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Ghana accused of expelling Fulani asylum seekers from Burkina Faso

‘We know we are not wanted in Ghana, but they will kill us in Burkina Faso.’

WHILE Ghana has welcomed thousands of Burkinabé refugees fleeing escalating jihadist violence across the border, Fulani rights groups allege that it has also been expelling ethnic Fulani asylum seekers, targeting a community unfairly accused of supporting the insurgency.

Belko Diallo*, a 45-year-old former herder, is one of thousands of Burkinabé Fulani that the Ghanaian authorities have failed to register as refugees. Instead of being welcomed to Ghana’s Traikom refugee camp, he has had to settle with his family in a hastily erected hut in the dusty scrub land near the northern border.

 “When we first heard about Tarikom, we thought – after the Ghana government helped the Mossi and Bissa [their former neighbours in Burkina Faso] – they would help us,” he told The New Humanitarian late last year during the first of two reporting trips. “But after the government took them to the camp and gave them support, the soldiers forced us to go home. You run for your life [in Burkina Faso], then they tell us to return? We cannot return.”

Since early 2022, at least 15,000 Burkinabé have fled into northern Ghana, escaping an escalating conflict between the military, who are backed by armed civilian auxiliaries, and the two main jihadist groups – the al-Qaeda-linked JNIM, and so-called Islamic State.

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Across the Sahel, close to four million people have been displaced by the expanding conflict. What began as a secessionist struggle in northern Mali in 2012 has metastasised into multiple interconnected insurgencies roiling both Burkina Faso and Niger. In the past 12 years, at least 42,000 people have been killed, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project.

In a push south, the jihadist insurgents have also been threatening the coastal West African states of Benin and Togo, and have now arrived on Ghana’s border.

The Fulani ‘security problem’

In what is increasingly an identity-driven conflict, the Fulani – a diverse semi-nomadic community of 30 million people spread across West Africa – are being viewed more and more as a “security problem” by regional governments, Ghana’s included.

Jihadist groups in the Sahel have cannily manipulated local grievances to recruit historically marginalised subsections of Fulani communities. The insurgents have targeted any communities that collaborate with the government, including local Fulani leaders who oppose them.

Malian and Burkinabé security forces – and communal militias with their own local agendas and grievances – have responded with large-scale extrajudicial killings. Fulani communities have found themselves trapped between acquiescing to the militants – in fear of death – and the local militias and military who often believe the canard that all Fulani are jihadist sympathisers. 

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Ousmane Barry*, an elderly Fulani herder from central Burkina Faso, had moved multiple times to avoid both the jihadists and the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (VDP in French), a civilian militia founded in 2019 to fight alongside the army. In 2020, he arrived in the small village of Siginogo, near the Ghanaian border.

On hearing that the VDP was recruiting in the nearby community of Zekeze in late 2022, he again began to explore the option of relocating. When the bodies of three Fulani men were found by the side of the road in early 2023, he decided it was time to move his family to Ghana.

Ghana denies discrimination 

Over the last two years, Ghana has registered more than 3,000 Burkinabé refugees, mostly from Mossi, Kusasi, and Bissa communities. But Fulani like Diallo and Barry, also fleeing the conflict, complain that they struggle to be recognised as refugees and risk expulsion.

The Ghanaian government denies that it is discriminating against Fulani and claims its actions are determined by the national security concerns of the encroaching jihadist threat. Fulani rights groups, however, are insistent that their community has faced regular harassment for decades at the hands of police and immigration officers – who often side with local farmers when clashes erupt over grazing land.

In July 2023, soldiers and immigration officers descended on at least a dozen small towns and villages across northern and central Ghana, detaining hundreds of Fulani and forcibly returning them to Burkina Faso.

The thousands of Burkinabé – both Fulani and non-Fulani – who fled to Ghana in late 2022 and early 2023 were initially hosted by Ghanaian communities on the border. They opened their homes, shared food and water, and helped coordinate with immigration and disaster management personnel. 

