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Everyone is involved but no one is responsible

With no protections at origin and destination, hope and faith is the recourse of Ghanaian migrants and their families

On April 15, 2023

Everyone holds their plans close to their heart lest it fails; yet everyone seems to know everyone else’s business. Compound homes — long rows of interlinked rooms with a common hearth, threshold, and central courtyard — housing multiple families nurture fluid relationships where everyone is a cousin or auntie or uncle. Complex relationships and simple labels. But when you ask where their daughter has gone or who helped her get there, the details are vague.

The ban is no secret. It’s brushed aside as a mere blip, another small hurdle to get out of the country to greener pastures. The closely guarded aspirations to migrate and to gain affluence are shared with as few as possible, and preferably with just one — the connection man.

So an ‘auntie’ from town and sister from another mother, whose phone numbers are no longer available, put them in touch with the connection men who transform to a different avatar once the flight is boarded or at the first hint of a problem.

The ‘connection men’ – a John or an Agatha, unregistered, and working underground – now run the routes for domestic workers. The demand for domestic workers in the Gulf and the demand for jobs in Ghana have both only been increasing, and the connection men have a fertile ground to carry out their activities without accountability. The ban and its nitty-gritty don’t mean much to them [see Part I].

In the villages dotting the route from Accra to Kumasi (in the Ashanti region) to Sunyani (in the Bono region), returnees or families of migrants, point to random men by the roadside. “There’s the connection man, see, he is talking to people in the village about jobs in the Gulf.” Before the vehicle can pull over or make a U-turn to chat with the connection man, he makes a swift escape. He is not supposed to exist.

Claudia, the field officer with local NGO Migration and Rights Lab, works on raising awareness about migration amongst the community, and Felicia, a returnee migrant and community leader, are guiding the vehicle. They are quick to spot the disappearing backs of the connection men. Claudia says in the week prior, she called 45 ‘connection men’ and was met with hostility and aggression. “They all said there is a ban, why do you call us. Some of them were ladies and were angry I called. But we know they are actively sending young girls abroad.”

This is because the agents are well aware of the work she and her colleagues do, which throws a spanner in the works, affecting their business.

“We raise awareness on irregular migration. Radio jingles on big community microphones, as well as information centres. These address areas of Techiman, Mkronzah, Drobo… We also speak to youth groups. Training teachers to educate them, too. Especially young women students. We talk about red flags. And for those who decide to migrate, we talk about opening bank accounts. Returnees are losing money. Copies of passports need to be kept.” She says most of the young women leave quietly and don’t tell their families, because they will be stopped. This silence and surreptitiousness aid the connection men.

“Everyone is planning to escape, but they won’t share. So we need different approaches. The ban has made it more difficult. Some going through Togo. Most people here are unemployed, how can we prevent them from going? We can at least educate them. Some can’t even read. They need help in understanding even simple documents.”

The families say the girls don’t inform them, and they only find out when they reach out to them from wherever they have gone. “Yes, in the majority of cases. The media has painted a bad image of the Gulf to the Ghanaian public, but the candidates are also speaking to their friends who are already there, and they see no danger. Parents won’t allow them to go, so they leave and then inform them.” says Abubakr Liman, a registered recruitment agent (see part I).

“The government is not only losing money by the ban and also endangering the Ghanaian worker who decides to travel by forcing them into illegal ways. The youth has no jobs here, so whatever it takes for him to go, even at the cost of his life, he would go to join his mates who are making a living there.”

“There’s no pre-departure training in Ghana. No awareness. There are guys that just round up girls as young as 16, falsify documents, and send them…”

On a wing and a prayer

Many of the men and women interviewed say they met their ‘connection man’ or friend at Church. Further north of the country, those meetings happen near mosques and at the Imam’s sermon (see bottom panel). Faith plays a critical role in the lives of Ghanaians. Close to 70% are Christians, and about 15% are Muslims.

Street corners and high roads are sprinkled with preachers. All you need is a makeshift tent with plastic chairs or a portable speaker system and a collapsible table. Fervent sermons and calls to the faithful take on a different tone based on the day of the week, and the time of the day. The weekend congregations celebrate births and deaths and everything in between. It’s all festive, be it to mourn or celebrate a life. But the Monday morning enthusiasts are of a different calling —  a prayer for children going to school, traders to the market and the unemployed seeking opportunities. Faith is the wind beneath the wings of hope and more powerful than the connection man are the pastors, however small their congregation.

