Migration stories with Africaniwa
Migration is a human right.
Human nature means that we all aspire to the best possible life - to opportunities in education, employment and for our children to have better lives than we had. My Dad moved from Northern Ireland just before the Troubles started, and throughout my childhood I was acutely aware that my Granny and Grandad, uncles, aunts and cousins were living in what amounted to a warzone in Derry and Strabane. Despite being born in the UK Dad was treated as a foreigner in North West England. But he was able to travel, marry, settle and start a family without any bureaucracy
Travel means something different when you know you may never return. My husband Semmie boarded a plane earlier this month in Accra. As I waited at the gate for him at Manchester Airport I had a phone call from the Immigration Officer who was processing his entry, making sure I knew who he was and that we had a legitimate relationship. He had our marriage certificate in his hands and the question he asked was "What's your father's name?" Dad died twenty years ago so Semmie never met him. I think they would have got on. They have a similar sense of humour.
Semmie is still finding his feet in the UK, despite having been here for a couple of weeks about 20 years ago, and having several friends in the UK. He's working out how to live somewhere with different food (he's craving banku) different culture (the first time I took him to the pub he shook hands with the bar staff which left them baffled and delighted) and a very different climate (he only brought shorts and T shirts because it's summer - so we had to buy him trousers, coats, waterproof shoes and jumpers)
It cost around £5,000 to bring Semmie to the UK legally, including his passport, visa, an NHS surcharge of around £1800 and the plane ticket. The process took around 8 months. Still I was worried at every stage in case he was turned down, turned back. And we will have to do it all again in two and a half years' time. The UK Prime Minister has announced that the cost for the visa and NHS surcharge will be increasing by 20-50%. I just pray that by the time we renew in 2026, we have a new government more understanding of the human right to migrate to build a better life for yourself and your family.
People who come to the UK without papers often pay human traffickers sums similar to what Semmie and I paid legally to the Ghanaian and British governments, and Turkish Airlines. Have you ever wondered why? Why, if they have this enormous amount of money (two or three years' wages for the average Ghanaian, and Ghana is the 80th richest country in the world) they risk everything by leaving their country via an irregular route? The answer is perhaps surprising. If a passenger is later found not to have the correct paperwork to enter the country where an airline or ferry operator lands, they are held responsible. So if you don't have the means to get a passport, visa, or if your application is refused, or if someone steals your papers, you can't just book a plane ticket.
On Friday 28 July Africaniwa's regular monthly conversation was focused on Japa - the Yoruba word meaning to flee or escape. It has come to signify migration from African countries like Nigeria and Ghana, North to Europe and West to North America. We heard from Daniel, a registered nurse in Ghana who came to Stoke on Trent with his girlfriend and now works as a care worker, below his level of qualification, but paying ten times as much as his Ghanaian nurse's salary. Daniel had to borrow money from his Mum to come to the UK after the first online airline booking he made turned out to be fraudulent.
We heard from author and English professor Kobina Bonzi Simpson who has written three books about the perils facing migrants from West Africa to Libya and then across the Mediterranean. He shared his own journey across the Sahara when his guide was kidnapped and then he and over 100 of his fellow travellers were captured. They were held with little food and water in searing heat and when they escaped they had to walk in the baking sun for days. He now lives and works in Libya and teaches English to migrants who have arrived in the country hoping to find a new life in Europe.
But the most harrowing testimony came from Shakira (not her real name) who grew up in rural Nigeria. She was taken to the Prince's palace as a teenager and told she was being given the opportunity to travel to Malaysia to complete her studies. She had never heard of this country, and had no idea how she would get from Nigeria to Malaysia, so when she was taken onto a bus she wasn't concerned. It was only when she arrived and saw a signboard saying "Welcome to Libya" that she realised what had happened. But the full reality of her plight only became clear when she was taken to a house and asked one of the girls - who was 15 years old - why she was wearing such revealing clothing. The house was full of teenage girls wearing short skirts and tight dresses and Shakira, as a naive country girl of 19 was baffled. The girl laughed at her and said "What a stupid question - why do you think we are dressed like this? This is why you are here in Libya, we're prostitutes and you are too"
Shakira asked the Prince's wife - who had brought her to Libya, and it was confirmed. Malaysia was a lie. Education was a lie. Shakira was taken from her family and was now expected to become a prostitute in Libya. She refused, but the Prince's wife told her it was too late. She now owed the prince and his wife $5,000 and had to work to pay it back. When she further refused, the prince's wife sent money to Shakira's mother, and increased the debt to $10,000.
Moved from brothel to brothel, arrested by police several times, Shakira's life hit rock bottom when she was jailed for ten months. At the end of her sentence one of the police officers took her home to his wife, who rejected her because she was so thin she looked as though she had HIV. It was at this point Shakira met James, a charity worker who took her back to Nigeria. The charity continues to support her and help her tell her story.
Stories like Shakira's and Kobina's show us the risks faced by people wanting to migrate to find a better life. Research shows that life for irregular migrants continues to be a story of exploitation and discrimination even when they arrive at their destination. Not knowing your rights and operating without papers makes you vulnerable to exploitation from gangmasters working in industries like construction, agriculture and illegal drugs. Women continue to be vulnerable to prostitution but also working in places like nail bars. It has long been the case that if a price is too low, we need to be asking why. We need to be curious about the people behind the great deals, cash only, no questions asked places we all know about in towns and cities around the UK.
We need European governments to provide safe routes for people moving from places all over the global south where Europeans exploited the labour, resources and land for centuries. And most importantly we need to do what we can to reduce the push factor of migration, to make sure that opportunities exist for people in places like Ghana and Nigeria to make good money without having to take their talents out of the country of their birth.
The Chocolate Has A Name project, introducing education about chocolate to cocoa growing communities in Ghana, is about aspiration. It's about helping the children of cocoa farmers to see a future for themselves in growing cocoa, making chocolate and keeping more of the billions of dollars in the chocolate supply chain in the places where cocoa is grown. Migration is a human right, but so is the right not to have to migrate just to make a decent living.
Joanna Abena Fianu