In April 2023, the Ghana Refugee Board and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, began building the reception centre in Tarikom, in the Upper East region. Within a month, the basics had been established, and the government began registering people in the border areas, and then transporting those who wanted to settle in the new camp.

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But that hospitality was not extended to the Burkina Fulani. Instead, in July 2023, soldiers and immigration officers descended on at least a dozen small towns and villages across northern and central Ghana, detaining hundreds of Fulani and forcibly returning them to Burkina Faso, local officials and rights groups told The New Humanitarian.

Amidu Hara, a former district assembly member in the town of Gowlu, in the Upper West region, described how he led immigration officials to Fulani encampments where they detained anyone without a Ghanaian ID, packed them into flatbed tricycles, and drove them back to Burkina Faso. 

In Gwolu and Titi villages in the Upper East region, soldiers detained people en masse – including children – and burnt their temporary shelters and belongings.

A few days after the expulsions began, the Ghana chapter of the Fulani cultural association Tabital Pulaaku International issued a press release accusing the government of refoulement – the internationally prohibited forcible return of asylum seekers.

Although the government claimed the exercise was “voluntary repatriation”, it was also condemned by UNHCR and other foreign donors, who reminded Ghana of its responsibility to people seeking protection.

‘Too sensitive’ to discuss

The expulsions stopped in August last year, but the Ghana Refugee Board has still not registered any arriving Fulani – despite the urging of UNHCR.

Tetteh Padi, the executive secretary of the Ghana Refugee Board, insists that ethnicity has not been a basis for offering refugee status, but noted that new arrivals must be cleared by the security agencies before they can be registered. 

“We understand the security implications, but that does not mean the Fulani should be denied their right to access asylum.”

Yakubu Musah Barry, the general secretary of Tabital Pulaaku International in Ghana, said Ghanaian Fulani leaders have offered to help the security agencies vet Fulani asylum seekers – to overcome the government’s lack of Fulfulde-speaking personnel – but have been repeatedly rebuffed.

Ghanaian security officials have also denied the government has discriminated against Fulani, but claim the matter is “too sensitive” to discuss as it involves ongoing military and intelligence operations on the border. 

“We understand the security implications, but that does not mean the Fulani should be denied their right to access asylum,” David Oppong, a protection officer with UNHCR, told The New Humanitarian.

Mutaru Muqthar, the executive director of the Accra-based West Africa Centre for Counter-Extremism, agreed that it was possible militants could be hiding among asylum seekers – as the government fears.

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However, referencing a JNIM audio message that cited the expulsions as a reason for Fulani to join the insurgency, he noted that people are “far more vulnerable to recruitment when they are living hungry and scared in the forest”.

Returning home a risky option

In the upheavals of last year’s immigration crackdown, many people managed to slip away. Diallo was told about the operation beforehand by a sympathetic chief and hid in the forest for three days until his hosts assured him the soldiers had left. 

Barry received the same warning, but rather than dodge the authorities, he decided to return to Burkina Faso. “Ghana did not want us. At least if we ran by ourselves [instead of waiting to be arrested], we would be on our own [and safer],” he reasoned.

But the threats and violence that forced so many Fulani to leave Burkina Faso have only worsened. After just a few days of being back, Barry was detained and taken to a prison outside the capital, Ouagadougou. He was interrogated for six weeks, along with 40 other men who had been expelled from Ghana. 

When he was released in September, he believed his name had been cleared, so he reunited with his family in the small town of Youga, in southern Burkina Faso. 

There, he learned that another group of Fulani who had recently arrived from Ghana had disappeared. Their bodies later washed up on the banks of the White Volta River, peppered with bullet holes. 

When The New Humanitarian last spoke to Barry in February, he was resigned to the dangers, stating matter-of-factly: “We know we are not wanted in Ghana, but they will kill us in Burkina Faso.”

*Names have been changed for security reasons

Edited by Obi Anyadike.

By JAMES COURTRIGHT

Researcher and writer based in Dakar, Senegal focusing on pastoralism, human rights, and conflict in the Sahel and Savannah regions of West Africa

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