Sudanese Migrants’ Labor in Times of Economic Crisis and Revolution
Hamze grew up working on his parents’ land in Gezira, two hours south of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. Gezira is known for its fertile land and irrigation-based agrarian production but, like many subsistence farmers in Sudan, Hamze’s family struggles every harvest season to produce enough to sell on the market. To support his family, Hamze eventually sought out other opportunities in the area. In his 20s, he worked in gold mines and date farms in Sudan and on a farm in Ethiopia. To afford his tuition while studying business in college, he worked one summer in an artisanal gold mine in the north. He slept on the ground next to the well, searching for gold underground using a magnet but found nothing. When Hamze returned from the mine that summer, he dropped out of college. He reasoned that he could make better use of his time working abroad and so he went to Beirut in 2019.
Hamze summarized his past vocations—from gold mining and seasonal date farming in Sudan to working in a bakery in Lebanon—without ascribing any particular significance to them. For him and many others, migration in search of work is a job in its own right. What work he performs matters little, since it changes all the time. The goal of migrating is not to get a specific job but rather to return with enough savings to improve the lives of his family members. His movement from one insecure job to the next is part of a transnational, multi-scale economy through which subsistence farmers in Sudan become migrant workers in the Middle East. This economy extends beyond the waged work that migrants may or may not find abroad—it involves families waiting for remittances back home as well as brokers and border guards who profit from migrants’ aspirations and material investments in going abroad.
The economy of migration is cyclical; migrants go abroad, return home and leave again, often accruing debts along the way. Their labor and their debts are integrated with the transnational trade in agrarian produce and other goods that Sudanese farmers invest in to sustain their livelihoods. Hamze’s constant movement in search of income tells one story of this cyclical economy, but it also reveals the labor that is often overlooked as people and goods move from one place to another. For example, the primary export from Sudan to the Gulf—mainly the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia—is gold, which Hamze was digging for in north Sudan, as well as groundnuts and sesame seeds, which his family is growing in Gezira. Born into this economy, where local production depends on transnational circulations and precarious jobs, Hamze has no choice but to migrate, again and again.
The Circular Economy of Migration
Sudanese migrants have worked for Lebanese families and establishments for over half a century. Since the first generation migrated to Lebanon in the 1950s, they have built social and political communities in Beirut, despite being excluded from Lebanese politics and labor laws. Elderly Sudanese migrant workers in Lebanon typically came from the northern region, which has been privileged in Sudan’s postcolonial political and economic reforms. The younger generation of migrants, on the other hand, come from marginalized subsistence farming communities in the western and Nile River regions of Sudan.
In Sudan, labor migration is an intergenerational and gendered obligation; sons follow their fathers, uncles and grandfathers abroad and are often recruited into the same or similar work. The fact that men migrate for work more than women is a consequence of Sudanese law, which since the 1990s has forbidden women from traveling without the company of a male guardian. The resulting absence of men in especially subsistence farming communities has left women in charge of both the farming and household economies in many regions of Sudan. During the oil boom of the 1970s and 1980s, men from northern and western rural Sudan—like men from throughout the Middle East and North Africa—left to find work in the Gulf, Iraq and Libya. Back then migration paid off, and they returned with enough money to change not only their household economies but also their national economies.
During the oil boom of the 1970s and 1980s, men from northern and western rural Sudan—like men from throughout the Middle East and North Africa—left to find work in the Gulf, Iraq and Libya. Back then migration paid off, and they returned with enough money to change not only their household economies but also their national economies.
Many from that generation of migrant laborers retired with enough savings to secure their care in old age and their families’ land tenure. In addition to buying property, many returnees became real estate speculators in Khartoum’s urban expansion. Their remittances also fueled the rise of a new informal Islamic banking system in the 1980s, which targeted small-scale farmers and migrant workers in the Gulf by offering them loans. Today, mobile banking in Sudan has enabled migrants to send money home with a click on their phones.
