Some of the measures adopted by states to combat the Covid-19 pandemic pose challenges to non-citizens, particularly refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants. As noted by the Assistant Commissioner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “not only have national responses to Covid-19 led to the denial of fundamental refugee rights, but they have also resulted in the unnecessary and disproportionate use of immigration detention, a dramatic rise in sexual violence, discriminatory restrictions on access to health and social services, and the loss of livelihoods.”1Grillian Triggs, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection April 8,2020 https://www.kaldorcentre.unsw.edu.au/publication/we-can-secure-both-public-health-and-rights-refugees-protection Although Ghana has not adopted stringent migration and refugee discriminatory measures at the level reported to be the case in Australia, Hungary, Greece and United States of America (USA), the government has been largely silent on the needs of refugees and migrants, leaving them more vulnerable with limited protection and rights.
This article examines Ghana’s responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly its implications for and impacts on the 13, 303 registered refugees and asylum seekers, and the estimated 400, 000 migrants.2https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/GHA/ghana/immigration-statistics’>Ghana Immigration Statistics 1960-2020</a>. www.macrotrends.net. It notes that Ghana was slow to recognize the scale of risks posed by restrictive measures such as a partial lockdown, stay at home and border closure, to vulnerable groups in society. The government also did not pay adequate attention to how such measures would specifically affect migrant and refugee populations. As a result, Ghana’s migrant and refugee communities, already adversely affected by their exclusion from socio-economic benefits and facing language barriers face harsher challenges during the new Coronavirus pandemic.
Ghana’s Covid-19 Responses
On March 12, 2020, Ghana reported the first two cases of Covid-19 noting that these were imported cases. Subsequently, the government adopted a series of interventions aimed at protecting the public and reducing both the rate of infections and the impact on various sectors of society. The measures included border closures; lockdown and social distancing measures. It also included partial restrictions on the movement of persons in the non-essential services sector in parts of three regions – Greater Accra, Ashanti and Central. On April 19, 2020, with a case count of 1,042 infected persons, the President announced an end to the three weeks’ partial lockdown. As of May 28, 2020, Ghana’s recorded cases was 7,303.3For most current updates on Ghana’s reported cases see https://www.ghanahealthservice.org/covid19/ The borders, schools including Universities remain closed and a ban on social gathering is still in force.
Covid-19 Responses and Migrant Populations
Ghana’s responses to the Covid-19 pandemic have been largely silent on social interventions that target refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. However, some government statements and actions have pointed to concerns about the health risks posed to the public by the entry of, and presence of migrants in Ghana.
For example, although data on Convid-19 cases posted on the government website is not disaggregated into citizens and non-citizens, official government statements, including that of the President almost always reference the citizenship status of the various infected cases. Also, some Government officials refer to them as illegal migrants and admonish Ghanaians not to provide transportation or help with their movement around the country.4See GoG 7th Presidential COVID-19 Address to Ghanaians http://www.presidency.gov.gh/index.php/briefing-room/speeches/1560-president-akufo-addo-speaks-on-updates-to-ghana-s-enhanced-response-to-covid-19.
The Ghanaian government has threatened to deport/repatriate migrants/non-citizens who test positive to Covid-19.5Nyabor Jonas, “Arrested’ Guineans who tested positive for COVID-19 in Ghana to be repatriated,” Citi Newsroom, March 29, 2020. https://citinewsroom.com/2020/03/arrested-guineans-who-tested-positive-for-covid-19-in-ghana-to-be-repatriated/. So far, Ghana has not enforced such repatriation orders. In the specific case of some Guinean and Burkina Faso nationals, media reports indicate that the repatriation was halted due to the lack of cooperation from their respective home governments.6“Burkina Faso, Guinea refuse to receive citizens who tested positive for coronavirus in Ghana,” My Joy Online, April 1, 2020. https://www.myjoyonline.com/news/national/burkina-faso-guinea-refuse-to-receive-citizens-who-tested-positive-for-coronavirus-in-ghana/. The migrants subsequently underwent treatment under stringent conditions in an isolation centre. Threats of deportation and criminalization of their entry/movement have caused panic among migrant populations. This most likely explains reported cases of some migrants fleeing from isolation centres and others, refusing Ghana’s offer of treatment.7“Nigeriens with COVID-19 attempted to ‘escape’ from hospital – Medical Director,” Citi Newsroom, April 15, 2020. https:// citinewsroom.com/2020/04/nigeriens-with-covid-19-attempted-to-escape-from-hospital-medical-director/.
Also, the living conditions of many refugees and some vulnerable migrants, whether in camps or urban settings, makes social distancing impossible. So is staying at home, where home means making a difficult choice between the streets for most of the urban migrant population or a return to their country of origin. Thus, for the migrant population, restrictive orders send conflicting signals. The government needs to communicate its intentions clearly and avoid the current one-size fits all approach. Ghanaian government officials have relied mainly on the English language and some local languages in communicating and educating the public on both the pandemic and restrictive measures. Such an approach excludes Ghana’s large Francophone migrant population and the non-local language speakers in both the urban and rural communities.
To ameliorate the adverse socio-economic impact of COVID-19 interventions on its population, the Government of Ghana, introduced some palliatives. These include providing shelter for homeless people in Accra and Kumasi during the lockdown, food and water distribution as well as subsidies on the cost of electricity and water supply for different categories of residents. Also, the Ghana Education Services rolled out a distance education program for high school students to provide them with access to learning during the period of school closure because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The media for instruction include dedicated TV channels by the state broadcaster as well as an online platform.
