It was November, but the mood felt sombre.
For majority of the one hundred and twenty-seven (127) Ghanaian migrants who had just returned from Libya, though, their collective silence spoke louder than words could ever narrate. They were finally back home, but this was neither a time for celebration nor an occasion to revel in the journey. It was rather time to take a deep breath, reflect on how lucky they were and to give thanks to their respective objects of worship.
As they walked down the passenger boarding bridge of the Afriquiyah and Air Libya aircraft, murmurs of “nagode Allah (thank you God [in Huasa])”, “Aww ma na mi wekubii ekonŋ (oh finally I get to see my family again [in Ga])” and “Onyame medaase ni akwai fofro wei (God, I thank you for this second chance [in Twi])" could be heard from some of the soliloquizing returnees.
“It was a terrible journey,” said Kwame, who was part of the 127 homecoming Ghanaian migrants from Libya.
“This journey was hell! I regret going to Libya. They beat us, they tortured us, we were treated like criminals. After all we went through, I can only say that we are lucky to be back home,” he added, as he visibly struggled to contain his emotions.
Like many of his colleagues, Kwame travelled to the oil-producing North African country with the hope of finding a well-paid job, having grown frustrated by a lack of financial breakthrough in Ghana.
However, he soon realized the consequences that come with illegal migration. In Ghana, there is a skewed narrative common within a section of the youth, that it is easy to make it once you travel to the Gulf region. Desperate to survive and promised with great fortunes, most of the youth fall victim into the hands of unscrupulous persons who take advantage of them.
The worst culprits are the travel companies and agencies. Most of these agencies lure young men and women with non-existent job opportunities and later leave them to their fate in the gruesome, hellish journey to Libya.
Majority of the 127 persons who touched down in Accra in November 2017 told tales of how travel agencies took their monies, with the promise that they would be sorted with jobs once they got to Tripoli.
“I used to sell phones then I later became a taxi driver. But the money I was making was not enough so when a friend told me about travelling to Libya, I concurred. I had my mother and my younger siblings to take care of too, so I sold my taxi and used the money for my Libya expenses,” narrated Kwame.
“I was told that once I get to Libya, going to Europe would be very easy. I was going there in search of job,” Kwabre, another of the returnees said, amidst remorse. “They didn’t tell us the truth; they lied to us. They told us we will have jobs once we get to the Libyan capital. But we were never told of the suffering we will endure on this journey.”
Most of these migrants did not have the necessary documentation so they naively followed as they were led through dangerous, illegal routes.
It is a hectic journey that is made by road all the way to North Africa. The fastest flight from Ghana to Libya is about 2,805 kilometers. By road, it takes weeks and sometimes months. But the search for greener pastures means most migrants pay less attention to frantic nature of the journey.
It is a journey which begins from Ghana to Togo, where the migrants would sometimes stay for as long as a month before making the next move. This is despite they being made to part ways with upwards of $20 (excluding what they pay to the travel agents). And, because they have no relatives in Togo, these migrants often have no choice than to make do with whatever sleeping place they get – from car parks to other equally dangerous open places. It’s a real hustle!
From Togo, they then spend two days (sometimes more) on road again to Benin, as they aim to avoid being caught by immigration officers.
“When we got to Benin, we had to stay there for another two days,” Kwabre recalls. “From there, we then moved to Niger. And in all these journeys, we were paying at every border and every checkpoint to avoid being repatriated. At Niger, we stayed for another two weeks. From Niger, we were now put in a pickup truck through the desert to Libya. We spent about six days on the desert as we drove by.”
The narration from Kwabre makes the journey look so simple but, in truth, the horror these migrants witness from Niger to Libya cannot be explained enough.
The most daunting phase of the journey comes at Agadez, a large Nigerien city which lies in the Sahara. For illegal migrants from West Africa, it is the only route to enter North African countries like Egypt, Algeria and Libya.
But the conditions at Agadez are far from ideal. There is scanty food to eat and little water to drink. Yet, that is where migrants camp in wait for a truck that will convey them to their supposed dreamlands.
Described as the ‘road of fire’, Agadez has very hot temperatures that are not friendly to the human skin. There is very little rainfall in this region, leaving migrants to make do with the little they lay their hands on.
The distance through Agadez to the Libyan border is about 250 miles, which takes three days to travel. And it is on this three-day journey that the real horror unfolds. Migrants are packed, virtually squeezed, into loading trucks which speed non-stop across the Sahara. While these trucks move, those unfortunate to fall are left behind to die.
According to the International Organisation for Migration, over 311, 000 migrants passed through Agadez to North African countries like Egypt, Libya and Algeria in the year 2016 alone. Many of them ended up dying.
Kwame describes what he witnessed on the Sahara as spine-chilling. “The journey on the desert was terrible and horrible. At Agadez, you could find skeletons of humans laying bare. Rotten bodies all over. At a point one of our colleagues fell off the car but the driver didn’t dare stop to pick him up. This is because stopping would have meant exposing ourselves to an attack. So we sped off and left him behind,” he reminisced.
As horrendous as the journey can be for migrants to this point, those who manage to make it into Libya are exposed to further maltreatment and sometimes slavery. The law obviously considers them as criminals who are using illegal means to enter the country. Personnel at the Libyan border also take advantage to rip them off all their monies, whiles some are also thrown into prisons, and are only released when they pay bribes.
A report by a five-man fact-finding committee set up by the Government of Ghana revealed that some Ghanaians have set up camps across the Sahara Desert where they exploit and traffic fellow Ghanaians as slaves in Libya.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration, Shirley Ayorkor Botchway, also disclosed in 2018 that the Ministry has gathered intelligence that migrants who are not able to pay for their releases are sold to wealthy Libyans to be used for labour.
"Per their modus operandi, when a migrant is handed over to them, he will be made to call his family back home in Ghana. His family will then be directed to contact the agent/partner of the ghetto leader to settle the indebtedness, after which the migrant is released to continue the journey to the next town,” said Mrs. Ayorkor Botchway.
"Where there is delay in the settlement of the migrant's debt, the migrant is tortured and the abusive act video recorded and sent home to his family. However, in the event that a migrant is unable to settle his or her indebtedness, he or she is sent to Ben Wahlid, another city in Southern Libya, and offered for sale to those in need of cheap labour. This is done in collaboration with some Libyan nationals.”
Meanwhile, statistics from the International Organisation for Migration indicate that as of March 2018, about 62,422 Ghanaians were identified in different cities and detention centres in Libya.
The numbers continue to grow, but not even the Ghana Immigration Service can claim to have a solution to the rampant illegal migration. Assistant Superintendent Immigration (ASI) Richard Owusu-Brinfuor admits they face a difficult challenge clamping down on illegal migrants because these travelers devise smart ways of getting past immigration officials, including sometimes faking documents.
“We are collaborating with other stakeholders to make sure that the issue of illegal migration is curbed, but we need the help of everybody,” the Immigration Chief rallies.
“People must be wary of fake travelling agents who are only interested in exploiting unsuspecting victims. It is better to migrate using the legal means than to forge information and documents at the embassies. Yes, things might not be easy in Ghana, but the risk in travelling across the Sahara is not worth it too.”
NB: All the names of victims used in this article are pseudonyms in order to preserve anonymity.