The nature of migration and the impetus to head to the Middle East has shifted since the 2000s. Young Sudanese men like Hamze still migrate with the aim of returning with enough to invest in a future at home, buy property, marry and settle. Yet they cross borders in much more precarious circumstances with far more tenuous prospects than did their fathers and uncles. One reason for this change is that a decade ago the European Union struck a deal with Sudan’s now-ousted president Omar al-Bashir, known as the “Khartoum Process,” which obligated the state to curb migration from the Horn of Africa. The criminalization of cross-border migration into Europe has, however, generated new regional and transregional routes linking Sudan to neighboring countries and the Middle East. Sudan is today not only a key transit point for transregional clandestine cross-border migration but also a destination in itself for labor migration, especially from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Central Africa.
The proliferation of clandestine cross-border routes also enables more women to migrate. Prior to the mass exodus of migrants from Lebanon in 2020 due to the country’s economic collapse, thousands of Sudanese men and Ethiopian women arrived there every year, and migration has increased again this year. Due to the risks of sexual violence in border crossing, most single Sudanese women, like other African and South Asian migrant women who are headed to Lebanon, fly directly to Beirut on a kafala-contracted work visa. This kind of contract, brokered in Khartoum before they begin the journey, limits them to domestic service jobs that are legal but also highly exploitative and physically exhausting. With the kafala contract, the Lebanese state outsources its responsibility for guest workers to the individual Lebanese kafeel (a citizen employer-sponsor), under whose “care” and, too often, their abuse, migrant women labor.
Most migrants coming from Sudan, however, do not arrive in Lebanon on a kafala contract. Instead, they fly to Syria on a tourist visa and enter Lebanon by a clandestine smuggling route used by a transnational network of brokers in Khartoum, Damascus and Beirut. The journey across the mountain range bordering Syria and Lebanon is dangerous. Sudanese migrants in Beirut recounted leaving co-travelers to die on the side of the road while the smuggler hurried people on. Hamze, who traveled to Lebanon on this route, described being locked in a house “under the ground” at the border for two days while waiting for a safe passage. There were 18 people huddled together without food.
Once in Beirut, the migrants obtain work permits through an informal transaction with Lebanon’s General Security, referred to colloquially as “fixing the situation,” which can cost thousands of dollars and is often set arbitrarily by the individual officer. Most Sudanese migrant men in Beirut take this route, which many insisted is “not safe for women.” The difference between kafala-contracted work and freelance migrant labor does not necessarily indicate a difference in physical and psychological duress. Yet Sudanese migrant men in Beirut often say that their kafala-contracted female migrant colleagues, who are restricted to one employer, work under more precarious conditions. Like other migrants in Lebanon, Sudanese migrants work in the shadows and behind the scenes as domestic servants, private drivers, butlers, cooks, doormen and—more often today—dishwashers and cleaners in restaurants. To survive the rising cost of living in Beirut in 2022, migrants need to work double shifts, 18 hours a day, earning $500 per month if they are lucky. When I spoke to migrants in Beirut this June, however, they told me that their employers refused to hire them for double shifts, leaving them with only $200–250 to pay rent and food for the month. Few can send any money home.
Although differently positioned by their gender and sex in relation to Lebanese employers and households, Sudanese migrant men and women share legal status as so-called domestics, which denies them both reproductive rights and political rights, such as the right to unionize and strike. These factors position them as shadow workers who labor in Lebanon on condition of being temporary and non-political, remaining outside the (already meager) formal protections and institutional access Lebanese workers are given, at least on paper. But migrants in Beirut organize politically nonetheless and build intergenerational networks of mutual aid across gender and nationality.
Mutual Aid Amid Exclusion and Expulsion
In the spring of 2020, Hamze was out of work and staying with friends in Beirut, who were themselves in and out of work. The Lebanese state was declared bankrupt in March of that year. The Covid-19 pandemic lockdown exacerbated the existing economic crisis marked by capital flight and the collapse of the Lebanese currency. The breakdown of Lebanon’s typically resilient restaurant and hospitality sector generated a crisis for everyone, not least for the thousands of migrant workers who were fired from their jobs cleaning, cooking and sweeping the city. Many domestic migrant workers also lost their homes, as their employers could no longer afford to house and feed them. Videos of Lebanese employers dumping their Ethiopian migrant domestic workers on the streets circulated widely in the media in the spring of 2020. The mass expulsion of migrant laborers during the crisis revealed their status as expendable in Lebanon’s economy and underscored the historical and legally ingrained exclusion of migrant workers from Lebanese social and political life.