Implementation of these interventions has not been smooth as State agencies struggle to implement these policies to the benefit of those who qualify. Again, these measures do not include specific provisions for migrants and refugees who live within the policy’s catchment communities, including the streets as well as refugee or IDP camps.
Factors behind Ghana’s failure to plan for Migrant and Refugee Populations
Ghana, like all other countries, has adopted a mainly statist approach to the Covid-19 pandemic, which prioritizes citizens over non-citizens. It has closed its international borders and tightened security at all the land and water entry points. Within this framework, refugees and other categories of migrants such as international students, skilled and non-skilled migrants, documented and non-documented have fallen through the cracks and might be placed in harm’s way.
Ghana’s closure of its borders and its timing meant that most migrants including international students, temporary foreign workers and others could not leave the country without incurring additional costs. Consequently, after the closure, some European and North American states organized chartered flights to evacuate their nationals at high costs. South Africa is the only known country in Africa to have conducted a similar excise for its citizens in Ghana. Thus, the vast majority of Ghana’s migrant population were either stranded or risked using unapproved routes to exit the country. Others faced risks by moving around the country and being arrested, increasing their vulnerability to being infected with the virus.
Linked to the statist approach is the norm of exclusion of non-citizens from state social intervention programmes. Ghana, similar to most African states, has carved a hospitality image because it welcomes migrants into its territory. Paradoxically, this open asylum and migrant-friendly reputation is also underpinned by a history of exclusion and isolation of the displaced population from social intervention measures.8Amanda Coffie, “Ghana’s Asylum Policy and Practices Since Independence,” in Public Policy Making in Ghana: How Politicians and Civil Servants Deal with Public Problems, ed. Frank Ohemeng, et al. (Edwin Mellen Press: New York, 2012) 157-191. For example, Ghana’s School Feeding and Free Senior High School programmes at the pre-tertiary levels have excluded migrants and refugee populations. Covid-19 social intervention programmes for the vulnerable people, do not cover refugees and migrants.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Ghana’s response to Covid-19 has marginalized refugees and migrants, particularly poorly-skilled or unskilled migrants operating in the informal sector. However, the situation may not be all bleak. As Ghana continues to assess its Covid-19 responses and mitigation measures, there is still room to include migrants and refugees.
To this end, the Ghanaian government should ensure that migrant and refugee populations have access to relevant information in their languages, to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 among refugees/migrants themselves and to the broader community. Based on data from UNHCR, the majority of Ghana’s refugee population is from neighboring Cote d’Ivoire and Togo, where French is the official language. Including French as well as translation of local languages spoken in those countries, in addition to English during press briefings and information dissemination of Covid-19 related policies will have an added value of bridging the language gaps for the refugee and migrant populations. Also, government agencies should effectively partner with UN refugee and migrant agencies, civil society and humanitarian organizations that have a long history of engaging with migrants as a strategy for engaging refugees and migrants on Covid-19 prevention, testing, and treatment measures.
Combating Covid-19, as noted by the WHO can be successfully achieved through solidarity. However, some policies undermine solidarity and, in some instances, harm refugees and migrants as well as the most vulnerable groups in society. Ghana will have to eschew any attempt to deport or forcibly repatriate any foreign national that tests positive for Covid-19, as it will set a bad precedent. Such action could have cascading effects, should other states decide to retaliate by returning foreign nationals who test positive for Covid-19. The new Coronavirus is no respecter of borders and citizenship status, and should be collectively addressed to “protect our human family.”
Finally, the government and the media should refrain from announcing the citizenship and migration status of Covid-19 patients as this is likely to scare and expose them to stigmatization. Ghana must also endeavor to provide medical, economic and social aid to all people within its borders. The Covid-19 pandemic calls for social solidarity for our collective health and safety and not scapegoating or stigmatizing already vulnerable groups such as refugees and migrants.
- 1Grillian Triggs, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection April 8,2020 https://www.kaldorcentre.unsw.edu.au/publication/we-can-secure-both-public-health-and-rights-refugees-protection
- 2https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/GHA/ghana/immigration-statistics’>Ghana Immigration Statistics 1960-2020</a>. www.macrotrends.net.
- 3For most current updates on Ghana’s reported cases see https://www.ghanahealthservice.org/covid19/
- 4See GoG 7th Presidential COVID-19 Address to Ghanaians http://www.presidency.gov.gh/index.php/briefing-room/speeches/1560-president-akufo-addo-speaks-on-updates-to-ghana-s-enhanced-response-to-covid-19.
- 5Nyabor Jonas, “Arrested’ Guineans who tested positive for COVID-19 in Ghana to be repatriated,” Citi Newsroom, March 29, 2020. https://citinewsroom.com/2020/03/arrested-guineans-who-tested-positive-for-covid-19-in-ghana-to-be-repatriated/.
- 6“Burkina Faso, Guinea refuse to receive citizens who tested positive for coronavirus in Ghana,” My Joy Online, April 1, 2020. https://www.myjoyonline.com/news/national/burkina-faso-guinea-refuse-to-receive-citizens-who-tested-positive-for-coronavirus-in-ghana/.
- 7“Nigeriens with COVID-19 attempted to ‘escape’ from hospital – Medical Director,” Citi Newsroom, April 15, 2020. https:// citinewsroom.com/2020/04/nigeriens-with-covid-19-attempted-to-escape-from-hospital-medical-director/.
- 8Amanda Coffie, “Ghana’s Asylum Policy and Practices Since Independence,” in Public Policy Making in Ghana: How Politicians and Civil Servants Deal with Public Problems, ed. Frank Ohemeng, et al. (Edwin Mellen Press: New York, 2012) 157-191.