Pastor Petro Ozoro belongs to a congregation that has branches all over the region. He has his ‘Church’ in Drobo – a temporary structure, a tent with an altar. Right next to that is a permanent structure under construction, mainly financed by donations from his congregation. One of the returnees, who says he is very helpful, suggests speaking to him. After a short prayer, he agrees to answer questions.

Yes, he does help, he says. “I receive a number of complaints. Passport confiscation, excessive work, food deprivation… They call and ask for prayers. The majority of them are women.”

He doesn’t know all of them personally, some he knows only through their families. “They just get the number and call me for help when they are in trouble. They don’t reach out before going, only after they reach.”

On speaking about safe migration to his congregation, he says he does address the issue in his sermons. “Not regularly. But I do. I am already handling a severe case of a church member in Dubai, facing a lot of abuse.”

And how does he help or handle it?

“By praying over it. With the congregation. I don’t file complaints.”

Clearly, faith (in religion, in a stranger, in the unknown), and not knowledge, is what guides the men and women leaving the country to earn a living.

The secrecy in migration and lack of due processes also prevents candidates from understanding the condition of work and life where they are headed. “There’s no pre-departure training in Ghana. No awareness. There are guys that just round up girls as young as 16, falsify documents, and send them,” says Kwaku Tadier (see part I).

“The government doesn’t know Mary has gone to Saudi and Mary also doesn’t know whom to contact for help, because the government doesn’t do any training.”

“Until they come back, we don’t know what will happen to them, no one tells us what’s happening.”

Left behind: Mothers, waiting

And equally clueless is Mary’s mother. Or Esther’s or Julietta’s…

Grace stands tall and weathered as she enters the courtyard of her large compound house, painted bright green. As she pulls out a few plastic chairs, the courtyard starts filling up. A few young women, the neighbourhood kids.

Two of Grace’s daughters work abroad. Esther in Kurdistan for the last three years and for seven in Saudi, before that; and Julietta in Kuwait for the last eight years. Janet, the oldest daughter, lives with Grace.

Neither of the girls had shared their plans to migrate and told the family just a few days before leaving. Juliette has returned home only once in the last eight years, says Grace. “She was selling kufu in a restaurant here, but when the madam’s daughter went abroad, she also went with her. They paid for everything, and she paid them back.

“Esther had a tough time in Saudi and was subject to a lot of abuse, but it seems better now where she is. Juliette doesn’t complain, she seems happy. The girls don’t share much. They send money every few months, and we are building a 5-bedroom house in our hometown.”

Grace doesn’t sound particularly enthused or happy, even as she shares the sparse details of her daughters’ lives. “There are times we hear of abuse and deaths, and it makes us uncomfortable. And fear for their life. But they take decisions without discussion. A lot of people go from here, men and women. Most leave without even a goodbye, and we hear only when they leave,” she sighs.

Cecilia, a cousin of Grace, pulls up a chair, nodding. Her daughter Doris left without telling anyone either, she says. “She left three months ago. She called on arrival and calls regularly. Am not too worried, she is somewhere in Saudi. I only knew of it through someone else,” she shrugs. Doris is divorced with two children, one of whom is in Cecilia’s care. “She hasn’t sent any money yet.”

A few more elderly women join the group. They have the very bare facts of where their children are, but a younger woman, Emilia, who is part of the group, fills in the details. It is her friends and cousins who have left, and she has aspirations of her own which make her more curious to dig for more information. “We are all the same age, so we talk. I am planning to speak to someone too… I know of a lot of people who are going and would like to go too,” Emilia confides as she moves away from the other women.

Asartowa chips in. Her daughter Esther has also gone to Kurdistan with her cousin Linda. And there is a frenzied discussion around which Linda she was referring to.

“Is she the one who is arrested in Kurdistan?”

“No, I think the other.”

“What happened to Linda who was arrested?”

“No one knows.”

“No! She is still in jail.”

Someone pulls out a grainy video on their phone. “This Linda?”

“Is this in the police station?”

A few of the mothers are trying to make sense of the video, if this is Linda from their family.

