By Khalid Abdelaziz and Nafisa Eltahir
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - At downtown Khartoum's al-Souq al-Arabi, travel agencies helping young Sudanese seek a brighter economic future in Egypt are replacing once-packed hardware stores in a corner of the capital's main commercial hub.
The exodus reflects growing despondence over prospects at home, where the economy has been in free fall and the U.N. says food shortages affect a third of the population. Power and water cuts are common. Anti-army protests have rocked the streets since a coup a year ago.
Following the military takeover, which toppled a civilian-led government that had promised a new economic dawn, the number of those leaving has accelerated, travel agents and migrants say.
Egypt, already home to a Sudanese community estimated at 4 million, offers few of the lucrative jobs that Sudanese migrants have traditionally sought in the Gulf, but it is an easier and often more familiar destination.
And while some do travel onward on treacherous Mediterranean trips to Europe, Egypt has notable advantages.
Young Sudanese can travel there cheaply and hunt for work, while families seek healthcare, education for their children and a stable life.
"All us young people want to build a future, but you can't do that here," said Munzir Mohamed, a 21-year-old trying to book a bus trip to Egypt at one of the travel agencies.
The owner of a Khartoum bus company said as many as 30 buses were taking around 1,500 passengers to Egypt from Sudan daily, which he said was up 50% from last year, despite sharp ticket price increases. Two travel agents estimated the number of young men seeking to make the journey had doubled in the last year.
There are no publicly available figures to show recent migration trends from Sudan to Egypt. But an Egyptian diplomat said numbers travelling had been on the rise since 2019, when an uprising led to the overthrow of former Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir.
"Movement of Sudanese people into Egypt has been increasing ... gradually and proportional to the deterioration of the situation in Sudan," he said.
TAXES AND FEES
In al-Souq al-Arabi, labourers, electricians, and others who would typically be at building sites idle away the time drinking tea and playing board games while they wait for work.
"We used to hope for five minutes to take a seat. Now I'm sat here all day," said the owner of one hardware store still operating in the market.
Much of the paltry income that shopkeepers and stall-holders can still make goes to higher taxes, dues, and license fees introduced by a government that lost billions in external economic support after the coup, they say.
The finance minister, Jibril Ibrahim, said on Sunday the country would rely on its own internal resources for a second year to fund the budget, despite the government struggling to provide basic services.
Taxes and fees have risen by 400% or more in some instances, business owners say.
"It's impacted us hugely," said the hardware store owner.
Traders shut down main markets in the cities of Sennar and Gedaref this month in protest at the charges. Further closures are due in the city of El Obeid this week. The government, with no new prime minister appointed since the coup, is juggling strikes by electricity and sewage workers as well as trainee doctors over low wages.
The finance ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Official inflation has eased from a high of 423% last year to 117% in August, which businessmen and analysts say reflects economic stagnation. It is still one of the highest rates globally.
The Sudanese pound depreciated by 950% over the past four years, while fuel, once subsidized, has become more expensive than in many wealthier countries.
Business owners say most people can no longer afford much beyond basic goods, causing traders and factories to slow down or close up shop.
That may push more people to leave. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), "anticipates that more people will consider migration as an option," a spokesman for the U.N. agency said in reference to Sudan.
Circumstances in Egypt are also difficult with inflation running at its highest in almost four years, and almost a quarter of youths unemployed, according to the International Labour Organisation.
Sudanese youth often end up working menial jobs in factories, gold mines, or as domestic help, travel agents and migrants say. But they have a community to lean on, and can earn more than at home.
"My whole family in Sudan worked and we still weren't making much, and it would all go towards food," said 23-year-old Malaz Abbakar, who moved to Egypt two years ago.
Now, she says, she's able to send her family up to 120,000 Sudanese pounds ($208) per month working as a babysitter.
Stores selling Sudanese foods have cropped up in Cairo, private schools advertise Egyptian branches on billboards in Khartoum, and many travel to Egypt for healthcare that's become expensive or unavailable back home.
For some, like 23-year-old Adam from war-stricken Darfur, Egypt is a stopover before the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.
"It's dangerous but it's better to risk it and have a good life than to suffer in poverty and hopelessness," he said as he queued for a visa at the Egyptian consulate in Khartoum, along with dozens of other would-be migrants.
($1 = 578.00 Sudanese pounds)
(Additional reporting by Eltayeb Siddig and Hadeer Mahmoud; writing by Nafisa Eltahir; editing by Aidan Lewis and Frank Jack Daniel)