From Ghana to an Unmapped Future The West African Migration Route to Europe

War, violence, and persecution have forced millions of people to leave their homeland. The share of refugees worldwide is increasing each year. Currently, there are more than 70 million displaced people (refugees, internally displaced and stateless people) in the world. The majority of them stay in their homeland, a share of 85% lives in developing countries.  Poverty, lacking economic prospects, hunger, natural catastrophes, growing populations and different impacts of climate change are other reasons that motivate people to leave their homes . Thousands of West Africans go into a journey across the Sahara desert every year to reach Europe. The route that goes from Ghana through Niger and Libya has become the most popular for Ghanaian ‘backdoor’ migrants. Many don’t know their destination for sure when they leave, and their fate is profoundly influenced by the economic and security situation they might face in Libya.


Niger and the Sahara Desert

Niger is a central country both of origin and transit for migrants traveling to North Africa and eventually Europe. The city of Agadez, traditionally a crossroad of trans-Saharian trade, has become a hub for immigration and a point of departure for immigration from Sub-Saharan Africa. The transit from Niger to Libya is very dangerous, as it involves crossing the Sahara desert and being exposed to heat, cold, possible dehydration and water, and food shortages. Other common dangers linked to this route are asphyxiation of passengers in overcrowded trucks, the abandonment of migrants in the desert by smugglers running away from police – which can also lead to death if assistance arrives too late – along with corruption, abuse, and violence from border officials, bandit attacks, robbery, imprisonment or rape.

The journey from Agadez to Libya wasn’t problematic in the region until 2015. Migrants were the primary source of income in Agadez and their transportation to Libya was regarded as normal, served as an important form of occupation in northern Niger and contributed to stability and economic development in that region. However, things changed when Niger, pressured by the EU, passed an ‘anti-smuggling law’ in 2015. According to Reuters, “The European Union said that only 1,500 migrants crossed Niger in November [2017], down from 70,000 in May, crediting the change to a new partnership strategy it launched with Niger last year.” 

Human smugglers can be now sent for 5 to 10 years in prison and fined up to 5 million CFA francs ($8,600). Functioning as a complex network, researchers broadly agree that smugglers have the capacity to adapt rapidly to enforced border controls and anti-smuggling policies. Migrant routes are also changing and diversifying, adapting to manifold challenges, such as stricter border controls, conflicts, environmental disasters or weather conditions, for instance. However, emerging migrant routes tend to become more dangerous than the preceding ones. Moreover, the movement of people within Africa is increasingly becoming more difficult and dangerous. 

Migrant Deaths Worldwide 2014-2018

The European Union has signed since the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015 several migration pacts with African nations to stop migration flows, by strengthening borders and policing migratory routes. The EU has founded an Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, through which it has invested billions of Euros in African countries to strengthen border control. For Ghanaians and other Western Africans transiting Niger to arrive in Libya and maybe Europe, going north of Agadez, even though Niger is an ECOWAS member, it has become hard. “Anyone who cannot prove they are Nigerien is considered a possible clandestine immigrant and may be sent back south, sometimes after a short time in prison.”

Europe’s Most Fortified Border is in Africa

Libya was a fairly safe place for migrants from Sub-Saharan countries under Qaddafi’s rule. Many spent some time there to work, earn money and send remittances back home. Even though Libya didn’t have an asylum law, political refugees could likewise find refuge and even support in the Libyan society, without necessarily having to travel further to Europe.

After Qaddafi’s fall in 2011, however, the situation changed for Sub-Saharan migrants and refugees. Libya has one of the worst freedom rankings in the world, according to Freedom House, with de-facto no government, autonomous militias, extremist groups, and criminal networks have proliferated in the country. Human rights are being violated and thousands of people have been displaced ever since due to ongoing violence.