Grace shakes her head in frustration. “Until they come back, we don’t know what will happen to them, no one tells us what’s happening.”

A short distance from Grace’s well-kept compound house is Akom’s slightly rundown one. Her foot is wrapped in a bandage, which she explains is an injury from the field. Outside her home, there are loud festivities underway. A street-corner tent receiving dozens in their Sunday-best. Could be a funeral or a birthday, Akom laughs. Three of her daughters work abroad. Felicia and Tachuwa have been in Kuwait for eight years and Linda in Jordan for three years. None of them has come back during this time.

Linda appears to be employed on a regular contract. But from what Akom says of her daughters in Kuwait, both seem to be working irregularly. “There are times when they don’t get a job and don’t get money, it’s not consistent. There’s a lot of insult and abuse. There is a lot of labour coming in from countries like Ghana, my daughters say. Those who come in new tend to have salaries that are lower than those who have stayed there longer. So families bring in new people, then they have to go find other jobs.

“All of them are building homes, before they come back home they want to complete it. That’s their goal. Two of them send money to one brother who is a mason, and the other to another brother. I am proud of what they are doing, but at the same time they’ve been away for too long, and I want them to come back,” she says.

Akom is not aware that in all likelihood, her daughters’ return home would not be a straightforward process because of their irregular status. Her daughters, like hundreds of others across the GCC, have migrated irregularly and will find it all the more difficult to both seek justice for the wrong and to return home.

At a ‘safehouse’ there are no qualified therapists, be they psychological or physical, and faith and intuition are the arsenal in their toolkit.

Irregularity and the freehand for non-state actors

For instance, last year, hundreds of Ghanaians and other Africans had to be rescued from the UAE [see part I]. “I predicted this… if you (the government) don’t invest in processes and make sure people migrate safely, you will end up spending money bringing them back in distress,” says Tadier, referring to an editorial he wrote some years ago.

But it wasn’t just the government spending its money, but the dependence on non-state actors with dubious legacies, like Operation Underground Railroad (OUR Rescue) that somehow manages to work on the ground in the UAE. Many women MR interviewed and an informal safe house in Kumasi refer to ‘Elle’* of OUR Rescue to have helped them get out or pay for their tickets. The organisation is backed by the likes of former US President Donald Trump, and according to a 2020 Vice report, “much of OUR’s mystique is still focused on that overseas work” and that “The controversies in countries where the “rescues” take place are often not reflected in media coverage or public support back home.”

In Ghana, there aren’t enough qualified or registered organisations to help women who return in distress. Unsurprisingly, OUR supports one that has neither the registration nor expertise to do so. In a sprawling estate, off the Kumasi highway, a group of returnee migrants, some with their children, have found a home. It is supposed to be a safe house of sorts, except the government has no idea of its existence, and the whole operation is run by a well-meaning American couple from Utah, supported by grants from organisations such as OUR Rescue. At this ‘Family Restoration centre’ (FRC) there are no qualified therapists, be they psychological or physical, and faith and intuition are the arsenal in their toolkit. An unplanned stop between Accra to Sunyani gives access to this estate.

Women are learning to cook and bake and braid hair by way of vocational training, but there is no certification. The methods used to ‘heal’ verge on quackery, yet there aren’t many other options for the women who return, especially if they are estranged from their families and have children. There is one returnee suffering from extreme endometriosis, who has had surgery before but is now dependent on ‘alternative’ therapy and the power of the mind; another who suffered severe injuries and is recovering from multiple fractures has no access to physiotherapy but is asked to focus on faith-based healing. All of these details are shared with great pride by Reb*, the American lady who runs this campus, who is not a fan of modern or conventional medicine. When we arrive at the estate, she is received with hugs and kisses, and treated as a saviour. A role she has clearly internalised. While giving a tour of the estate she talks about how she ended up in Ghana –  she had a calling ‘to do work in Africa’, and all it took was to drop a pin and relocate from Utah, USA to Ghana.

There are plans to improve the infrastructure of the estate, and grants from organisations such as OUR help. Elle’s name is dropped a few times, as one of the people helping with rescuing and sending women to the estate. The camaraderie between the women and Reb seems genuine. And for this moment in time where there is no one else to support or shelter them, the FRC plays a critical role.

