Gideon and his wife migrated to Libya, but when the situation in the country began to deteriorate, they returned to Ghana with the help of the IOM. Today they live near Accra and own a grocery store.

Returning migrants are often rejected by their own families

Text Anna Jacková
FOTO Anna Jacková

Project Manager David Atedewe Pwayidi helps vulnerable young people returning from dangerous travels abroad to reintegrate into local communities in a region of Ghana where emigration is widespread. Libya is a popular choice, with an estimated 30,000 Ghanaians. „We are trying to raise awareness not only about the dangers that young people face with illegal migration. We involve local communities and returning families in the discussions as well. The locals have no idea about the brutal experiences the migrants have gone through, so that in a country like Libya, during their first attempt to step out in the streets, they end up either behind bars or robbed and beaten due the sole fact that they are migrants.“

When we talk about migration, we usually read about a person travelling from one country to another, whether legally or illegally. There is little discussion on those who decide to return to their home country after some time. What is the situation like in Ghana, where migration is a typical occurence?

There are several initiatives in Ghana attempting to provide support to people coming back home. The problem is that we do not yet have a coordinated approach, even at the state level, on how to work with them. Some return with the help of the IOM (International Organization for Migration). They will either get stuck in Libya or anywhere in Europe, and if they manage to contact the office, the IOM helps them travel back home. But then there is a huge group of people who decide to leave the host country by themselves and return to their communities in silence.

Migration in Europe, especially after 2015, is perceived by the Europeans, including Slovaks, with mostly negative connotation. It is seen as a social scare and political agenda. How do people perceive migration in the country where thousands of them leave?

That is just one side of the coin and yes, thousands and thousands of people are migrating to North Africa, Europe or the United States, but it also needs to be said that thousands of people are coming back. The issue of returnees is a part of a whole story of what we often call illegal migration. Most of them leave precisely for reasons that put them into the position of economic migrants. In Ghana, unemployment is a grave issue, people are trying to earn some money wherever possible, if at all, but at the same time, they must also think about taking care of the family. In a place where there is no hope for improvement, migration is a light at the end of the tunnel. But the truth is that most of them will return and, unfortunately, will be even worse off than before they had left. Many people know that going north for work is very difficult, they are not naive. They know that on the way across the Sahel they risk their lives, many are robbed, beaten, raped or imprisoned. They return home without money, but with lifelong trauma.

Ghana, however, is not a war-torn country, people do not have to flee for fear of life. How is it possible, then, that despite all the dangers they face on the road and in a host country like Libya, they keep leaving? Is it worth it?

A few of them might say they would rather die trying to migrate than stay and die slowly in despair. Do you know what it’s like to wake up and think about where your next meal is coming from? They try everything, but without any job opportunities, it is simply not possible. Most of them do not have high education, their skills are limited to hard manual work. There is not enough of that one, either.

They think – I will bite the bullet, go earn something and come back. Because they saw that one or two out of ten had succeeded – meaning they had managed to make a little sum of money abroad. In such a situation, one just holds on to the hope, they want to go and try, to see with their own eyes what it’s like to migrate.

david.jpgDavid Atedewe Pwayidi is playing with children from school next door during a youth training break in Nkoranza.

From the point of view of Europeans, it may seem inconceivable that someone would set out voluntarily on a journey that could result in death. What is the thing that drives them away?

This is precisely the gap in perception between host countries and countries of origin. I think that the host countries do not often fully understand why these people come and what unbearable living conditions they have left. People have no idea about the brutal experiences migrants have gone through. In a country like Libya, during their first attempt to step out in the streets, they end up either behind bars or robbed and beaten, just for the sole fact that they are migrants.

At the same time, many of these so-called economic migrants really love their country, they love their families, their home. So why go to Libya or Italy? Because they have to take care of their families. They wouldn’t leave if they didn’t have to. It’s not really about their desire to occupy Europe, they are just looking for an opportunity to improve their financial situation at least a little.

Another widespread opinion, not only in Slovakia, is that migrants are a security threat, or someone who might steal our jobs.

