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Quiet returns: Reporting from the places where migrants come back

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‘Sometimes I wish the virus would come here and kill me,’ says a young man, perhaps a boy, at the Krisan refugee camp on the south coast of Ghana. It was the end of February 2020, not a single case of Covid-19 had yet to be confirmed in Slovakia or Ghana, and the virus was something abstract, elusive. Slovaks were living in a state of uncertainty. The fear of an invisible attacker turned into the need to have enough food and toilet paper at a minimum as well as prepare for the worst – whatever that might mean. To preserve certainty in the uncertain times that would follow later.

Do you remember the feeling when they reported the first confirmed case of an infected person? Then more and more, the numbers and statistics increased every day, and it became ever more difficult to navigate it all. We cling to our smartphones, scrolling and refreshing the pages of the media. Minute by minute, our feelings of danger and helplessness grow. We suffocate at home and have no idea whether our work will sustain us when it is all over. And when will that ‘then’ be? We follow forecasts, imagine scenarios – Italian, British, Taiwanese. What will happen to us?

With the advent of Covid-19, many of us experienced what vulnerable groups, including migrants and refugees around the world, have been experiencing for many years. Absolute fear, uncertainty and powerlessness to get out of one’s situation. Suddenly, we are all afraid of the future. Remember these feelings, they are important to the story. But for now, back to the young man in Ghana.

The young man talks about Covid-19 partly seriously, partly jokingly. Some camp residents are giggling and nodding in agreement. The inability to get out of a hopeless situation here is known all too well. The locals are joking, but our group of journalists is exchanging confused glances.

We sit in a semicircle with the residents of the camp under a shelter which protects us from the direct sun. Looking at a mobile phone, it shows 36 degrees Celsius – normal weather for February in a West African country. Many people ask for a word; they want to tell their story. I sense that being heard is a rarity.

Many live in the camp with no prospects for years on end. Some have been there since the beginning, i.e. since 1996, when it was built mainly for refugees from Liberia who were fleeing the civil war. Later, refugees from Togo moved here; people from Sierra Leone came here in 2000, and the camp gradually expanded to include people from other countries including Sudan, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire and Chad. There are currently about 600 to 700 people there from 16 countries.

Thousands of pages could be written about their experiences, and each story would be diverse and unique. However, there was a strong element that connected their stories and connected them with the problem facing the whole country. No jobs! – these are the two most common words that resonate when I ask what challenges they face.

I soon find out that this motto is repeated by every person in the remote communities I talk to in Ghana, no matter what part of the country they come from, whether it is a man in a refugee camp, a young Ghanaian from a fishing community on the Atlantic coast or a whole family of farmers from far inland. It is the challenge of the present-day which has been true for several years.

Trying your luck

If you do not have a chance to earn a living in your home country, you begin to look for opportunities in another country. This was also the case for Kingsley, who at the age of nineteen decided to leave for Libya in 2014. He did not tell anyone, apart from his mother, about his plans. He knew that the others would discourage him, and he knew that he might not return. Traveling to Libya meant crossing the borders of Burkina Faso and Niger without permission, walking in the desert for many hours, driving in a crowded jeep and, in particular, entrusting yourself to a network of smugglers who, at best, take your money and really take you from one place to another. The alternative, which is worse, is that they will either hand you over to thieves or abandon you in the desert.

‘My journey was not easy; I suffered a lot. Going through the desert is hard, you have nothing to drink and there is no way to orient yourself. Sometimes we walked for six hours before we got to the car, then again for three hours we were in the car until you came to the next driver. Some of my friends could no longer walk, we had no choice, and we had to leave them there. In Nigeria, I regretted setting out, but I was so far away that there was no going back. If you run into thieves there, they rob you, and if you don’t give them anything, they put a gun to your head and they’re ready to kill you, and if you’re a woman, they’ll rape you,’ Kingsley says. ‘God saved me, I was very lucky, I never even thought I would be sitting here talking with you.’ About 33 from the original group of 50 people made it to Libya.

‘I can’t say I have more opportunities to apply than before I left, but training gives me more ambition to look for them,’ says Kingsley. / Credit: Anna Jacková

The initial enthusiasm for a successful journey will be replaced by the cruel Libyan reality, which is in a state of chaos from the civil war in 2011 and the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Kingsley was lucky to meet a man who himself had come from abroad and hired him. He worked on construction sites, plastering houses. ‘Life there is not easy, but money can be made there. When I saved a little, I thought about going to Europe, to Italy, but in the end, I changed my mind. Many of my friends continued on from Libya, they wanted to get to Europe, but their ship sank and they all died.’

Especially after 2015, when the media transmitted images of people traveling and navigating in boats to Europe on a daily basis, it may have seemed that the so-called migration crisis had come about from one day to the next, but this is not the case. Migration has brought about human development since time immemorial, and human mobility has increased in recent decades due to globalization. Over the last 20 years, international migration has increased by 56 percent, which means that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that there are currently 272 million migrants worldwide.

