What Ghana can teach us about integrating refugees

The Ghanaian cities that host refugees are ideal for testing integration and economic growth solutions Image: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Refugees in Ghana have the same legal rights as ordinary citizens. They can live, work, and own businesses and properties, just as any other Ghanaian national.

Not much attention is given to the refugee situation in Ghana, but it should be. Its refugee community has been off the radar because it is small. With 14,000 registered refugees across five camps, the population is largely considered a non-issue. Nevertheless, it deserves special attention.

The refugee ‘problem’ in Ghana is small enough to manage and big enough to test economic and social integration solutions. In addition, policies that allow refugees to live and work in Ghana provide ample opportunities for governments and international organizations alike to prototype and create integration solutions without hindrance. These solutions could be replicated across different refugee and migrant communities.

In many countries, there is a general fear of foreigners ‘stealing jobs’. Refugees or migrants who are not economically integrated will inadvertently depend on the state, as well as on certain other organizations. In effect, taxpayers’ money goes into refugee and migrant upkeep. Helping refugees become employable, active and independent is a smarter way to go. An EU report on migrant integration describes civic and political participation as two key areas considered to be positive indicators of migrant integration.

Cities in Europe and America are leading examples of the possibilities and benefits of migration and integration. African cities have largely been missing from the global scene of migrant integration and refugee support, mainly because of political and financial constrictions. Centres such as Toronto, New York, San Francisco and 34 more American cities see the importance and relevance of integrating and employing migrants and refugees. In 2013, Toronto declared itself as a ‘sanctuary city‘.

A country such as Kenya, which has 400,000 refugees, could greatly benefit from helping such a large human resource become economically independent, instead of looking at the refugee community as a drain on its economy. The Kenyan stance on restricting refugees, by enacting an encampment policy and not naturalizing them in practice, may well be doing more harm to the economy than good.

Globally, the blaming and ostracizing of marginalized refugee communities causes instability in and across cities. It is also simply morally wrong. Restricting refugees and migrants costs money. Keeping refugees in camps costs money. Letting go of large human resources costs money. Constricting integration and migration is bad for cities, and by extension, bad for economies, citizens and refugees.

The peaceful and accommodating Ghanaian cities that host refugees – Accra, Takoradi, Kumasi and Sunyani – would be ideal for testing integration and economic growth solutions. At the same time, they could set a good African example for other cities to follow.

The opportunities that Ghana provides for refugees are very similar to those that exist in Rwanda. Through joint strategies from the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Rwanda fosters economic development in host communities through Refugee Self-Reliance. Smart towns of sorts are being developed out of Rwandan refugee camps, with the establishment of social and economic hubs such as markets, restaurants and shops, and factories run by refugees.

Uganda does something similar to Rwanda, but in much larger numbers. It has welcomed 1.4 million refugees and integrated them successfully into local communities. They are given land and other supplies, and are therefore able to contribute actively to the local economy, while regaining personal dignity in providing for themselves and their families.

Innovation in economic and social integration solutions for refugees and migrants in Africa comes primarily from East Africa. The methods that work there may not necessarily do so elsewhere. But more needs to be done to convince African citizens about the benefits of integration, which are incontrovertible. Ghana is well-poised to do this from the western side of the continent.


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