A migrant who is trying to find any kind of job would not jeopardize their opportunities in a foreign country by committing criminal activity. The one person they would mostly endanger is themselves. If they get involved in some kind of funny business, it reduces their chances of making money. The only possible solution is to rejuvenite the system and provide economic opportunities at home, which calls for building an infrastructure system first. It is essential to put pressure on our country leaders, perhaps with the support of the EU, otherwise the situation with illegal migration will never change. Migrating legally is virtually impossible.

Why is it so difficult to migrate legally?

The requirements to do so are disproportionately high. To be able to leave, you must prove that you own a property, claim 100,000 cedes in your bank account (approximately €16,200) and a certificate of employment or from a school abroad. The vulnerable of the Bono East region have simply no chance of meeting such demands without any support. There are no basic structures, they have no one to turn to in case they need help completing their visa application, let alone meeting all the necessary conditions. Even qualified, working people get their applications routinely rejected.

Why is it so hard?

The reason is a perception that most local people want to leave and never return. Thus, if they see an application from a young man working for minimum wage, they automatically assume a possibility that he will never return. This distorted view persists. If young people see that not even those they look upon get the visa, how can they get it themselves, without any guarantees?

Embassies and consulates follow their own rules which are often outdated and do not reflect reality. In the days before and shortly after gaining independence, Europe had very close relations with African states, often without a visa policy. But when political turbulence ensued in independent African countries, many Ghanaians, as well as people from other African countries, used the lax visa system and left the continent. Europe has therefore revised and made visa policy more difficult. These standards, however, were implemented 30-40 years ago and have not changed since. This is why it is high time for these rules or regulations to be adapted to reflect the reality that currently disadvantages vulnerable groups around the world. In their conditions, even trustworthy and honest people turn to illegal solutions and their numbers will only rise.

The coast of the capital Accra, Ghana.

Many might argue here that Europe has its own problems, people are struggling for jobs. Until recently, the strongest political party in Slovakia, SMER, even spread a video on protection from illegal migrants who steal our jobs during their election campaign. Some may be honestly scared of this.

As I said, forced migration is accompanied by general discrepancy and injustice in its perception. You have been out there and talked to many returnees or potential migrants. How many of them could „steal“ a job from an average European? Probably not a lot. These boys have no skills, many of them had to leave school early. They only have their stamina to work, courage and desire to learn new things.

They are willing to do jobs at which many Europeans turn their nose up, such as cleaning, construction, etc. What kind of job stealing are we talking about, then? I do not think that a vulnerable person without proper skills would be a threat to others. There is obviously something wrong about this approach.

At a meeting with representatives from the Ghana Refugee Board, they told us that they were particularly interested in people who would benefit the system. If a trained doctor comes from another country, it’s great for the economy, as Ghana has a shortage of doctors. What is your opinion on such a selective approach?

Refugees have more potential in this instance than economic migrants. I am talking about those who have reached a certain level of education, such as doctors or teachers who have been persecuted at home. But even so, each country has its own standards. This does not mean that if an experienced doctor comes from abroad, they will automatically get a job on the next day. They must also take all the necessary steps in the system of the new country in order to be applicable, which is where we stumble upon the issue of equal opportunities. And you are afraid of a young vulnerable man who comes from the poorest parts of the world to make a living.

You work as a project manager in an international project Action for the Protection and Integration of Migrants (APIMA) which engages five West African countries – Ghana, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Gambia. What has been your motivation to work with returnees?

I come from a border town in the north near Burkina Faso. I’ve seen people on their travels and I know their stories very well. I have always been in touch with the topic of migration. I am delighted to see how these young people are getting educated, albeit on basic life skills. Of course, we do not have all the solutions, but I think, in a sense, we play an important role in their lives. We work with young people, but we have also been able to involve their families and community leaders. Thanks to that, we can organize open and direct community discussions, where we talk about the risks of illegal migration. We try to point out the reality which is that many return home even worse-off than before leaving. We feel that there is a big gap between what parents and community leaders think and what the reality truly is. Many people think that „out there“ is a paradise on earth, but the reality is different.

What kind of trainings do you provide? What do you teach?

We teach, for example, communication skills, financial literacy, we teach them to set some basic goals and plans, which is something no one has ever taught them before. Many of them come from isolated poor communities and all they want to do is take care of themselves and their families. We provide them with skills and experience so that they can find their way in life in the future. The only way for them in the past was to travel to Libya and beyond and we want to show them that there are other options, too.