It is also mistaken to believe that all migrants from Africa travel or want to come to Europe. Most people go to other countries within the region. In the case of sub-Saharan Africa, which includes Ghana, it is as high as 89 per cent.

Migrate again? Not again

Libya became increasingly dangerous for Kingsley. He remembers days when he couldn’t even go out into the street: ‘As a black man, I was not safe. A boy from Nigeria was shot in the street and we couldn’t even bury him. I depended on myself there. I had no one to talk to about what was going on there and what I had survived.’

When I ask Kingsley how it felt to return to Ghana, he smiles with relief, ‘Oh! I felt like I was entering paradise. There is peace in Ghana, you don’t have to worry about being attacked, beaten or arrested at any moment. There was not a day when I felt happy there.’

Kingsley did not tell anyone but his mother that he was leaving, and he did not want to draw attention to himself even after his arrival. In the city of Techiman, migration is very widespread, many young people leave and most often they go to Libya. Poorly built infrastructure and, in particular, desperately poor working conditions will sooner or later push these people out of their communities. It takes great determination to earn at least some money when you are willing to travel through the desert, or several countries, knowing that you may not even reach your destination. And it is also not a given that they will actually pay you for your work.

Homecoming is sometimes very bitter for returnees. Local communities and the family look at those who have failed to make at least some money abroad with distrust. Since the horrors that accompany migration have not been discussed much in public to date, locals sometimes have the false impression that their family member did not try hard enough when they see the handful of others who have been successful. The pressure on young people to ‘try their luck’ in Libya or elsewhere is enormous. Vulnerable young people do not migrate just because of economic opportunities, they do so on behalf of the whole community. According to Senegalese geographer and migration specialist Papa Demba Fall, social death is in a sense a greater fear for migrants than physical death in the desert or Libya.

Schoolgirls walk along a treetop walkway in Kakum National Park. / Credit: Anna Jacková

The Sahara looks fascinating from a bird’s eye view. The vast landscape undulates in harmonious patterns of sand dunes. While I could observe this natural scenery in the comfort of my plane, I wondered how many people had died on the way toward a better life. ‘Wait, I’ll show you something,’ Kingsley says. He pulled out his mobile phone, rummaged through it for a moment, and turned the screen on, showing a dusty white jeep that was parked in the desert with bodies lying by the wheels. ‘I show these pictures to people who are thinking about leaving.’

He wouldn’t go on a similar journey, and when he tells me his plans for the future – he wants to start a small aluminum business in the capital Accra – we move together to the next room, where educational training programs for young people will begin in a moment.

Breaking the stereotype

All of the windows along the two walls are darkened, but the heat still crept into the room, which will be used for training so-called soft skills. It’s eight o’clock in the morning and the room will gradually be filled with about 20 young people between the ages of 18 and 28, including Kingsley. Lecturer Angela asks the group what they learned yesterday and what they talked about. ‘About empathy,’ a woman’s voice came from a corner of the room. ‘And what does that mean?’ Angela asks.

There is a lively discussion in a local dialect that I don’t understand, but everyone wants to get involved in the debate and have their say. A card with a QR code hangs on their necks instead of a name tag. The organizers of the workshops thus protect sensitive data about the course participants.

Many of them have made illegal trips abroad, others may be considering traveling. It is for them, for returnees and potential migrants, that the project is intended. The aim is to work with young vulnerable people, teach them skills that will help them find a job in the domestic market and integrate back into life in the local community. Emigration is a very common phenomenon in the Bono East region in the middle of Ghana, with Libya being the most popular choice.

Four project managers split up, one group leading courses in Nkoranza, the other in Techiman, a 20-minute drive away. Trainings start from half past eight and last until half past two. ‘We have to adapt to school schedules, because many of the participants already have families to take care of in the afternoon,’ explains project manager David Atedewe Pwayidi.

In addition to educational and training workshops for returnees, the organizers of the Action for the Protection and Integration of Migrants project in West Africa also hold community discussions. People who fail to make money abroad suffer from significant stigma. ‘We conduct these community discussions so that young people can tell others what’s really going on the road, and how very physically and mentally difficult it is,’ explains David. ‘When locals understand that “trying your luck” in many cases means dying in the desert or being under constant stress because someone will just attack and beat you on the street, it will reduce the pressure on young people. Sometimes they come back and are even worse off than before they left.’

It’s noon, the temperature has long since exceeded thirty, and I’m moving to another city to see the instructors working in the field. In this group, women outnumber men, and many young mothers have sleepy young children in their scarves while they write diligently in their notebooks. Exhausted by the heat, I watch everyone in the group work hard with a common mission of leadership.