In the report “More Than One Million Pains: Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys on the Central Mediterranean route to Italy”, published by the Women’s Refugee Commission, researcher Sarah Chynoweth gives insights on the impact different forms of violence and sexual abuse might have on unaccompanied boys that travel to Europe through Libya. A child protection officer describes it as follows:The impact is both psychological and existential. It starts an endless loop of confusion, shame, isolation, frustration, and exhaustion. A failure loop. Especially for the Muslim boys, it’s very hard on them because of their religion. They are not accepted, they are cast out. They feel like misfits, outcasts, when they are engaging in sex work. They can’t reach out to their community. The feelings are overwhelming—they have no peace and it’s very disrupting, so they stop communicating with family at home, so it’s even more isolating. The family has put a lot on the boy—maybe they sold their home to get him to Europe. They put their faith and hopes on the boy to make money, but it is very hard on him. He has to learn a new language, a new culture, a new way of being. The money from this work is haram [forbidden], so he cannot send it back to them, so there is more isolation. They end up collapsing inside because they can’t cope.

The social entrepreneur and founder of the Green Africa Youth Organisation, Desmond Alugnoa, was eager to find professional success after finishing school. He shared with the younger generations in Ghana the same feelings of disorientation and unrest about his future. Many people approached him with promises of a better and easy to reach future in Europe. He questioned every offer systematically, asking himself what that person might want to win out of it. He informed himself, he researched, he talked with people. In the end, he decided not to emigrate to Europe through the backdoor, but to search for official channels and to become a social entrepreneur.One of the things I normally say is: ‘stay’. What is realistic is that the struggle is there. But what is also realistic is that attempting to go outside of your country, especially through Libya, which is the most popular route, is worse. If a young person didn’t get the chance to learn about the journey, once he or she starts planning, it would be very good to listen to responsible authorities. If you stay, you have a lot of opportunities. The very first one is the peace of mind. When you have that, no matter what struggle you are facing, you will find a future. I am the only graduate in my entire clan. I did not have people who had money and could give me the security to start something after school, nor contact with academics. When I finished school, most people I talked to were very positive about going to Libya. I always asked further to find out what interests those people might have. I decided to stay because no matter what struggle I was facing, I had people who could help me. So even if I had to beg, I would do it from people I know. Even if I had to sleep in the street, I would know the environment. Even though I was desperate to succeed, I didn’t pick any chance that came. I saw that there is hope in Ghana and there is still hope. You just need to move, to start something”

Beyond Irregular Migration: #MMN and a Migrant‘s Perspective on How to Find Solutions to Challenges

Reported by Sara Shedden Casanovas

Desmond Alugnoa understands very well why many young people in Ghana are embarking on a dangerous journey to Europe searching for a better future. A couple of years ago, he also considered crossing the desert to Italy. Like most of his fellow students, when he finished high school he had no professional experience, couldn’t find a job and friends and strangers constantly tried to convince him that going to Europe was the best option to succeed in life.

The first time I met Desmond, he entered the Open Culture office wearing a raincoat made of waste materials. He had recently moved to Berlin and heard a new project called the Migrant Media Network was recruiting Ghanaians based in Berlin to conduct workshops in rural Ghana. He became one of the 5 Migrant Media Network trainers, who have been trained and involved in the development of online and offline materials, such as the Migrant Media Network Field Guide, to conduct workshops for young girls and boys in rural regions of Ghana around questions of migration, human smuggling, the ethical use of social media and youth entrepreneurship. #MMN was launched in April 2019 as a response to the growing dangers and misinformation faced by migrants when embarking on a journey to Europe through irregular or back-door means.

The Migrant Media Network gave a public presentation hosted by the Haus der Statistik in Berlin on December 13th. The initiators showcased the different information resources and open technologies that have been used during the workshops in Ghana. These include the raspberry Pi powered HyracBox offline server, a migrant information and entrepreneurship oriented USSD system, along with a comprehensive hard copy and digital #MMN Field Guide for trainers and community leaders. The returned trainers reported about their experiences in running social media skills, migration and entrepreneurship workshops in their home communities in Ghana and talked about their personal stories as migrants in Germany.

For Desmond, coming to Europe safely has been a very long way. As for most young people in Ghana, the information he had about Europe didn’t come from official sources, he mostly relied on social media. “The stories that dominate on social media are dangerous because they paint a solely positive picture of Western countries and let people think that Europe is a paradise in which anyone can become rich without effort.” Even though he was desperate to succeed, he was very critical every time he received offers to be taken to Europe and would always ask himself questions like “Can I trace the source of information?” or “What could that person be gaining from the offer?”

