People stranded in Sudan after Western diplomats flee without returning travel documents

A growing number of people say they are stranded in Sudan because Western embassy workers fled the conflict-ridden country without returning passports that were surrendered during visa applications.

Diplomats from at least three Western missions have been unable to grant access to travel documents belonging to Sudanese nationals, according to nine testimonies reviewed by CNN.

Most Western embassies in Sudan were evacuated a week into the fighting, leaving many Sudanese visa applicants without their travel documents and in legal limbo.

In some cases, embassy workers advised people to "apply for a new [Sudanese] passport" despite the violence grinding Sudanese government services to a halt, according to screenshots seen by CNN.

In one case, a Swedish official suggested that the Sudanese visa applicant use a photocopy of his passport in lieu of his travel document.

The Sudanese nationals who spoke to CNN accused the embassies of neglect, obstructing their legal passage out of the country, where the violence has claimed at least 512 lives.

The Dutch foreign ministry confirmed to CNN that "a number of Sudanese passports" were left behind at the embassy after it closed "with immediate effect" due to the conflict.

"A number of Sudanese passports were left behind at the Dutch embassy. These are passports of Sudanese passport holders who have applied for a short-stay Schengen visa or an MVV (provisional residence permit). The sudden outburst of fighting in the early morning of April 15, forced the Dutch embassy to close with immediate effect," a spokesperson for the ministry said in a statement.

"The diplomatic staff has since been evacuated and transferred to the Netherlands. Unfortunately, we have not been able to collect these passports due to the poor security situation. We understand that this has put the people involved in a difficult situation. We are actively investigating possibilities to provide individual support," they added.

The Italian foreign ministry told CNN it was aware of the problem, and will try to return passports to Sudanese nationals "as soon as possible."

"We are well aware of the problem. Keeping in touch with all concerned people and will do our outmost [sic], even under the current circumstances, to return the passports as soon as possible. We are taking care of Sudanese nationals who are in this situation with the same attention we are devoting to our evacuees. We are actively working to be able to respond quickly to the requests," Niccolò Fontana, the head of communication for Italian Foreign Ministry, said to CNN.

People cross into Egypt from Sudan on April 27, 2023. Several Sudanese citizens told CNN they cannot flee the conflict-ridden country because their passports are held at evacuated Western embassies.
People cross into Egypt from Sudan on April 27, 2023. Several Sudanese citizens told CNN they cannot flee the conflict-ridden country because their passports are held at evacuated Western embassies. Photo credit: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Sweden's foreign ministry said it "cannot comment in detail on the security measures that the Embassy has taken ahead of the relocation as this would defeat the point of those measures."

A spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross told CNN the aid organization does not issue emergency travel documents to Sudanese citizens trying to leave the country.

"I can't imagine, how incredibly difficult it must be for Sudanese people who want to leave the country, but can't do so because they don't have their documents. But unfortunately the ICRC cannot issue emergency travel documents for people to leave their own country," they told CNN in a statement.

Sporadic attacks have continued to flare in parts of the capital Khartoum, the epicenter of the power struggle between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo's paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

Civilian hopes of fleeing the danger through safe and legal routes are dwindling, as the clashes persist despite a ceasefire agreement between the Sudanese army and paramilitary forces.

On Friday, RSF claimed it had secured all the roads into the capital and controlled 90% of what is Sudan's most populous state.

Meanwhile, SAF accused the paramilitary group of violating international humanitarian law and targeting retired military and police officers.

"[The RSF] is committing crimes and terrorist practices that have nothing to do with the legacies of the Sudanese people," the SAF said in a statement, vowing a harsh response.

Since the conflict broke out, more than 50,000 people have fled Sudan to Chad, Egypt, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said on Twitter on Friday.

The number includes both Sudanese nationals and refugees who were forced to return to their countries, Grandi said, warning that the number will continue to rise until the violence stops.

India's Ministry of External Affairs said on Friday that it had evacuated "nearly 2,400" Indian citizens from Sudan since the start of the conflict. They were transported out by the Indian Navy and Air Forces in 13 batches.

'Totally unsafe'

News of those stranded without passports comes amid a growing chorus of criticism against foreign governments and international aid organizations leading rescue operations to extract their own nationals, leaving locals to fend for themselves. Power, food and water shortages are rampant as the conflict devastates large parts of the country.

