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OpenDemocracy.net: Migrants accepted voluntary return to escape ‘torture’ of Libya jail

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Wednesday, 29 November 2023

Kwaku was imprisoned for a year in Libya after being rescued at sea. He says his return to Ghana wasn’t a choice

Migrants are rescued before being taken to the Italian port of Genoa

Jose Colon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images | All rights reserved

Kwaku Amoah decided to travel to Italy after poverty forced him to give up on his goals of studying electrical engineering in Ghana. He faced a gruelling journey through the Sahara Desert, exploitative work and several days at sea. But he never made it past Libya. Kwaku is one of six migrant workers who told us about their experiences of migration for this series. An explanation of how we produced this interview can be found at the end.

Raphel Ahenu (BTS): Thank you for speaking to me today. Can you tell me about yourself?

Kwaku: My name is Kwaku Amoah. I’m 29 years old and I live by myself in Dormaa, a town near the border with Côte d'Ivoire. I used to want to stay in Ghana. I was studying electrical engineering and wanted to continue. But I was supporting both my parents at the time and things were difficult financially. They were both in their 70s and not very well, so I had to miss a lot of classes to care for them.

I eventually gave up trying to study. I thought about moving to one of the big cities like Accra or Kumasi to make more money, but things are hard there too. I decided instead to travel.

Raphel: How did you make your travel plans?

Kwaku: A friend from school told me about someone who could help me get to Italy through the Sahara Desert. I then tried to find a loan to pay for the trip, but it was difficult. I met a guy called Charles who was in the same situation, so together we went to earn some money on the cocoa farms south of where we live.

Things were hard there. The contractors refused to pay us for the first six months we were with them. But the farmers would tip us, and we managed to earn a little extra through side jobs like helping people with reading and writing or with loading cocoa onto trucks. Finally, after almost two years, Charles and I had saved enough money to go abroad.

Raphel: How did you start?

Kwaku: It was easy. We contacted my school friend and he took us to the man’s house. We knew of other people who provided the same service, but we’d heard that this man took good care of people.

He explained everything to us, including the risks involved. We were especially afraid to cross the sea. Neither me nor Charles had seen the sea before – we couldn’t even imagine what it looked like. We’d also heard many stories of people dying on the crossing. But we’d also heard terrible stories about Libya, and knew we didn’t want to get stuck there.

I knew I would have to be brave.

Raphel: Can you tell me what life in Libya was like?

Kwaku: People treated us horribly there. They made us feel like we were no better than animals, just because we’re Black.

Charles and I found work on a construction site. It was an uncompleted structure still in need of plastering and cementing. There were no windows or doors – just holes in the wall where they would eventually go. At the end of each working day we would put curtains down on the cold, hard floor and go to sleep on them.

One day, the foreman spat in our food before giving it to us. He said we weren’t working hard enough. And at that point we hadn’t eaten for two days either. What would you do? Would you eat this food or starve? The only time I really regretted leaving my country was when I was in Libya.

We finally saved enough money to join a boat going to Italy. We set off, but got lost. We were drifting for several days before a rescue boat came to pick us up. The rescuers told us they were from Italy and that they were taking us there. But we soon realised we’d been tricked and were going back to Libya. I cried that day.

Raphel: I can see you’re tearing up. Do you want to take a break?

Kwaku: No, I want to continue. People don’t know what happens and I want them to hear my story.

Raphel: Okay, please continue.

Kwaku: We were put into a prison in Libya, where we were mistreated every day. When we entered the prison, we were forced to squat so the guards could check if we were hiding money. They threatened to insert a rod into my anus if I didn’t release money from it.

Food was not a guarantee. There were lice and cockroaches everywhere. We often chose to sleep on the bare floor because all the bedding was full of bedbugs and other insects. We were allowed to wash once every two weeks. The guards would hit us for the slightest thing, and they seemed to take delight in it. It was torture.

Raphel: Were you still with Charles at this time?

Kwaku: No, he was taken to another prison. We never saw each other again, and his family haven’t heard from him either. I don’t even know if he’s still alive.

Raphel: How long were you in prison for?

Kwaku: I was there for more than a year. We pleaded for them to let us go every day. We told them we’re not animals or criminals or bad people. Life has just been unfair to us and we were seeking a way out. But they didn’t listen.

One day some white people came to the prison and we were allowed to talk to them. They told us they were from the UN. They said people who wanted to go back to their home countries should identify themselves.

I told them I wanted to go to Europe, not Ghana, but they said that was not possible. They could only help me if I wanted to return home. Despite everything, I still wanted to continue the journey. I felt that there was nothing left for me in Ghana.

If someone wants to help me, then why don’t they listen to what I want? All we want is opportunities in life like everyone else. Isn’t that why Europeans started coming to our country in the first place as well?

Raphel: So what did you decide to do?

Kwaku: In the end I couldn’t bear the abuse anymore. I agreed to come back to Ghana.

They told me that I had say that I was returning to my country willingly. I signed the papers, but it was never really my choice. The UN pretends that people are agreeing to return, but is it really a choice when the options are abuse in Libya or poverty in Ghana?

They say we were willingly brought back from Libya, but I want people to know it is not like that. No. I got deported.

Raphel: How have things been since returning to Ghana?

Kwaku: It hasn’t been easy. I couldn’t finish learning a trade and no one will hire a 30-year-old graduate, so I’ve been trying my hand at farming.

I’m fortunate that my family have always worked in farming, and we have a small amount of land in our village. This has prevented me from begging on the streets. But what I grow is hardly enough to support myself, let alone a family, which is why I haven’t been able to marry. So I’m planning to try travel again.

Raphel: Will you return to Libya?

Kwaku: Yes. I know that if I am caught, I will experience even more hell. But maybe luck will shine on me the second time.


Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion at the XXIX International Rosa Luxemburg Conference in Berlin on January

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