Aflao, (Ghana), 2 February 2023 — Every morning, hundreds of local residents cross the border between Ghana and Togo. They may be headed to work, visiting the markets, or meeting with friends and relatives in Lomé (the capital of Togo, which lies within walking distance right across the border). Locals benefit from simplified procedures allowing them to easily transit between the two countries without queues or laborious exit and entry processes.
But in addition to the daily regular crossings, the Aflao border area witnesses irregular border crossings, often facilitated by smugglers. Some try to take advantage of the heavy daily traffic and simply enter Togo unnoticed, while others try to cross the border irregularly. These people include refugees or asylum seekers, searching for an escape from a desperate situation at home. They could be migrants, unaccompanied children, or any others who cross the border outside of regular migration channels.
“As many as 300 people were intercepted in a single day trying to enter Ghana through unapproved routes at the north of the city of Aflao during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the borders were closed,” said Frederick Duodu, Ghana’s Assistant Commissioner of Immigration (ACI) and Sector Commander of the Aflao Border. Even with the border now re-opened, he added, “we are still intercepting 10-15 persons per day attempting to enter irregularly.”
Very often, these irregular border crossings are facilitated by criminal smugglers and may be only a small leg of a long journey towards destination countries in the North of Africa, Europe, or even the United States. Such journeys present risks that many migrants dismiss or of which they may be simply unaware.
“Migrants often see smugglers as their benefactors and the immigration authorities as preventing them from achieving their goals and reaching their destination,” remarked Duodu.
Smuggled migrants are vulnerable to human rights violations and exploitation by profit-seeking smugglers. Many die or are gravely harmed en route, while others are subject to blackmail or debt bondage once they reach their destination. Through the bribery of officials, this crime can also fuel corruption and organized crime in countries of origin, transit, or destination.
In order to address challenges in detecting and investigating migrant smuggling, on 1 and 2 February 2023, under its STARSOM project, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) organized a mentoring session for 30 officers of the Ghana Immigration Service (GIS) deployed in Aflao.
STARSOM experts visited Aflao together with the group of officers from the GIS Headquarters in Accra who had received mentoring under the initiative in the previous months.
The visit to Aflao allowed them to share their knowledge, interact with other colleagues and learn first-hand of migrant smuggling challenges in their day-to-day work at the border.
During the mentoring exercise, participants “observed, monitored, and shared ideas on trafficking in persons and the smuggling of migrants,” said Superintendent Alberta Ankrah, Head of the Anti-Human Smuggling and Trafficking in Persons Unit of GIS. “This has been an opportunity to have practical experience on how officers work at the borders to handle migrant smuggling cases and identify vulnerable migrants and perpetrators.”
“It is crucial that officers deployed at the borders have the knowledge and skills not only to detect and investigate the perpetrators of migrant smuggling, but also to consider and attend to the needs of men, women and children that are smuggled,” said Panagiotis Papadimitriou, STARSOM Coordinator and Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer at UNODC.
Based on the findings and observations that emerged during the implementation of STARSOM in Ghana and Nigeria, UNODC will develop a plan to further its support in the fight against migrant smuggling, focusing particularly on border areas. In the meantime, immigration officers of the GIS from Accra and Aflao will attend monthly online mentoring sessions, alongside their counterparts from Nigeria, to deepen their understanding of migrant smuggling.