Blog post by Gianpaolo Gullotta, a Team Leader at the Italian Aid Agency – AICS, currently based in El Salvador, and a recent graduate of the MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies.

The Ghana refugee situation is a protracted one; in fact, the two major groups of refugees, Liberians and Ivorians, have been present in its territory for more than five years. Against this backdrop, different theories have been developed. Some scholars and practitioners argue that the model conceived has yielded good results in terms of refugee self-reliance, and others, alleging the opposite, deem the results achieved because of external factors, such as remittances.

My research has thoroughly investigated the root causes of such a “care and maintenance” system, still based on a camp-in policy, albeit the freedom of movement within the Ghanaian territory is permitted and shows which are the main hindrances that curb refugee self-reliance: the weaknesses of the Ghanaian economy, the gaps between refugee law and the implementing policies and the relief projects too often aimed only at providing skills. In this way, by analysing these issues, it will be possible to grasp that refugee self-reliance is more a refugee self-occupancy, and the current system that is set up shrinks the available solutions. This is not casual, but rather a biopolitical attempt to resolve the refugee issue in Ghana.

Against this background, and after having sketched out the Ghanaian refugee situation, much has already been said about the Protracted Refugee Situation – PRS and why self-reliance programs are not effective most of the time. PRS often ensue from camps-in policies adopted by the host countries, and the use of the camps for managing refugees has been deeply explored, starting from the famous Agamben’s concept, which alleges that the camps reduce refugees to a “bare life” because they are no more a political subject, confining them in these anti-development settlements. Thus, supported by this vision, I argue that the use of refugee camps is one hindrance of self-reliance.

Concerning the second main area of investigation, the refugee self-reliance, and its capacity to enhance the opportunities for refugees of reaching a durable solution, we can find various studies on the role of UNHCR in fostering this approach, the major obstacles that hamper self-reliance, for example, the unfavourable socio-economic and legal environment, and the humanitarian interventions that make refugees more self-occupied rather than self-reliant. The extensive work of Omata has examined these aspects deeply, finding evidence that the self-reliance achieved by the refugees in Ghana is related to external factors, such as remittances from abroad and the social networks built by the refugees themselves, from which they benefit.

In this vein, I have evaluated the refugee management in Ghana, considering the refugee camps as an instrument of control of the crisis, and refugee self-reliance as a driving force to achieve a durable solution, trying to figure out whether this approach has some hidden biopolitical intentions. Specifically, exploring the different root causes of the “care and maintenance” system, which was created and could not be explained by refugee idleness. This is what has emerged from a semi-structured interview submitted to a group of selected Ghanaian aid workers, during my field research. Still, it is fundamental to probing different assumptions, for example, taking the cue from the point of view of the refugees involved in the self-reliance programs and scholars like Omata, who have studied the Ghanaian refugeehood. Thanks to these new prospects, it is possible to assume that the refugee is a potential agent of change, not an actor-to-be, entangled within the humanitarian aid that makes them addicted.

My research has confirmed that the Ghanaian refugee situation is what the practitioners call a “care and maintenance” system, that is gradually sliding toward a point of no return, that one of settling the matter, through the shutdown of the camps and the promotion of repatriation and wherever possible of integration. Although it is possible to deem this approach as the natural ending of a PRS, I lean toward a different assumption supported by the findings observed, that of considering the inefficiency of the self-reliance projects and the gaps of the Ghanaian Refugee Law as indirect push factors that force refugees to come back to their countries. These factors are passively accepted by Government of Ghana and by humanitarian actors, suggesting a biopolitical attempt to solve the refugee matter, opting for repatriation.

According to the interviewed aid workers, the self-reliance projects implemented in Ghana are appropriate for reaching durable solutions as well as the legal framework that permits refugees to be integrated into the Ghanaian society. Nevertheless, these affirmations are not endorsed by the refugees that condemn the difficulty of getting the working permit and the poor quality of the training provided. In addition, analysed UNHCR data points out some critical hindrances that curb the attainment of refugee self-reliance: the difficulty of access to the market, the refugee discrimination by the host population, the weakness of the Ghanaian economy and lack of financial means for starting IGAs. These obstacles have also been confirmed by the interviewed aid workers, who are aware of the necessity of substantial humanitarian intervention for helping refugees reach self-reliance.

This scenario sets out refugee self-occupancy rather than self-reliance. If, on the one hand, UNCHR and humanitarian agencies blame refugees of idleness and being keen only to be resettled, on the other hand, the economic and legal environment is not suitable for providing durable solutions for them. In the current framework, the livelihood strategies held by refugees cannot give access to socio-economic rights. It seems that granting such socio-economic rights is an additional burden for the Government of Ghana and humanitarian system.