Course participants in Techiman take notes during the break.

What is the role of leaders in local communities?

Ghana has always been a combination of different communities, cultures and ethnic groups. Before independence, people lived in communities and were loyal to them, to their immediate surroundings. In individual communities there are leaders, traditional authorities, who, so to speak, created structures and conditions for trade or agriculture and have considerable power. Of course, due to colonialism, we have moved more towards the British model of state organization, but even 60 years after gaining independence, community leaders still have a strong position in society. In various respects, government has the main say, but in people’s daily lives, community leaders have a great influence on their opinions.

Can community leaders then be expected to influence the locals‘ access to migration to a significant extent?

Yes, they have authority over the people. It must be said that even the leaders themselves are sometimes ill-informed about the dangers that await migrants during their journey. If leaders feel that there is nothing good for the young in their local community, they encourage them to go, try their luck and come back with a bit of money. Many are often unaware that the journey can end in death or great mental trauma. Obviously, this is not the right way to inform young people in one’s community.

Young people are therefore under enormous pressure, not only from their families, but from their communities as well.

That is why we try to involve them in our programs, in order to disrupt the culture of silence and stigmatization of those who have returned, failed and are afraid to talk about their experiences. The level of stigmatization is very high, because people think that when someone comes back without money, they had to do something wrong, they are lazy, and so on. Often even their family members do not understand and have enough information about what illegal travelling includes. As a reaction, we launched community discussions to give returnees the opportunity to say what they went through and to share their experiences with others. Some participants tell us that the considerable pressure of their families and communities to migrate has diminished because they already understand what it means todo so. They don’t tell them things like: „You are just wasting your time and life here, go to Libya, you will make some money there“ anymore.

Are there any statistics on how many Ghanaians have left the country?

Obtaining accurate data on illegal migration is very complicated. Those who leave do not want to be known, as they are afraid of sanctions. And then, of course, in host or transit countries it is difficult to find out where they really come from without a proof. According to the IOM data, there should be about 30,000 Ghanaians in Libya, most of whom have been imprisoned in detention centers. The real numbers are much higher, though, as thousands of people died on the way to Libya and others died at sea.

You use CommCare application when working with potential migrants and returnees. How does it work?

We decided to use the application because it is very difficult to collect data and specific information during their travels or after they enter their destination country. Thanks to the app, however, we are able to target and connect with the communities where the returnees arrive, but also with potential migrants. We are lucky because most migrants from Ghana return to their original communities and we can connect with them. All you have to do is register. Through the application we can also see which trainings people attended, whether those are skill-building trainings, providing psychological support, as almost everyone who returns home comes back with deep trauma, or engaging in community discussions. After each activity, we ask for feedback – Have you learned anything new? Has your perception of illegal migration changed after your training? Would you travel again? Would you advise someone to leave? – to understand whether our interventions and the strategies we use are effective.

Are they?

I dare say that to a large extent, they are. The advantage of the app is that it runs offline, too, as we work in communities with power outages and poor internet access as well.

Let’s say I’m a migrant who has returned and want to get involved in your training. How do I use the application?

As we work with sensitive data and particularly vulnerable youth, we need to be careful about the type of data we collect and store – for example, we do not collect real names. We will ask them to log in under a different name or a nickname that only they can remember and if the data falls into the wrong hands, they will not be able to directly identify anyone. We only ask them for basic information and when they register, they get a white card with a QR code that connects them to the profile, so that we can keep track of who participated in which trainings. This data is only available to a very small group of project managers, but it enables us to retrospectively evaluate our efforts.

What is the biggest challenge in this project?

The project has limited duration. We started in 2017 and are finishing in September 2021. We only have a few months left. It is important that we come up with steps that are both sustainable and long-term for it to keep working. Once our donor funding ends, it will be uncertain whether we will be able to continue. Community discussions can go on, but the situation will be different with other trainings, as we will have no funding for the methodologists themselves and for financing our meeting places.

Do you have information or data about people who went through your programs and still migrated again?

Yes, it happens. Out of the group of 180 people we had in training aimed at finding a job on the labor market, about eight people went back to Libya. One of them even called me. He said that he was grateful for the training and that he also tried to take care of himself on the way and plan for the future when he’d save some money. I’m glad he’s trying to make plans in his life, but at the same time, I was sad when he left. Everyone knows my opinion on leaving.