Rumours and misinformation are principally spread by human smugglers, the diaspora and returnees through social media. Enabling informed migration choices in Ghana is very difficult. First, using Internet is very expensive, whereby finding trustworthy information on migration is difficult and costly, especially in rural areas. Second, most migrants don’t rely on official sources of information and inform themselves on social media platforms instead. Lacking digital literacy is also a contributing factor to the pervasive influence of the deliberately misleading information spread by human traffickers.

Desmond postponed his journey and started creating opportunities for himself and other young people in Ghana. In 2014, he co-founded the Green Africa Youth Organization (GAYO), an NGO dedicated to building capacities and providing solutions to pressing environmental issues through youth empowerment and public education in Ghana. His commitment to human rights, environmental sustainability and community development have brought him far. During the last few years, he has been invited to top-level summits and conferences on topics like migration and climate change worldwide. Recently, he was one of the 100 young world leaders to attend the UN Climate Summit in New York.

At the end, he has made it to Europe. Yet, he never crossed the Sahara desert by foot, he traveled to Berlin by plane. DAAD has granted him a scholarship to learn German and study the Master of Public Management: Geo-Governance at the University of Potsdam. He wants to spend some time in Europe sharpening his skills and knowledge to later return to Ghana to transform his country as a politician. His path to Europe has been long and required great effort, he worked on his skills and knowledge and gained valuable professional experience in various fields before taking the big step:

“I tell people that you, first of all, need to know what you can offer, because wherever you are, I really believe there is a potential of you becoming whoever you want to become. No matter the existing limitation of opportunities. And once you identify two or three things you can offer even if it is one, where does the opportunity exist? If they know that you exist and they really need you, it will become very easy. You don’t need to struggle and now there are so many opportunities to make your skill popular, because almost everywhere we have access to social media platforms. For me, that is the only way to actually realize whether you even need to travel to an European country or the US. Once you discover this, you might not even want to travel.”

Engaging the diaspora in bringing awareness to their communities about safe migration options and entrepreneurship back home enables an effective dissemination of truthful information from people young potential migrants can relate to more closely than official sources. The Migrant Media Network trainers are young and are able to educate and advise the youth in Ghana in their own language. Most have even considered migrating irregularly after finishing school but finally have made it successfully to the West choosing safe channels. They speak openly about the challenges they have faced, even though they have migrated regularly through study or work visas.

And perhaps most importantly, they are entrepreneurs, activists, policy makers, educators, they know their country well and are actively engaged in transforming their society and creating opportunities for the youth in Ghana. That gives them the ability to not only dissuade young people in their home countries from migrating irregularly, but to give them tools, skills and knowledge about how they can build economic and social resilience by transforming their problems into opportunities by becoming entrepreneurs.

“The Migrant Media Network workshop offered me new ways to think about local opportunities in my neighborhood and community, this could be farming or raising livestock. After the workshop, I just realized that it is more profitable to stay local than to go abroad for so called greener pastures that will actually never be green. The greener pasture is right here in my Savanna vegetation” explained a participant during a workshop in Ghana.

During the panel discussion held at the Migrant Media Network public presentation, the trainers shared with the public a common experience that surprised them all: whereas at the beginning of the training most participants considered migrating to Europe or the US in the near future -some were already in contact with a travel agent-, after the trainings the figures reversed. Most youth wanted to become entrepreneurs.

“Participants became much aware of the dangers of irregular migration routes and associated risks on getting documentation in Germany. They also identified alternative economic activities to migrating to Germany such as small scale farming, fishing, livestock rearing and petty trade, among others, and were interested in how to access the needed funds to start-up in their local communities.” reported trainer Cosmas Combat.

With this valuable insight, the coming editions of the Migrant Media Network have the potential to enhance their impact by supporting young people in Ghana access the skills, information, mentoring and resources they need in the long term to turn their ideas into businesses, to be job-creators instead of job-seekers, and to empower the younger generations with a ‘making culture’.