The crisis in Lebanon reversed the economic flows of migration. Instead of providing for their families by sending remittances back home, unemployed migrant workers had to borrow from their families’ scarce savings and resources to stay alive in Beirut.
In response to the crisis, Ethiopian migrant women began a sit-in in front of their embassy in the Beirut neighborhood of Hazmieh in May 2020, demanding a “right of return” to Ethiopia. Their demand for citizen repatriation grew into a mass movement among migrant workers of different nationalities in Beirut. By June 2020, thousands of migrant workers and their children were sleeping in front of their embassies across the city. After the massive explosion at Beirut’s port on August 4, 2020, destroyed large swaths of the city and left hundreds of migrants and Lebanese citizens homeless, the sit-ins grew more desperate. To survive on the street without an income, migrants pooled their remaining funds while Lebanese and international activists supplied food and medical aid to support the sit-ins. The crisis in Lebanon reversed the economic flows of migration. Instead of providing for their families by sending remittances back home, unemployed migrant workers had to borrow from their families’ scarce savings and resources to stay alive in Beirut. The economic pressure on migrants and their families at home made return not only a political demand but also a material necessity.
Thousands of migrant workers, including at least 2,000 Sudanese, left Lebanon at the end of 2020. But their departure was a compromise from their original demand. Instead of governments providing them with repatriation flights, the returnees relied on funds that Lebanese and international activists had raised on their behalf in the wake of the August 4 explosion. Most of those who returned to Sudan were young men in their 20s who, like Hamze, had become stuck in unemployment amid the economic crisis and political protests. They had borrowed funds from relatives to migrate, expecting to earn twice as much working abroad as they could at home. Instead, these migrants returned to their families with less than they had left with.
From Crisis Abroad to Crisis at Home
The Sudanese migrants who returned home in 2020 may have left behind their liminal status as shadow workers in Lebanon, but they returned to Sudan as citizens without work. They also returned to a country undergoing its own significant transformation. In 2019, the Sudanese people mobilized a peaceful popular revolution that ended Bashir’s 30-year authoritarian rule. Their actions inspired new hope for civil, political and economic inclusion that resounded across and beyond the region—including among the Lebanese people during their own uprising in the fall of 2019.
Yet, for the Sudanese working class and aspirational middle-class youth—including those who returned from Lebanon in 2020—the changing political landscape has not produced work opportunities. Sudan’s economy is marked by crony capitalism, in which economic opportunities, including stable jobs, are hard to get without political and social elite connections. The precarity of urban labor in Khartoum can be traced back to British colonial rule in Sudan, after the abolition of slavery, when formerly enslaved people moved to the city in search of work. Faced with racialized stigma and colonial violence, they settled in informal housing in Khartoum, where they lived and worked alongside others who were stigmatized in the workforce. These social peripheries have since been incorporated into the city, but urban expansion has not been accompanied by the expansion of jobs or a network of state welfare supports. One such neighborhood is Kalakla, on the southern outskirts of Khartoum, where Hamze stayed with friends while looking for a job after he had returned from Lebanon. Like many other migrants who returned from Lebanon’s crisis to another crisis at home, Hamze soon learned that his mobility was his main resource. He invested in migrating again instead of selling his labor power for a wage in Sudan.
Like many other migrants who returned from Lebanon’s crisis to another crisis at home, Hamze soon learned that his mobility was his main resource. He invested in migrating again instead of selling his labor power for a wage in Sudan.
In August 2021, only seven months after returning from Lebanon, Hamze was on his way out of Sudan again. This time he was going to Saudi Arabia, where he had found a job as a private chauffeur through a local migrant broker. Hamze had borrowed the money from relatives to pay the broker’s fee, hoping that he could pay back the debt quickly and that his earnings could be used to expand his family’s crops for the next harvest season.
