Walled off

Ghana defends expulsion of Burkina Faso asylum seekers

By Kent Mensah

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Posted on August 11, 2023 08:30

Friendlier times: Ghana’s defence minister Dominic Nitiwul (L) talking to then Burkina Faso defence minister Jean-Claude Bouda at a meeting of Sahel and Sahara defence ministers in Abidjan, 2017. (REUTERS/Luc Gnago)
Friendlier times: Ghana’s defence minister Dominic Nitiwul (L) talking to then Burkina Faso defence minister Jean-Claude Bouda at a meeting of Sahel and Sahara defence ministers in Abidjan, 2017. (REUTERS/Luc Gnago)

‘We would do whatever we have to do to protect our people,’ says Ghana’s defence minister on decision to expel more than 500 Burkinabè citizens.

Ghana is playing defence on the security and diplomatic fronts after launching military operations along its northern border in an effort to clamp down on suspected terrorists and fleeing migrants making their way from the troubled Sahel to coastal West Africa.

Accra has expelled more than 500 Burkinabè citizens, including women and children, since operations began in mid-July.

Reaching boiling point

The expulsions have strained relations with Ouagadougou while earning a rebuke from the UN refugee agency UNHCR, which has decried the move as a gross violation of international protection for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

“The UNHCR calls on the government of Ghana to cease these expulsions, which amount to a violation of the non-refoulement principle, and [to] guarantee access to the territory and asylum to nationals of Burkina Faso seeking international protection,” the agency said.

Under the non-refoulement principle, a country that receives asylum seekers cannot send them back to a nation where they would face persecution.

Ghana says it is doing what it needs to do to keep its citizens safe.

‘Bad nuts’

Vladimir Antwi-Danso, an international relations expert attached to the Ghana Armed Forces Command and Staff College, says the government of President Nana Akufo-Addo operated within international rules of engagement.

We didn’t repatriate them wholesale

“The laws are there, but then when your security and economy [are] threatened by the presence of foreigners on your territory, you have every right to repatriate them because Burkina Faso does not constitute a country that you cannot go back to, unlike other places like Yemen,” Antwi-Danso tells The Africa Report.

“We’ve not offended any law,” he insists. “We didn’t repatriate them wholesale. We screened them and the bad nuts were sent back. Europe is doing that.”

He points out that African migrants “risk their lives” to get to the Italian island of Lampedusa only to get sent back home.

Ever-present terror threat

Ghana has hosted more than 8,000 Burkinabès since the French-speaking country plunged into turmoil, according to the UN agency.

Political instability in the region is being fuelled by the activities of extremist groups, displacing around six million people from the region.

The latest figures released by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) show that more than 1,800 terrorist attacks were recorded in the region in the first half of this year, causing a humanitarian catastrophe.

The 4,593 recorded deaths include 2,725 in Burkina Faso, 844 in Mali, 77 in Niger and 70 in Nigeria.

Omar Touray, president of the ECOWAS Commission, told the UN Security Council that half a million people in West Africa are refugees and nearly 6.2 million are internally displaced.

Red alert

Ghana’s defence minister, Dominic Nitiwul, tells The Africa Report that his country is ready to provide humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers from troubled areas like Ouagadougou, but will not make it convenient for suspected terrorists or illegal migrants to take advantage of its hospitality.

“Terrorism is our major worry,” says Nitiwul. “That’s why we are carrying out a lot of activities up north. We initially deployed troops to shield the country from terrorists.

“It is a real threat starting from the Sahel. We would do whatever we have to do to protect our people.”

Ghana and Burkina Faso have enjoyed positive diplomatic ties through cooperation in agriculture, water, trade, transport and security. However, the relationship soured when, at the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington DC last December, Akufo-Addo accused Burkina Faso of hiring mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner group.

Although Ghana sent emissaries led by national security minister, Albert Kan-Dapaah, to repair the rift, the accusations have irked Burkina Faso’s interim leader, Captain Ibrahim Traoré.

Damaged relationship

Mutaru Mumuni Muqthar, executive director of the West Africa Centre for Counter-Extremism, tells The Africa Report that there’s “no question” that the bilateral relationship has been damaged by the forced repatriation of Burkinabè refugees.

“We need to employ a very dedicated, deliberate approach in dealing with Burkina Faso,” he says.

“This is coming on the back of our president’s unfortunate claims against Burkina Faso in the US in December. So, all these things put together do not project Ghana positively in the eyes of Burkina Faso. It undermines our existing relationship when it comes to security, economic and social cooperation.”

Ghana has set up a reception centre with a capacity of 4,000 people in the Upper East Region – a few miles away from the Burkina Faso border – to move Burkinabè refugees away from the border for security reasons. Currently, around 530 displaced Burkinabès are being accommodated at the centre.

Antwi-Danso agrees that the refugee expulsions have hurt diplomatic ties between Accra and Ouagadougou. He remains optimistic that dialogue between the two countries can prevent further deterioration.

“Ghana needs to initiate a dialogue with Burkina Faso over the issue,” he says.

“We just have to explain to them that the situation was detrimental to our security and economy. We should have found a way of alerting Burkina Faso for them to prepare for those we are sending back, because they are also wary of miscreants.”

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