Kojo risked his life mining in Ghana. He went to Italy for better opportunities, but was shocked by what he saw.
Kojo Afreh was a farmer and miner in Ghana before he decided to travel to Italy. He hoped that by finding work abroad, he could support his family and eventually marry the mother of his child. But his journey didn’t go to plan. Kojo is one of six migrant workers who told us about their experiences of migration for this series. An explanation of how we produced this interview can be found at the end.
Raphel Ahenu (BTS): Hello Kojo, thank you for meeting me today. Can you tell me about yourself?
Kojo Afreh: I’m 27 years old. I have a child but am no longer with the mother. I come from a family of maize farmers, and that was what I was doing for seven years before I travelled.
My farm was small – I never had the money to invest in something bigger. I was also working in galamsey (small-scale, illegal mining) in order to supplement my income from the farm.
Raphel: Why did you decide to leave Ghana?
Kojo: Hardship! I was really struggling. I never had enough money. Galamsey mining is dangerous as well. Bad accidents happen and sometimes people lose their lives. My parents were always worried about me.
My lack of finances was having a big impact on me. The mother of my child couldn’t marry me because of it – her parents didn’t think I could take care of her even though we had a child together. This situation was so sad and frustrating to me. I decided I had to change something.
Down in the mining pits, all people spoke about was going overseas. Lots of people were leaving the area, so I decided to join them. I asked my older siblings and parents to help me with the trip, and they put some money together for me. It wasn’t exactly a loan, but they expected me to return the favour by helping them out once I was settled in my new life. They told me not to forget about them when I got there.
Raphel: What was the journey like?
Kojo: I joined a car going through Burkina Faso to Niger. One man in the group had travelled that way before and knew where to go. That was good, since it meant we didn’t have to pay anyone to take us.
Then we had to get out and trek until we got to the edge of the Sahara Desert, where we were met by a pickup truck. There were about 30 people in that car. We each had to bring enough drinking water and food for the journey. Once we ran out, that was it.
It’s a dangerous route: the desert is scorching hot and so windy. There are no trees for miles. It’s like walking on the sea: there’s simply nothing there.
Finally, we made it to Libya. I stayed with a group of Ghanaians for about five months, where I did all sorts of jobs to make some money for the boat crossing. Then the opportunity came to leave Libya and we got on a boat crossing to Sicily.
A lot of things happened on that journey, but I can’t talk about them. They’re too painful.
Raphel: What was life like in Italy?
Kojo: When we arrived, the Italian authorities processed us and sent us to a reception centre. From there I called some people who had told me they would help me when I got there. They collected me and took me to Piacenza in northern Italy, where I started working on farms in the countryside. There were a few of us doing whatever work we could find, mostly harvesting potatoes and tomatoes.
Honestly, it was not great. The work was hard and I was lonely – I felt very far from my people. Our supervisors also treated us badly. They often cheated us out of our wages. I was told that workers are meant to receive €100 a day, but we never got more than €40. When we complained, they said it was because they had deducted food and tool costs. We didn’t have papers, so we couldn’t report them to anyone.
Despite this, I was still able to send some money back home to repay my family and to buy a small plot of land. And in some ways, the work in Italy was still better than what I was doing in Ghana. Galamsey mining was so dangerous.
Raphel: When did you get sent back?
Kojo: I was in Italy for about two years, moving from place to place for work. I worked in Puglia, Campania, Foggia and several other places. I was always careful because I didn’t have papers. But, one day some labour inspectors showed up at a farm I was working on.
My Italian was not very good, so a man who had been there for longer spoke for all of us. He explained to us that the inspectors thought we were slaves and were offering to assist us if we cooperated with them.
The inspectors said they would help us get our papers and protection. We agreed and they took us away. We did all they asked. We told them where we’d worked, the pay we had received, and the names of the people we had worked for. Only then did we realise they’d tricked us and were planning to deport us.
Raphel: You couldn’t stay like they’d promised?
Kojo: No, we couldn’t. The police told me that because I left the processing centre without permission, I had broken the rules and therefore couldn’t get protection.
I was taken to an immigration centre for deportation. I didn’t have anything with me – all my money and possessions were still where we’d been staying when the inspectors took us away. Fortunately, I had been transferring money home regularly, so I didn’t lose everything. But I had to leave behind around €300.
In the detention centre, we were told that we would receive some money if we agreed to go back voluntarily. I felt I had no option but to take the offer. It was my choice, but at the same time it was not my choice.
Raphel: What was the offer?
Kojo: They gave me a ticket to Ghana and €1,600. In exchange, I wouldn’t be able to receive a visa for Italy or Europe for 10 years.
I came back just before the Covid-19 pandemic. I wasn’t able to earn anything during the lockdown, so all the money I had saved quickly disappeared. Suddenly, I was back where I started.
Hustling for work in Italy is hard, but it’s better than what I have in front of me right now. I’m working in the galamsey mines again, and am trying to raise enough money to return to Italy. This time I hope I will be more successful.
Raphel: Can you tell me about the association you’re part of in your area?
Kojo: There’s a movement for people like me who have been returned from Italy and Libya by the UN and IOM. We are trying to get these organisations to honour the promises they made to us.
When they sent me back, they said they would help me stay in Ghana if I agreed to voluntary return. That’s why I cooperated. But they’re not helping me. I am on my own, and it’s the same for the others who were sent back.
Most of us say that if we ever go back to Europe or North Africa, we will not agree to voluntary return. We now know they just tell us what we want to hear so that we agree to come back.
The association meets every once in a while, but we haven’t achieved much because things are tough for everyone. People are thinking about how to afford food, not about what to do with this group.
Raphel: In the meantime, do you have any requests for the government or local authorities in Ghana?
Kojo: Yes, I want the authorities to offer people like me more support. I’ve been back for nearly four years and it’s been so difficult financially. I’m still supporting my child and the mother of my child. But I will never earn enough to actually be with them.