Africa Watch – In droves

17th July 2023

More Burkinabes are trooping into Ghana to seek refuge following attacks on their communities by armed insurgent groups. Last week, about 3,200 arrived in the Pusiga district of the Upper East region, weeks after deserting their attacked communities. The arrival of these refugees raises security, health and even food security concerns in the host region, which has towns close to the border. The Executive Secretary of the Ghana Refugee Board, Tetteh Kwao Padi, explained that having refugees in towns close to the border poses a security threat as jihadists can be attracted into the host communities.

For most of last year, the dominant security concern in West Africa was the staggering pace with which Jihadists ramped up attacks on coastal states. Before 2022, Cameroon and Nigeria were the only coastal states that recorded Islamist terrorism within their territory. That changed when Benin, Ghana and Togo reported cross-border incursions of armed groups restricted to the countries’ northern parts by the current security architectures. This year, however, the focus is hinged on the security threats that refugees and displaced persons pose.

Ghana’s major worry from Burkinabe refugees has precedence: the attack on Kenya’s Westgate Mall in September 2013 was blamed on Somali refugees who were accused of housing Al-Shabaab militants in their ranks. Beyond providing human intelligence for terrorists, states have always harboured the fear of turf wars that may arise from such cross-border exodus. Cameroonian soldiers frequently make incursions into Nigerian territory to seek out Ambazonian separatists, killing Nigerians in the process.

African refugees have also not fared better in their countries of refuge. Limited employment opportunities and desperation for survival by citizens of those countries make the refugees easy targets of xenophobic attacks. The tempestuous relationship between Syrian refugees in Turkey and Turkish citizens may be the poster child of modern anti-refugee sentiments, but Africa has an abundant history in that regard. Nigeria’s Ghana-Must-Go saga of the 1980s followed Idi-Amin Dada’s tirade against Indians and their subsequent expulsion from Uganda. Presently, Tunisia and Libya are in a standoff over migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

What most of these countries have in common is the very limited ability to successfully take on the armed groups chipping away at state control. Burkina Faso’s case is even more dire as renewed successful attacks by Islamist groups put the military regime at Ouagadougou in an uncomfortable place: Captain Ibrahim Traore ousted his predecessor on the premise that the previous government failed to rein in the spiralling security situation. An attempt to remove him on the same premise or more would add to the instability already bedevilling the region.

In February of this year, a High-Level Consultative Dialogue took place in Accra to address the increasing influx of Burkinabe refugees into Ghana. During the consultation, the Ghanaian Interior Ministry emphasised the need for coordinated efforts between the Ghana Refugee Board (GRB) and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to prevent extremists from infiltrating the asylum system and threatening national security.

The crisis in Burkina Faso has forced over two million people to flee their homes, leading some, especially women and children, to seek refuge in neighbouring border towns of Ghana, particularly in the northern regions also experiencing insurgency. The refugees entered Ghana through border towns in the Upper East and Upper West Regions. Clearly, the increasing arrival of refugees has raised concerns about security, health and food security in the border towns of northern Ghana. The UNHCR has called on the Ghanaian government to guarantee access and asylum for Burkinabe refugees and has set up a 4000-capacity reception centre in the Upper East Region to assist. However, challenges in accessing affected populations due to ongoing insecurity and limited resources persist. As of 27 April 2023, the UNHCR Burkina Faso’s operation has only received around 10% of the required funding, leaving a significant funding gap that hampers the response to the humanitarian crisis.

While Ghana is relatively peaceful, there are concerns that the involvement of Bawku, a town in the Upper East region of Ghana, in a long-standing conflict between opposing groups could increase instability and provide opportunities for jihadists to infiltrate Ghana. The northern border between Ghana and Burkina Faso, characterised by open borders, illicit gold mining and smuggling routes, is considered a region where jihadists might exploit the situation. Recent attacks on security personnel near Bawku, originating from across the borders of Burkina Faso and Togo, have displaced thousands of Burkinabes into Ghana. Evidence suggests that jihadists have managed to infiltrate Bawku, although security agencies have kept this information confidential. Security experts have raised concerns about Ghana’s porous borders and the potential spillover of terrorist activities from Burkina Faso. They firmly believe that Ghana lacks the necessary resources and intelligence to tackle the issue effectively, and a recent operation against a terrorist hideout in the border town of Po, near Ghana’s Paga border, has raised concerns about the influx of refugees and its consequences for Ghana.