Bee, a 27-year-old who was rescued from the UAE, knows of the safe house and had the option to take shelter there. But she chose to stay with friends in Accra, close to her estranged mother, in the hopes of reconciliation.

“I went to Dubai in April 2021 on a 3-month visa. A Ghanaian friend and her husband got the visa. I was told I was going to be a teacher in a nursery. Then they said a nanny job.” Bee did not hesitate as “usually we hear of bad news from Saudi, not Dubai.”

What followed on arrival was months of being shifted from agent to one employer and another, and never receiving the salary promised, with each household treating her worse than the other. “I demanded to be sent back home, but they threw me out of home. I was homeless and slept in the Union metro station… until a Ghanaian lady offered to help.”

For a brief while, Bee managed to find employment with a family that treated her well. “They were Pakistanis and were going to Canada. So once again I had nowhere to go… so I went and turned myself in to the authorities.”

The Union Square metro station and Deira are mentioned often by those returning from the UAE. The places where the homeless manage to find shelter.

On 15 August 2022, Bee was deported, along with 400 others.  “For a month I stayed in detention – Al Tawadi centre, then to the CID on 15 September, at the T2 deportation centre. Finally, on 27 September, we left to Ghana. There were over 600 of us in that centre – Ugandans, Sierra Leoneans, and many nationalities. We were given Panadol if we were sick, but no health check-up.”

The authorities and OUR Rescue prioritised pregnant women, and a few whom MR spoke to say they took the claim at face value and did no pregnancy test. “Elle paid for my ticket.”

At the T2 premises, the women were housed under a canopy with no beds. “The immigration centre was better. When we finally came here to Ghana, and also when we were there, no one asked us questions. No one investigated how we landed there, where we worked, what happened to us… they just shouted at us.”

Bee flew out of Accra with a visit visa, and hesitates to speak about how she passed the enquiry at immigration. She tells her Ghanaian friend, in Twi, “we all paid GH₵‎500 bribe, but how can I show our country in poor light to them?”

Like a lot of the women who have come back from the UAE, she is not keen to share her story with others. “Our destinies are not the same. What advice can I give? You go through the right channel. Some work well. Police there help if you are dying, otherwise just get on with work.”

Lynne has also returned from the UAE, along with Bee. She chose to seek refuge at the FRC as she had a young son to take care of and no place to stay. Her agent was ‘John’ from Accra, she says. “It wasn’t so bad at the beginning when I first went in November 2021. I was taking care of an old lady. Then she and I got corona and the way I was treated after that, expected to still take care of her, not given proper food or medicines. I complained and wanted to go back, and even called the labour department. The son of the old lady just took my passport and sent me to the office in Ajman.”

The employer was demanding money for the passport, money that Lynne did not have as she had not been paid for the last few months. “A friend took me to immigration and said the CID will pay for our tickets. But they didn’t. Our embassy got in touch with Elle who got us the ticket. And then after coming to Ghana, we were brought here.”

She is not sure for how long she would continue staying at the safe house and is not sure if FRC has any regulations on that. For now, she has nowhere else to go. She is a bit more forthcoming with her advice. “I would say don’t go as a housemaid. You will be treated as a slave. And the police will not help if you complain.”

And, treated like slaves is the refrain we hear in every interview and focus group [Concluding Part III, forthcoming].

A human trafficking hub: Origin, transit and destination

Dr Nansata Yakubu, who works on transitional justice and is very familiar with the risks of human trafficking in fragile communities, says it is easy for Ghanaian women, especially those from the north, to enter domestic work in the Gulf. “It is ingrained in Ghanaian society to seek women from certain regions to do this work. First, they go to the Muslim community in rural areas, go to the leadership, and donate to the mosque. The Imams then tell them we will develop the community. At first, 10-15 years ago, one could say it was out of ignorance. Not now. Now there’s a national crisis (of Ghanaians suffering in the GCC). They can’t claim ignorance.”

The porous borders of western Africa and free movement within, means Ghana is not just an origin point, but a key transit State for irregular migration and human trafficking for both sex work and labour.

Some of the worst cases are from Sierra Leone she says. A senior police officer, who works in the anti-human trafficking department of the CID corroborates. “We speak to our counterparts in neighbouring countries, and also their missions here, because many Nigerians and Sierra Leoneans are trafficked through Ghana. They are forced to take such risky routes by cartels and traffickers to get out of the continent.” A route that Dr Nansata describes in detail later.

