Libya war cuts financial lifeline for Ghana

Thousands of Ghanaian migrant workers have fled the fighting, leaving them without jobs and straining Ghana's remittance-dependent economy.

By , Contributor

Once an important financial lifeline to Ghana, more than 18,000 Ghanaian migrant workers are back in their home country and unemployed after having fled the violence of the Libyan civil war.

Although they are now safe, the workers' return ended the flow of money via remittances into Ghana, putting their families under economic strain.

Nearly 184,000 sub-Saharan Africans have fled Libya with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) since the conflict began in February, mostly from neighboring countries. Almost all of the Ghanaian returnees are young men who are now unemployed.

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For the families of the returned migrants, the homecoming is bittersweet.

Frank Opoko, a tailor, returned to Ghana on an IOM-assisted flight from Tunisia two months ago. His family welcomed his safe arrival.

“They feel happy, because we were in danger over there,” he said. “Our problem is that we are here empty-handed.... [We] have wives and children. How can [we] take care of them?”

Mr. Opoko migrated to Libya two years ago in search for work, after the death of his father put pressure on him to provide for his mother and younger siblings.

“In Africa here, only Libya has work. Burkina [Faso], no work. Nigeria, no work. Even South Africa is bad. So only Libya is okay for us,” he said.

He had heard about the economic opportunities in Libya from a cousin who had travelled there, so he decided to follow. Opoko borrowed money from a friend to make the dangerous journey across the Sahara to Libya. He bussed to Niger where he joined a group of other West Africans for the six-week trek on foot across the desert with little water or food. Of Opoko's group, 17 of 75 people died on route.

While in Libya as an undocumented worker, he quickly found work as a tiler. He was able to send home 500 Ghana Cedis ($325) – equivalent to the average annual household income in rural Ghana according to the IOM 2009 Country Profile. His mother used the money to help cover the cost of food and to pay the school fees of Opoko's younger brother.

'Pressure to migrate and remit'

In Ghana, as in many sub-Saharan African countries, the remittances of migrant workers form an essential part of the family income.

The Bank of Ghana reported that $2.45 billion was sent to Ghana in remittances in 2010. This figure outstrips the 2010 foreign direct investment of $1.28 billion, according to the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre, and comprises 6.5 percent of the estimated GDP for that year.

Peter Quartey, the deputy head of the Centre for Migration Studies at the University of Ghana, says that family members often encourage young, unemployed men to migrate.

“[There is a perception that] it is when you migrate that life is better. So there's always the pressure ... to migrate and also remit the family,” Mr. Quartey said. “People lose their wives to migrants. People get wives quicker when they have migrated.”

Migration within West Africa increased when an ECOWAS agreement was signed in 1979 permitting free movement of people within the member countries.

Quartey says that the lure of Libya for Ghanaians has to do with the network that has formed between Ghanaians who have already migrated and those at home. “One or two [Ghanaians] might have gone and succeeded and therefore the chain of migration has continued.”

Libya is also seen as a stepping stone to Europe. Opoko said he, too, hoped to eventually continue on to Italy or Spain.

Unknown impact on Ghana

When the fighting in Libya intensified, Opoko fled the country to Tunisia. Along the way, he was attacked by Libyan soldiers who robbed him of his savings. Like many other migrants, he returned to Ghana with nothing.

Jean-Philippe Chauzy, a spokesperson for the IOM, says the full economic impact of the loss of remittances will probably never be known.

“Many of the Ghanaians in Libya were there as irregular migrants, therefore [they] didn't have any bank accounts or anything,” Mr. Chauzy said. “So the money they managed to send back was probably sent back informally and therefore very difficult to track.”

Opoko has been unemployed since returning to Ghana. He depends on friends and family for food and money. He says that if he is unable to find work, he will migrate again.

“If I get money right now, I'll start a business. But I don't have [any], and I can't steal,” he said. “It's a problem. I am supposed to take care of my mother. I am supposed to pay the school fees of my brother. But I can't keep borrowing money.”

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