The fortress of Elmina was built by the Portuguese in the 15th century and became a place where enslaved locals gathered in dungeons and exported for forced labour abroad. Today, the fortress is a museum. / Credit: Anna Jacková

I still have Libya on my mind

Agyei from Offuman also had a desire to work, but he especially had courage and perseverance. At the time I am speaking with him, it’s only been three weeks since he returned from Libya after eight years. He and his wife would like to have a child, but he would not allow Agyei to come to him. The road is too risky and life in Libya is very dangerous. ‘I still have Libya in my head,’ says Agyei. He, like Kingsley, worked on construction sites, plastering houses in Misrata. ‘I got up at four-five in the morning and finished around eleven in the evening,’ says Agyei, showing me the last large villa he had been working on three months before he left. ‘You sleep and work in the same place, and when you finish the work, you move on to the next building. Since you work on the street, sometimes a car will pull up and someone in it tells you that he is offering you a job. Then, there are two possibilities, either it’s true and you really get a job, or it’s a thief who takes you to a remote place and robs you.’

It took a month for Agyei to get to Libya. ‘Smugglers use the same car,’ he points to the white jeep behind us. ‘Women go in front; men go in the back. They tie them up and throw a tarp over them. They settle you in, and you’re in that position until you reach the finish line. There were about 30 people in our car. If the police stop you, the driver says he is transporting melons or fruit, and sometimes the inspector pulls out a knife to make sure and starts piercing the sheet to make sure. If there are people hidden inside, there will definitely be a scream, some are bleeding, others take care of their own wounds upon arrival.’

During his eight years in Libya, Agyei suffered no serious injuries, unlike his co-workers, who had to recover from knife stab wounds. However, he was often robbed on the street, they took his mobile phone or the money he had with him. ‘If the police stop you and you don’t have papers or a passport with you, they will arrest you. I was lucky because I always managed to call the people I worked for and they got me out of there,’ says Agyei. Worse, when migrants have no one to vouch for them, they end up in Libyan prisons or detention centres – with cruel treatment and conditions and work like prisons.

‘As soon as you are arrested, you become a prize, either someone pays for you or you stay there until you die.’ There are officially eleven detention camps in Libya, but the IOM points out that there are a number of unofficial camps, where there is no access to humanitarian workers. Enslaving people in detention camps who have tried unsuccessfully to sail from the Libyan coast to Europe is a reality. Agyei’s words are also confirmed by a report from CNN, which noted how imprisoned migrants in Libya were sold into slavery.

I ask him if he would return to Libya. ‘You know, difficulties here force you to leave. If you stay here, you struggle, you struggle there too, but sometimes you can at least earn something. During my time in Libya, I saw some people go to Ghana and then return three or four times.’ Agyei also feels pressure from his family: ‘I know I was away for a long time and I missed them. But after three weeks at home, I feel it’s probably best if I go back.’ After this sentence, David, who sits with us all the time under a huge tree, purses his lips and shakes his head, but says nothing.

Foreigners welcome

The next day, I sit in a workshop room in Nkoranza, talking to Emmanuel about his experiences abroad, when the Greek Coast Guard pushed away a rubber boat containing people and fired shots into the water. I ask him what he would like to tell the people of Europe. ‘You would be welcome here,’ he replies. ‘We would accept them just like I am saying to you now, simple.’

Welcoming foreigners – it’s not just Emmanuel’s cordial nature, I also experience a friendly attitude towards foreigners first-hand, wherever I appear in Ghana. At first, I thought that the buildings in front of which several flags from all over the world were flying, were the headquarters of international organizations. It turned out that they are all hotels and the locals show their hospitality and welcome people from abroad this way. In recent years, the Chinese flag in particular has been added – China is not only investing in Ghana, but it is investing billions across the continent. Spheres of influence can be seen everywhere, from the increasing number of hotels and infrastructure to the Africa World Airlines, in which the Chinese HNA Group also has a stake.

However, a foreign investor has its own workforce and often pushes local players out of the fragile market. This can also be seen in the fishing community in Elmina on the west coast of Ghana. It is a bustling place where you can smell fish from the local market, the locals are shouting at each other and negotiating prices, dozens of boats are moored at the shores and fishermen are preparing for another trip to the open sea.

Fishermen in Elmine. / Credit: Anna Jacková

I’m talking to the captain of one of the crews: He’s a young man who says it’s been harder to fish lately. Large Chinese ships have much more advanced technology and larger crews, their incomparably smaller wooden one-engine boats cannot even compete with them. They thus push the locals out of business. ‘Sometimes we are at sea for three days and don’t catch anything. And even if we catch something, it’s often not even for our own consumption, not even as a commodity on the market,’ he says. I ask the whole crew if they have ever thought about migration. Everyone nods in agreement. ‘We want to work; we want to feed ourselves; we will learn anything,’ voices come in from all sides.

‘You look like your voice matters,’ the captain turns to me and my colleague. His sensitive perception and careful observation of the situation surprise me, but he is right. A pair of Bulgarian colleagues with expensive film technology walk past me, and I, a white woman, a reporter with a dictaphone in her hand, suddenly realize that the door is open for me everywhere. ‘If we ever come to Europe, please don’t hurt us,’ he added.

According to the New York Times, since March 2020, the Greek Coast Guard has pushed away and abandoned more than a thousand people in rubber boats.

Anna Jacková, FJÚŽN

This article was originally published in Slovak. Anna Jackova was one of 10 journalists who travelled with MRG to Ghana as part of the project ‘Media, Minorities and Migration’.

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