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”

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