“Girls want to travel. Even if it’s not dire at home. It gives them freedom.”

Officer Wilfred, who did not want to be identified by his real name, points to the building across from his in the CID headquarters, saying there were enough stories to be heard there. The office provides travel clearance certificates that most citizens would need. “I meet Ghanaian women there, and we give them information on trafficking, advising them not to go. They laugh at us, sarcastically. Because who will feed them and take care of them?”

Dr Nansata says it’s more than just for need. “Girls want to travel. Even if it’s not dire at home. It gives them freedom.” She recounts a recent case of trafficking from Sierra Leone, of a young woman from a fairly secure family background.

“On 17 February (2022) I received a call from a very good friend of mine from the UK. She is originally from Sierra Leone. She was panicking. Her husband’s younger sister, Vee, has been in Ghana since December 2021. She had been recruited to go to the Gulf. She, for some reason, had escaped and found a phone to call them from a random person on the street.”

Vee got in touch with her later that day, and they arranged to meet in a designated place in Accra. She shared her ordeal that spanned several months, starting with a 12-day journey in a canoe.

“These men came to Sierra Leone and recruited women, and each of them paid $1000.

They put 25 women in a canoe in Freetown, to journey 12 days through Monrovia (Liberia) to Cote d’Ivoire. From there they were tied to inflated tubes and put in a lagoon, to cross over to the Bono region of Ghana, bordering Cote d’Ivoire. They started their journey around 10 November and reached on 25 November.”

Once inside Ghana, the women were put in a car and brought to Kasoa, just outside of Accra on the way to Cape Coast, and housed in the middle of nowhere. They were being trained there to cook and clean, but they were also subject to sexual assault daily by the men who brought them there – two Ghanaian brothers, one based in Bahrain and doing the actual recruitment. There were demands for more money from the women, and if they expressed inability to pay, they were asked to provide sexual favours.

“Vee said they got a medical person to take samples for tests. The medical person said some were pregnant, just to frighten them. They also gave them tablets to abort, and the men took them to the room. It seems like a well-established cartel, a mafia. Vee decided she didn’t sign up for this, and she planned her escape at night, with just the clothes on her back, and started walking in the direction of the lights.”

Dr Nansata plays a few voice and video notes from Vee, some of which are from after she returned home. “Once we picked her up, we took her straight to the Sierra Leonean High Commission. They are aware of the issue. They struggle to deal with it. They could not even investigate the case. They gave her a travel certificate to go back to their country.”

“It’s a cartel connected all the way to the top. Security, medical, maritime, immigration. Most of them are being trafficked for sex work, either sex slavery…”

Hundreds of Sierra Leonean women are being trafficked to the Gulf monthly, often through neighbouring States like Ghana. Officer Wilfred* says the border area between Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana is where the cartel transports the women, and despite all the information available, arrests and prosecutions are scant.

“It’s a cartel connected all the way to the top. Security, medical, maritime, immigration. Most of them are being trafficked for sex work, either sex slavery — we had one case where a woman who came back and said the entire family she worked for, husband, wife and children all sexually abused her. But increasingly we are hearing about organ harvesting,” she says.

“Girls are coming back with scars on their back. One of the girls said the other in the house had two scars, and both kidneys were removed and she died. The girl mentioned that she was taken to an operation theatre in the hospital. And from there she was taken to a mall by her employers, where she collapsed and died.”

The immigration officer, Deena, MR spoke to (part I) also mentions cases of organ harvesting. “Nothing is investigated, but we see women coming back with surgical scars.”Officer Wilfred also says organ harvesting is an issue, and that the UN has also alerted member states on the threat of trafficking for organ harvesting. However, in order to prove anything, clear and detailed records from pre-departure to post-arrival needs to be maintained. But with a ban in place, almost all migration is irregular; and without due process, there is little that can be done in this regard.

*Some names have been changed, shortened, or withheld on request

Part I: In Ghana, the ban that isn’t feeds corruption and desperation

Part III, forthcoming: Ill-prepared and uninformed, Ghanaian women risk it all for jobs in the Gulf