These kids are not orphans, neither are they refugees.
They are immigrants from other African countries whose parents have traveled with them to Ghana to seek greener pastures.
One of the boys – the oldest among his peers – sees a man in suit walking towards their direction and immediately gets up to approach him. He holds the man’s hands so tightly, and without even uttering a word it was evident what he wanted: to beg for arms.
Unfortunately he is ignored. His other colleagues walk up to join him. They all kneel in front of the man, begging him to at least give them something to buy food. A look at their faces will tell you they are indeed hungry, and their collective gesture, this time, touches the man to dip his hand into his pocket.
He takes out a GHc5 note ($1.12) and hands it over to the eldest among them. All the kids jump with ecstasy, glowing with the kind of joy that is exhibited by kids of their age only when Santa Claus is around. In other worlds this kind of scenario is not normal, but on the streets of Accra it is commonplace.
Unfortunately, though, these kids are not the only ones who are begging on the streets. There are thousands more just like them who find themselves in the same situation, trading their education for the streets.
You see them everywhere around Ghana’s capital. They keep chasing every car, every person on the corridors of the road, hoping that a charitable heart will do them the favour of giving them something to use to feed.
Accra is undoubtedly the busiest city you will find in Ghana. But despite the city’s evident friendliness to businesses, there is a growing trend of immigrant children begging on the streets that cannot be ignored.
Jalil is a seven-year-old whose task every morning is to go out on the streets to beg for arms. He was brought to Ghana by his Nigerien mother when he was just three years old. Jalil does not have any form of education, and as the eldest of two other siblings, he begs on the streets on a daily basis – per the directives of his mother – or starves.
“My mum sends me out to do this [beg for money],” says Jalil as he points to some women sitting on the far side of street. “I have been doing this for a long time now, and my mum says if I don’t bring any money home, then I won’t eat too.”
Jalil’s situation is almost similar to child abuse since he is being forced to beg on the streets, but that is not the case in the eyes of his mother. To her, he has become like an investment and it hasn’t even crossed her mind that this young boy and his two younger sisters need to go to school.
Jalil and his siblings see hundreds of students walk past them to and from school every day but they can only watch on and dream of a day when they would also get such opportunity.
“Of course I want to also go to school,” he remarks. “I used to dream about wanting to become an engineer, but now I think I prefer to be a teacher. That way, I could teach my junior sisters at home so they can also get some education.”
Jalil refuses to admit that he is being forced to beg on the streets. However, the situation is practically so because on a day when he fails to bring any money home, he is chided – as if it was a crime. The life of such a young boy is being wasted due to the carelessness of his mother.
The laws of Ghana are strictly against child abuse, more so when it's from the child's own parent. There could also have been protection for Jalil and his mum under state laws. But that is impossible because they are neither refugees nor asylum-seekers.
Instead of applying for such status, they are rather on the streets relying on charity to survive. But that is because they entered the country illegally.
Statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ghana indicate that as of 2016, there were 18,557 refugees and 2,048 asylum-seekers in the country. Most of them come from Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, Central African Republic, Liberia and Sudan.
But the laws of Ghana are also very flexible to refugees and asylum-seekers; in that, their movements are not restricted and they can even work in the country.
A collaborative effort between the Ghana Refugees Board and the UNHCR has made sure that those under their guide are well protected. Unfortunately, Jalil and others like him cannot enjoy such protection because their stay is “illegal” as per state rules.
“Most immigrants living in Ghana are not refugees as many people think. To qualify to be a refugee you must be registered at the Ghana Refugee Board,” Nii Ako, the Communications Director of the UNHCR in Ghana, explains.
“So when you see someone begging on the streets, it’s not enough to conclude that they are refugees. This is because there is a process. They have to go through the process of applying and meeting the criteria of the Ghana Refugee Board.”
According to him, the records available to the UNHCR shows that no "registered" refugee or asylum-seeker is begging on the streets. His comments only mean that those begging on the streets with their children do not fall within both categories, therefore, there is nothing the Ghana Refugees Board can do for them.
“Those who have not applied for asylum, in this case, can be deported. Because that is illegal,” Ako says. “Even if they entered legally and overstay their visa, they can be deported – that is a migrant. But a refugee cannot be deported under international law. This is because if you deport them, then you are literally sending them back to their countries where their lives are at risk. We must have a clear distinction of who a refugee and a migrant are.”
Jalil’s mum, Naki, is aware that what she is doing is wrong but she insists she has no choice. She feels she will be deported if she makes the effort to seek asylum. According to her, she has no capital to start a business, citing the harsh economic conditions in Ghana’s capital as a reason why she is on the streets begging.
“I am strong enough to work,” Naki told Pulse Ghana. “The thing is that no one wants to give me a job. I have tried [to get a job] but I haven’t had one yet. So I have no choice than to beg on the streets. I moved from Niger to Ghana in 2013 thinking it was better here.”
On why she risks the life of her son on the streets, Naki said: “If I go on the streets to beg, normally people ignore me. But with my son, he is young and is more likely to gain the sympathy of people. The truth is that this is not what I want for my children. I’m a mother; and every mother wants the best for her children. But like I said, I have no option. If I stop him, then what do we feed on?”
The story and Naki and her children is similar to that of many immigrants living in Ghana. They have hidden themselves and have refused to apply for asylum or refugee status, thinking they might be deported if they take such a step.
However, such thoughts are completely misplaced. There are benefits when they go through the proper procedure of getting a refugee or asylum status.
“We partner with NGOs and some state institutions to do our best for these [registered refugees and asylum-seekers]. Some of them are currently in the university, some are also learning a trade, others are also given micro finance in order to start a business or a trade,” says Ako, who adds that the Ghana Refugees Board makes sure they are well protected in the country.
The streets of Accra, though, are currently flooded with immigrant children being forced to become beggars by their parents. But for Jalil, “it is what I was born into, and I don’t think it will change anytime soon”.
However, in reality, that should not be the case. The streets should not be the home of an immigrant kid. But that can only change when their parents decide to do the right things.