Due to the projects’ inefficiency and the weak legal and economic environment, these difficulties in reaching self-reliance seriously undermine the possibility of local integration. Findings suggest an awareness of these issues among the humanitarian actors. In this vein, bearing in mind that resettlement has never been a valuable option for refugees in Ghana, repatriation remains the only available solution sponsored by the stakeholders, even though many refugees allege to still being afraid to come back to their countries.

I suggest that this absence of solutions for refugees is prompted by the self-occupancy ensued by the humanitarian interventions and that thrives in the unsuitable social, legal, and economic environment. In this way, refugees are forced to choose only the repatriation among the durable solutions, even because the camps are far from providing self-reliance and are ready to be shut down by the Government of Ghana. The weakness of the self-reliance projects, reported by the findings and confirmed by refugees’ testimonies, despite recognizing the opposite advice of the aid workers interviewed, paints the humanitarian agency as a meaningless tool, that together with the blatant governmental resistance to local integration pushes refugees to return home.

This way of addressing the refugee issue is far away from putting the individual will at the core. Durable solutions should be pursued following refugees’ characteristics and desires, without forgetting that the CSR51 seeks to preserve the sphere of personal freedom of refugees, in other words, the refugee choice is at the core of the convention, which establishes the right of the solutions; therefore, repatriation should be always a personal choice or only when the individual’s claim to protection disappears accordingly to an assessment by the asylum state. However, always on individual grounds.

Paraphrasing Rozaku’s definition of biopolitics, the refugee is deprived of their right to choose the best solution for him/her and becomes exposed to social death, which means deciding what available solution the circumstances, directly or indirectly, give to him/her. In the Ghanaian case seems that the only available choice is repatriation. A choice imposed by the system.

However, I may suggest which features of the project should be kept in mind to improve the refugees’ situation in Ghana, especially prioritising enhancing the range of durable solutions on offer. Overall, the presence of the social capital in the projects is fundamental, also argued by the aid workers who were interviewed. These have underlined the dearth of social networks among Ivorian refugees, and also by Omata, which ascribes the vibrant economy of Buduburam refugee camp to the web of social networks that brings remittances to refugees.

Thus, dwelling on social capital for devising new self-reliance projects would permit reconsidering an available option local integration, because social capital generates human capital in the next generation. Human capital is the Passepartout for integration, making persons valuable and attractive to the labour market. This is what Bett calls “humanitarian innovation”, the process through which refugees can exert their agency.

It is also needed to reshape the social and legal environment, for thriving the human capital, thereby advocacy programs for filling the gaps between Ghanaian Refugee Law and the reality should be conceived for enacting new policies.

Finally, the last point that I would like to underline is the idea of the refugee as a migrant worker, which does not exist among the Ghanaian stakeholders. Following Nansen’s foresight of considering refugees as migrant workers for better opportunities both of local integration and resettlements, the refugee in Ghana should be seen as a potential asset, not a burden, stuck in camps and to be rejected to their countries of origin. Thereby, through this approach, rights enshrined in the CSR51 such as art. 17 (right to work) and art. 28 (right to obtain travel documents) would be thoroughly enjoyed. This mobility may be the driver for rights accumulation and personal development in the host/resettlement country.

Nevertheless, deeming refugees as migrant workers could jeopardize the protection system of the host countries, allowing states to avoid complying with their responsibilities enshrined in the CSR51, or even be used as a containment measure of refugees by the Western within West Africa, considering refugees just like migrant workers free to move within ECOWAS region, presenting it as the best solution for their refugee situation. Thus, it is essential to recognize that mobility without access to membership of a political community cannot be proposed as the fourth durable solution.

Considering that mobility alone can undermine the refugee legal framework, refugees should become migrants only in terms of solutions. Refugee status should be clear, and hosting countries must guarantee the protection, but by the same token, it is a precarious status. The refugee status should be like the metamorphosis of the butterfly, which transforms itself to fly. They should transform themselves into a migrant worker, thanks to training, with the aim to seek the best durable solution according to their expectations.

Ghanaian and international stakeholders that deal with refugees should foster and protect this “metamorphosis”, improving the quality of the self-reliance programs, filling the gaps between refugee laws and their effective implementation, and abandoning the camp-in policy.

* Gianpaolo Gullotta is a Team Leader at the Italian Aid Agency – AICS, currently based in El Salvador. He graduated in Political Science – Cooperation development in 2010 and from 2011, he worked on managing development projects between Africa and Latin America. In 2015, he contributed to develop the campaign VIS Stoptratta, against the human trafficking and forced migration in West Africa, coordinating such campaign mainly in Ghana, where he spent six years as VIS Country Representative. In 2019, he was selected by the University of London for the Master of Arts in Refugee Protection and Forced Migratiion Studies. He completed this MA with a final dissertation on refugee self-reliance. Since 2021, he is an assistant editor for the Researching Internal Displacement website.

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