Ghana is safe and stable, but its young people are still risking their lives to cross to Europe

Thou should not cross.
Thou should not cross.
Image: Brennan Weiss
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Kwesi Sampson made his first illegal trek across the Sahara desert nearly a decade ago in hopes of reaching Europe. He didn’t make it.

Sampson worked construction jobs for three years in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, earning more money in one month than what he says he could make in two years back in Ghana. But as Libya descended into civil war in 2011, he decided to return home.

A year later, he set out once again for southern Europe only to return to Ghana a second time in 2014. Now amid increasing economic hardships, the 35-year-old poultry farmer is considering a third attempt.

“You need money to get a visa, but I don’t have money so I would still embark by illegal means to get to Europe,” Sampson said. “There are no jobs [in Ghana] and I want to make money to assist my family.”

Ghanaians are increasingly among the ranks of the tens of thousands of migrants flooding Europe’s southern shores. A total of 5,636 Ghanaian migrants reached Italy by boat in 2016, up 27% from the previous year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Through April of this year, 823 Ghanaians arrived in Italy.

Refugees fleeing violence or oppressive regimes in countries like South Sudan and Eritrea often overshadow the plight of irregular migrants—those who cross international borders without proper documentation—from peaceful, politically stable countries like Ghana.

The West African nation of about 27 million people is an outlier among sub-Saharan African countries with high numbers of migrants. There is no war in Ghana. Few ethnic flare-ups or religious feuds occur, if ever. It’s a staunch ally of the West and a fierce defender of democracy. Yet many Ghanaians still dream of migrating to Europe. 

“Every young person looks up to migration, either internal or international, as an ultimate goal,” said Delali Margaret Badasu, director at the Center for Migration Studies at the University of Ghana. “It’s deep-rooted in their minds.”

Like many irregular migrants, Sampson comes from a small poultry farming community in Dormaa, a rural town in the Brong-Ahafo region just eight miles from the Cote d’Ivoire border. From there, aspiring migrants board Libya-bound buses that pass through Burkina Faso and Niger.

While most migrants come from Brong-Ahafo, it is surprisingly not the poorest region. In fact, it’s not even in the top four.

Migration is an expensive endeavor that can cost individuals and their families thousands of dollars, explains Kazumi Nakamura, IOM’s project manager. It is only possible when one has attained a certain level of economic development.

“If you’re in a community that is so helpless, you can’t arrange to move,” said Nakamura. “The people who move are those who can afford to. In that context, I’m not too surprised that many Ghanaians move.”

Brong-Ahafo is also notable for being the center of Ghana’s floundering poultry industry, which has failed in recent years to adapt to changing market demands. This has put many poultry businesses on the verge of collapse, leaving farmers like Sampson struggling for livelihood.“The farmers are despondent,” said Anthony Abu, secretary for the Ghana National Association of Poultry Farmers in Brong-Ahafo. “People are really unhappy because almost everybody is losing money.”Abu estimates that 60% of poultry farms in the region has folded within the last five years.

Last year, former president John Dramani Mahama invoked poultry farmers during a speech at the United Nations in an apparent attempt to connect Ghana’s migrant crisis to systemic challenges in the poultry industry.

“Some of the young Africans who hazard the desert and Mediterranean Sea to cross to Europe from my country are young poultry farmers or other entrepreneurs who sell their shops and undertake the journey because they can no longer compete with the tons of frozen chicken dumped on African markets annually,” Mahama said.

Vincent Amanor-Boadu, a professor of agribusiness at Kansas State University and co-author of a study on Ghana’s chicken industry, says that perception is misleading. “The whole argument that imports are driving down the Ghanaian poultry market exists because people are looking at imports rising but not at what’s happening in the market,” he said. “Once you talk to [the farmers], you recognize that they’re not actually competing against importers.”

That’s because foreign importers sell processed chicken whereas Ghanaian poultry farmers sell live birds, Amanor-Boadu says. The problem for Ghanaians is that consumers overwhelmingly prefer to buy processed chicken, thereby rendering live birds virtually worthless.

Amanor-Boadu suggests the government avoid trying to regulate imports and instead boost infrastructural conditions and develop processor channels to help domestic farmers sell more processed chicken.

His solution, however, will not single-handedly stem the flow of migrants from Brong-Ahafo. Although a correlation exists between the poultry industry’s struggles and the region’s high number of migrants, other factors come into play.

Migration is considered a rite of passage in Brong-Ahafo for impressionable young people who have for years seen friends and family leave for economic opportunities abroad and return with luxurious possessions and enticing stories of life in the West. What they aren’t told, however, are the stories of those who perish in the desert or sea, or those abused and exploited by smuggling networks along the way.

Early last year, IOM partnered with the Ghana Immigration Service to educate the local population about the dangers of migrating. A Migration Information Center was established in Sunyani, Brong-Ahafo’s capital city, thanks to a $3 million grant from the European Union.

While education may eventually thwart migration over time, economic and societal pressures persuading young people to travel will likely persist. Some will head to more prosperous African countries. Others will continue on to Europe. It’s not so much the destination that matters, but the prospect of leaving Ghana.

“If you go to Accra there is no work there,” said Sampson. “If you go to Kumasi there is no work there. So the only option is to embark on the journey to Europe to better my life.”