistance to over 100 evacuees and their families. Issues presented ranged from immigration, housing, benefits, health, education, higher education, or employment. The overarching theme was the difficulty faced with accessing mainstream services. On the 15th of May, the government issued guidelines to local authorities as well as to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) exempting evacuees from the Habitual Residence Test (HRT) (a test used to determine eligibility for social security benefits). The guidance states: "From Monday next week those arriving from Sudan, including UK nationals and those with a valid UK immigration status, will be exempt from residency tests to ensure they can access benefits, social housing, and homelessness assistance on arrival in the UK".

However, to date many evacuees are still facing issues accessing these services. For instance, in August 2023, a British family was issued with a negative decision in relation to their application for Universal Credit on the grounds that they did not meet the criteria of habitual residence. This goes to show how HRT benefits are not automatically allocated by virtue of holding citizenship, rather they are subject to specific evaluative parameters of the system. The housing and welfare systems are interconnected and lack of access to them places people at risk of homelessness and destitution. A Sudanese couple holding a 6-month entry visa -yet having children who hold British citizenship - are not considered eligible for assistance either in terms of acquiring housing or financial support. Their situation would fall under the remit of social services and be dealt with under the rubric of the Children Act. In brief, such families would have experienced a similar form of lack of response as others previously mentioned.

Another thorny issue relates to immigration. Sudanese family members of British evacuees who arrived in the UK via the evacuation plan have been given six months leave to remain at UK borders. This signifies that they are treated as ‘subject to immigration control’.This places them in the category of foreigners who either do not have leave to remain in the UK or whose leave is subject to restrictions. Usually, these people are ineligible for public funds, or may not have permission to work in the UK. The Home Office has advised that this category of evacuees will not be given leave to remain automatically but must apply for further leave to remain to extend their stay in the UK. Failure to apply to any of the complex and expensive migration routes puts people at risk of being in a position of illegality. Most of the families that arrived came with very little money and thus cannot afford costly legal fees. Furthermore, it is difficult to find solicitors who accept legal aid. This is a system in the UK that ensures legal fees are not incurred out of pocket and payment for a lawyer does not have to be made personally. A lawyer would be provided upon request and evidence is needed to show financial hardship. However, providing evidence of financial hardship is a burden of proof.

Sudanese community groups and activists have organised several advice sessions to the evacuees and provided support, but many evacuees have gone under the radar. Some are quite isolated and unaware of the implications of not taking actions to resolve their immigration dilemma. Some have applied for asylum but many more are reluctant to do so even though this might relieve some of their financial woes through the provision of a reasonable support package which is part of rights afforded by asylum legislation. There is a considerable amount of stigma related to seeking asylum and many do not understand the reason they should seek asylum and while they have entered the country legally and with the assistance of the government itself.

It is good news that Sudanese nationals have been brought under the Home Office’s Streamlined Asylum Processing (SAP) scheme . This process greatly speeds up the asylum claim process for many who have been waiting for a long time ( this refers to old cases before the war and not new arrivals) However, a petition to the UK Parliament to create a Sudan Family scheme has been unsuccessful. The petition called for leave to remain to be granted to partners and children of all ages, dependent parents of British citizens to mirror schemes that have been created for Ukrainians and Afghans. In essence, it argues for Sudanese citizens to be granted access to public funds and leave to remain as per Ukrainians.

The response by local authorities' housing departments have been patchy. While some local authorities have responded quickly and housed families in temporary housing, others have rejected applications on grounds of failure to pass the HRT. Some authorities have even placed evacuees within unsuitable housing or accommodation that is distant from any viable support networks. With the current housing crisis and difficulties procuring affordable and suitable housing, especially in London, many evacuees have been placed in hotels for months.

Many younger British citizens who were studying in Sudan were refused student loans because they didn’t fit the 2-year rule of residence in the UK to qualify for the loans. Some were on the verge of graduation. It is still unclear how such situations can be remedied. In addition, many Sudanese citizens without leave to remain were professionals in various fields and are in fact ready to work, and as such could address the shortage in some occupations in the UK in particular the medical sector.

As the traumatic and dangerous situation is unfolding and continues to point towards a long-term belligerent situation, the UK Government should formally adopt Sudan's refugees as part of one of its Resettlement Plans in similar terms adopted in dealing with the Syrian crisis a few years ago. In this respect, the UK Government should be working with the UNHCR to implement an effective, fast-stream, resettlement plan - with Sudanese citizens receiving the same offer as Ukrainians on arrival. Sudanese who have sought asylum should be granted this protective status according to the rule of law.

Fidaa Mahmoud Hussein is a Sudanese community activist residing in London, United Kingdom.

*This is an original piece written exclusively for PeaceofSudan.Space and has not been published elsewhere.

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