“I was sold”. Chilling words from a Ghanaian migrant, back on home soil after a treacherous journey in dangerous waters, where his body became property.
I stared stunned at a news report during which African men – men who looked like my brother – were sold. Millions were traumatized as images of Black bodies in shackles, turned upside down, feet tied; guns pointed at heads appeared on our TV screens.
127 illegal Ghanaian migrants were recently returned to Ghana by the government and the International Organization for Migration.
Returning migrants’ stories highlight horrors of being captured by human traffickers, being sold and put to work. Enslaved Black bodies. Watching as one human put a price on the body of another, dehumanized them into property and brutalized those same bodies, took me back to history books and films of enslaved Africans in America and the brutal treatment of white overseers and slave masters.
Everyone in this horror story is Black. Migration turned slavery in Libya.
This horror turned history into a living present that ignited visceral rage and outrage on all sides of the globe.
Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said there is no evidence that Ghanaians are being sold. Foreign Affairs Minister Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey informed Parliament her Ministry was unable to verify reports that some Ghanaians were being traded as slaves. But, a forum organized by a media house in Ghana on Migration included one contributor – a Ghanaian born English lecturer in Libya – called McDonald Simpson. He told the gathered audience that the Ghana delegation only travelled to one detention camp. He explained a trip to the south of Libya would have unveiled 150 Ghanaians waiting to be sold.
Is this government willing to do full investigations to unleash dirty, difficult truths? Or does the government want the story to go away, to deliver news that Ghanaians are not caught in this horror and for business as usual to return.
The horror and outrage are dangerously temporary.
On Twitter, I read a thread of a woman in Gambia whose organization had interviewed returning migrants. They were asked about the wisdom, their unrealistic expectations and the dangers in making these long journeys.
One responded: “the poverty is worse than the danger,”
As a nation, as a people we should sit with this for a minute.
This is one of the underlying issues that require scrutiny.
Are we willing to engage with the deeper issues that prompt Ghanaians – and other Africans – to embark on perilous journeys that never lead to promised lands but only guarantee a brutal stay in the dangerous waters of Libya’s detention centers, and worse?
A survey revealed the top two destinations sought out by those illegally migrating are North America or Europe. Anyone who has lived there knows a tough reality awaits an African immigrant. For an illegal immigrant, hardship, racism, loneliness is the welcoming party on foreign shores. We are living with colonized minds that turn the West into promised lands of secure futures.
For many of the Africans fighting to reach new locations, migration is about desperation, relentless poverty and the absence of hope.
There is a story of dreaming and escape, failed opportunity in Ghana and other African nations, and impossible expectation of faraway places that will magically eliminate poverty and deliver individuals into comfort, home-ownership, substantive employment and a steady supply of money.
Migration is an uneasy conversation here in Ghana.
There is a tendency to scold those migrating, to reprimand them for embarking on trips that endanger their life, require their governments to engage in hostile back and forth with other African governments, and media coverage that scandalizes, traumatizes and ignites global firestorms.
We chide migrants to ‘stay home’, and to not waste government time.
This approach fails to fully engage these underlying issues. Not all migration is the same. But all migration is about want, desire to leave behind circumstances, environment and seek fresh opportunity.
There is a poverty pipeline.
Poverty is a generational inheritance. Fathers and mothers pass it on to their children who pass it to their children. It is a stealer of hope, a decimator of opportunity and stretches before millions of Africans as a continuum of hardship, hunger, indignity. Part of that pipeline may mean becoming a talking point in the speeches of politicians seeking power – but to never enjoy real possibility of escape.
Poverty does not eliminate dreams, dignity, ambition, the hunger or fire in the hearts, minds, bellies and bodies of some. This combination can trigger a perilous journey, of illegal deadly, brutal harm.
This is more than a Ghanaian issue; it is one for our Continent. This is an African Union issue.
The African Union is a body that is continuously attacked for its slowness, incompetence or utter failure to effectively respond to intra-Continent crisis with swift decisive action. President Akufo-Addo was a Keynote Speaker at the recent African Union gathering. He roundly condemned the allegations of slavery Libya.
Condemnation is easy; it is long term implementable action that is much, much harder.
What specific action is the African Union planning regarding castigating Libya? Beyond one visit to a detention camp, what intensive investigation has been ordered? Beyond the performance of outrage displayed by some African leaders what action is planned?
There needs to be a holistic approach to the human trafficking. Just as poverty has a pipeline, the journey of acquiring passage, the middlemen and women who engage in the trafficking are all put of this horror story.
African migration needs to be reimagined.
Nobody aspires to poverty. No-one’s dream is for their children to have a generational inheritance of hunger and hardship. Poverty limits options and dictates choices, it doesn’t still the ambition of a young population who want what every human wants: shelter, security, a future and safe family.
Ghanaians and other Africans will not stop making perilous trips where they face deadly harm to try and get to other countries in desperate search of other opportunities. So, there needs to be a fresh approach to tackling what is a growing and expanding issue.
Travel within the Continent is too hard. This is a regularly made argument across media. But when it comes to flagship policy, it is not on this Government’s radar. It would be fair to argue any new Government is staggering under the weight of competing priorities and escalating budgets to cover such policies. But this is a domestic policy that should carry considerable weight.
How long before Africa as a Continent takes her travel seriously? What is it that stops ECOWAS from constructing the kind of rail travel that allows easy access for Africans of varying means to travel, experience and dream within the four walls of their Continent?
This inaction and lack of will contribute to the pipeline of poverty, and is one of many factors that contrive to create illegal migration.
Resolving the migrant crisis will do more than discourage the poor from taking to the seas; it will mean building public transport infrastructure that enables not just migration – but economic transport – across a Continent that millions of us have never explored, but from which we seek escape.
Migrants –legal or illegal – dream of a better life. Do not condemn the dream, instead address the circumstances that make dreaming and building a successful future such a challenge in this Continent.
Migration is not the issue. Poverty is.
How willing are we to tackle and dismantle our pipeline of poverty?