At the broker’s office in Khartoum’s mughtaribiin zone—meaning “expats” in reference to its many migrant agencies—he purchased a plane ticket and work visa to Saudi Arabia for $1,500. When I joined Hamze on the morning of his purchase, the broker presented us with a speculative chart of the different destinations that weighed the risks and costs of migrating against the potential benefits. “In Saudi,” the broker said, “the work is stable and decently paid, but you can’t leave the employer’s house.” Hamze responded, “As long as the employer [kafeel] is nice.” Laughing, the broker replied, “Well, we can’t promise that.” Migrant brokers might be thought of as greedy middlemen skilled in lies and deception. Yet in this encounter with Hamze, the broker instead tempered the dream of migration with its potential to become a nightmare. When Hamze inquired with the broker about going to Libya, a key transit point for boat migration from Africa to Europe, the broker said, “Well, that’s mughamara; you don’t know what will happen.”
In Sudan, many describe migration itself as mughamara, which is Arabic for adventure, gamble or risk and implies in its root form the act of immersion. The term casts migration as a risk-taking act, throwing oneself into something without knowing the outcome. Like others before him, Hamze pursues migration as a mughamara. For him, the labor is contingent, as is the destination of his movement. He described his trajectory as an act of striving, laying the ground for the future, hoping for a better outcome. He did not go to Lebanon or Saudi Arabia out of a particular desire to live in those countries. He calculated the odds of earning money against the odds of losing more. Hamze did not expect to find happiness in Saudi Arabia; on the contrary, he expected that he would find life there empty and “without freedom.” But he said that one year’s loneliness is worth it if you can yield a future from it. He was going there for “one year only,” or long enough to earn the money he had intended to make in Lebanon in the first place. The migrant broker encouraged this form of speculation. The pros and cons he listed for the different destinations demonstrated a trained understanding of the migrant’s social reproductive needs and desires. He measured the risk of becoming lonely in migration against the security of a stable wage.
Perhaps the broker knew what Hamze wanted because he had been in the same position in a not-too-distant past. The migrant and the broker often overlap in the transregional economy of mobility that links Sudan to Lebanon. Migrant agencies in Khartoum operate as intergenerational family businesses that often employ younger relatives, many of whom later migrate. Migrant returnees who have become brokers make a business out of their own and others’ mobility. Migrants and migrant brokers alike use mobility as a survival mechanism in a transregional economy where mobility is precarious for some and profitable for others and where a person can be a peasant in Sudan and a domestic worker in Lebanon at the same time. The migration of labor is also integrated with the circulation of other cross-border trade. Migrants who cross the borders between Sudan and South Sudan or northern Sudan into Libya report traveling on trucks carrying agrarian produce as well as smuggled goods.
Migration is a labor that never ends and continues after one returns home. The economy of migration reproduces itself through cycles of returning and leaving again. Studying the returns of migrants with both their debts and remittances in tow can illuminate why, despite the risks involved, people continue to migrate. Migration takes a lifetime, and it can take lives, but the labor of migration also produces life. The debts, remittances and affective relations that migrants carry with them back home long outlive the transit time of migration.
Gathering with friends in Khartoum the night before his departure for Saudi Arabia, Hamze expressed a longing for the life and relations he had built in Beirut. “I don’t understand why people are returning to Sudan now, the situation here is very bad,” Hamze said. “I shouldn’t have left Lebanon. I was happy there, what was I thinking? There are no jobs here, Khartoum is shit, and our farm is poor. All the guys who left Beirut, none of them stayed [here] in Sudan. There is nothing here. It was a good life in Beirut.”
[Anna Simone Reumert is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at Columbia University.]
 The interviews for this article were conducted in Lebanon and Sudan in 2020, 2021 and 2022, as part of my doctoral dissertation research project. I met Hamze in Beirut in the fall of 2020, where he, alongside other Sudanese migrant workers, was organizing a sit-in in front of the Sudanese embassy. I met him again in Khartoum in August 2021, where I interviewed him and other returnees who agreed to participate in my research project. I have changed his name to ensure his safety and privacy.