Is it your intention to convince young people not to leave?

Migration is good. It’s not about trying to stop someone from leaving. The problem is the illegal journeys which can end tragically. That shouldn’t happen.

You said yourself, though, that migrating legally is almost impossible.

Exactly. Therefore, when dealing with and setting the rules, state institutions should keep in mind that migration policies should be sufficiently transparent and simpler, as it is the vulnerable group of young people who simply do not have access to them. The current legal migration policies are set up so that they are not even an option for certain groups of people.

Are there more men leaving than women?

Men are the larger group, but we are noticing the number of women who migrate growing. These illegal journeys are even more dangerous for them.

How many people took part in your program?

At the beginning it was about 800 people, now we have about three or four thousand in our database. In terms of overall reach, we also have around 600,000 participants in other countries.

Migration is still a taboo topic, but returnees can share their experiences in community discussions.

Let’s talk about mental health. I talked to many returnees about their mental state, and many of them told me that they were anxious and sometimes suffered from depression. At the same time, from what they told me, I felt that they were taking these consequences as a natural part of migration, where one just needs to bite the bullet. But with mental health, traumatic experiences can’t just be turned off, they won’t leave on their own.

I completely agree. There is not one returnee who did not claim suffering from any form of trauma. We try to address this within the project. One of the first things is providing psychological support and subsequent training to build resilience, which helps them build a certain stability in life. We also try to work with other people in the community. What is important here is the process of reintegrating the returnee into the community, working with the environment to better understand the migration experience and not blaming them for coming home and being of no use there. We try to explain that migrating is not so easy. But, of course, mental health problems do not end here, and most of them are sleep-deprived by these traumas. It takes a long time to crawl one’s way out.

Do you think that the stigma surrounding returnees is still persistent, or do you observe a slow recession? What is the situation now?

I think that the work we do in the communities improves it. Community members are better informed. Until now, they have been associating migration with the expectation that the returnee will bring home money and have not been interested in the other parts involved in the journey and the stay abroad, which is a very simplistic view. When we were able to involve the community in the discussions and find out what the whole process of the trip entails, such as frequent assaults, imprisonment, or not getting paid for their work, they changed their minds. Even BBC reports, for example, have helped change perceptions because people consider the international media credible. They then stop pressuring their loved ones to go and „try their luck“ when they see that their brothers and sisters are being treated so inhumanly.

How does the journey begin? If someone decides to go abroad, whom do they contact? How does it work here?

It’s easier than it may seem, in fact. The last man you talked to summed it up quite honestly. If you start looking for a way to leave, you can easily find it. It used to be enough just to come to the bus station, where there were a lot of trucks parked with Libyan plates. The government has already banned that, but you cannot stop the information from spreading. As soon as you decide, all you have to do is ask your friends or acquaintances, because almost everyone in your circle knows someone who has either left or who has returned.

In border towns you can meet hundreds of such men, that are determined to leave. And a part of the whole process are corrupted officials who have to be paid for you to move from one place to another. There is a huge number of people who have set out for a journey in the communities we operate in.

Migration is a process. Are there any networks of smugglers or agents who do business illegally?

These agents do work in some places, but in these communities, just because of the fact that emigration is so widespread here and so is information, the agents no longer benefit from it. It’s easy to learn how to travel in your own communities. It should not be forgotten that this is a cultural and social problem – we are growing up in a society that glorifies the opportunity to make money abroad. Your own grandmother can describe the route for you.

The people who make business from the journeys are mostly the ones in transit countries. Once you cross the borders of your home country, you will start relying on these smugglers and agents, especially if you do not speak their language. You have no control over anything, so you have nothing left but to be led by them.

What is the official position of the Ghanaian government towards migration?

The government, of course, argues that migration should be controlled, legal and safe. The citizens should be treated with dignity and in accordance with human rights, but this is not happening and that is a case not only in transit and host countries like Libya, but also in Europe. If we thus look comprehensively at the whole situation, we find ourselves in a cycle where neither side respects international norms and laws. Of course, the government believes that local communities should have access to education and employment, but little has been done, especially for young people leaving school.

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