Fatima -- a pseudonym CNN is using for security reasons -- said she is desperate to leave the country. Two people in her east Khartoum neighborhood were killed in the fighting. But her travel documents are locked in the Italian Embassy, where she said staff members denied her repeated pleas to retrieve her passport.

"I'm still trying to communicate with them, trying to explain that this is a critical situation," she said. "Of course no country will allow people to enter their lands without a valid passport."

Men walk past shells on the ground near damaged buildings in Khartoum North in Sudan on Thursday, where the violence has left some locals trapped inside their homes.
Men walk past shells on the ground near damaged buildings in Khartoum North in Sudan on Thursday, where the violence has left some locals trapped inside their homes. Photo credit: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

Zara, another Sudanese woman caught up in the passport bind, said her family has refused to leave the country without her. CNN is using a pseudonym for security reasons. The evacuated Dutch Embassy -- where she said her passport has been held for more than three weeks -- has not responded to her attempts to contact them.

"I am now an obstacle for my family since they cannot travel and leave me," she told CNN.

"Please help end this war. And please consider this passport issue. It might save lives. The house in front of us has been attacked."

In a social media exchange seen by CNN, between another visa applicant and the Dutch Embassy, the official Facebook page of the diplomatic mission declined a request to return a withheld passport.

"We deeply regret the current situation you're in," the embassy replied to 35-year-old Sarah Abdalla. "We were forced to close the embassy and evacuate our staff. This unfortunately means we can't get to your passport."

"We advise to apply [sic] for a new passport with your local authorities," the embassy added.

For many, that's not possible. Sudanese government services have been largely suspended in Sudan due to the fighting.

"I am in urgent need of my passport to leave to Egypt through the road," Abdalla told CNN. "We are in an unsafe condition and suffering from lack of water in the taps now for 13 days.

"We go out threatening our lives to fetch water and usually get salty water. I have four other colleagues [whose] passports [are] stuck and facing the same situation."

Nabta Seifelyazal Mohamed Ali, a 20-year-old Sudanese medical student at the University of Khartoum, said she urgently needs to obtain her passport from the Dutch Embassy so she can make the treacherous journey to Egypt with her family, including her mother, father, uncle, and her four siblings.

In an email correspondence with the Dutch Embassy, seen by CNN, an embassy worker replied: "We understand your situation but it is not safe enough to reopen our services. We do not know how long this situation will last. If there are any updates we will inform you."

Ali said that the family needs to leave their home by Sunday because they are running out of medication for her sick uncle, who has a chronic kidney condition.

A bureaucratic nightmare

Filmmaker Ahmad Mahmoud, 35, said the Swedish Embassy has held his passport since he applied for a visa to attend Sweden's Malmo Arab Film Festival, which started on April 28.

Christina Brooks, the head of migration at the Swedish Embassy in Khartoum, repeatedly told Mahmoud that personnel could not access his passport because they had evacuated the building, according to excerpts of phone messages seen by CNN.

"Please please let me know when I can go to the embassy and take my passport. I need to be ready to leave the country. Our building is not safe anymore," Mahmoud said in one excerpted message to Brooks.

Brooks replied: "As mentioned, I'm deeply sorry to say that it is not possible."

In lieu of travel documents, she recommended he use a photocopy of his passport to exit Sudan and to "collect all other documents of identification" including his marriage certificate, the messages said.

"At least it is good that you have a copy if you manage to get out without the actual passport," said Brooks. "I hope that you and your family manage to get out and that you stay safe!"

"I can't leave with this," Mahmoud said, attaching a picture of his faded photocopied passport.

CNN asked Brooks for comment but had not received a response by the time of publication.

When CNN last spoke to Mahmoud on Thursday, he and his wife were en route to the coastal city of Port Sudan on the Red Sea. They will contend with chaotic border crossings, where confused border guards have frequently been denying people passage out of the country, including some Sudanese-American dual nationals.

"Not having my passport with me puts crazy, crazy stress on me because my wife is not going to accept leaving without me," he told CNN.

Mahmoud said he will attempt to "go to Ethiopia or Egypt from [Port Sudan]. It's going to be a huge, huge problem that I have no idea how to deal with. I'm just hoping for an end to the war, I guess, so I can get a new passport."