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Ghana: Expelling People Fleeing Conflict in Burkina Faso

A Fulani asylum seeker in northern Ghana, nearby the Burkina Faso border. (Source: James Courtright / The New Humanitarian,
A Fulani asylum seeker in northern Ghana, nearby the Burkina Faso border. (Source: James Courtright / The New Humanitarian,

Despite calls from UNHCR and several rights groups to cease unlawful expulsions of people escaping the conflict in Burkina Faso, Ghana continues to detain and deport refugees fleeing that country’s spiralling conflict with jihadist groups.  

The Sahel Refugee Crisis and its Effects on Northern Ghana

Since 2022, with the escalating jihadist conflict affecting the Sahel, more than 15,000 refugees from Burkina Faso have reportedly crossed into northern Ghana. The Sahel region–which includes Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger–is facing humanitarian and protection crises. UNHCR reports widespread attacks from armed groups and militias, food insecurity, human rights violations, gender-based violence and violence against children. This, coupled with the consequences of climate change, has caused large-scale displacement. As of 2023, more than 4.2 million people have been displaced across the region and more than half a million refugees and asylum seekers have escaped to neighbouring countries, including Ghana.

According to observers, the numbers of Burkinabè, including Fulani people, crossing into the Upper East and Upper West Regions of Ghana–one of the poorest and least developed areas of the country–are likely to surge. This, in addition to increasing threats from jihadist armed groups expanding in northern Ghana, is putting host communities in the regions under growing pressure. Reports say that, between late 2022 and early 2023, thousands of refugees from Burkina Faso were initially hosted by local communities on the border. Only after a High-Level Consultative Dialogue between the Ghana Refugee Board (GRB), UNHCR and key government stakeholders, in spring 2023 a reception centre in Tarikom (Upper East region) was built and the government began registering refugees in border areas.

However, according to the New Humanitarian, local officials and rights groups say that since mid-2023, Ghanaian authorities have been raiding towns and villages in northern and central Ghana, detaining hundreds of Fulani people and forcibly returning them to Burkina Faso.

Allegations of Refoulement of Fulani Refugees

Advocacy groups and researchers have documented the long-standing persecution of Fulani people–a semi-nomadic community spread across West Africa–in Ghana and across the Sahel more broadly. “We face stereotyping, physical abuse and discrimination of all kinds,” says Ahmed Barry, president of the Fulani Youth Association of Ghana. Such animosity reportedly can be traced in part to a disproportionate presence of Fulani among militant Islamist groups, which in turn has triggered a stigmatisation of the entire Fulani Community. Often believed to be jihadist sympathisers, Fulani have been amongst the victims of large-scale extrajudicial killings from Malian and Burkinabè security forces, as well as harassment from immigration officials in Ghana. Fulani in Ghana face challenges in obtaining legal documentation on the grounds of their ethnic identity.

Observers recently reported that in the past two years, Ghana has registered over 3,000 Burkinabè refugees, but Fulani groups struggle to get registered and often face unlawful expulsions. According to The New Humanitarian, “In Gwolu and Titi villages in the Upper East region, soldiers detained people en masse – including children – and burnt their temporary shelters and belongings.” Concerning the expulsions, the Ghana chapter of the Fulani cultural association Tabital Pulaaku International issued a press release last summer accusing the Ghanaian government of unlawfully returning Fulani refugees and asylum seekers. It expressed concern over “the arrest and return of women and children who managed to escape and arrived in Ghana, whose husbands and family members were killed in the attack. Arresting them and returning them to the conflict zone poses serious problems and is very worrying, especially when this return is based on Fulani origins.”

Despite calls from UNHCR to cease deportations of Burkinabè nationals in need of protection – which was described as “a violation of the non-refoulement principle,” the Government of Ghana defended the practice as “a repatriation process … to aid the movement of Burkinabes who wish to return to their country.”

Recent reports say that although mass expulsions ended last August, “the Ghana Refugee Board has still not registered any arriving Fulani – despite the urging of UNHCR.” A UNHCR protection officer reported, “We understand the security implications, but that does not mean the Fulani should be denied their right to access asylum.” According to The New Humanitarian, the threats and violence faced by Fulani in Burkina Faso have only worsened. Once expelled from Ghana, many have experienced arrests, detention, and prolonged interrogations by Burkina Faso authorities. Others have gone missing, “Their bodies later washed up on the banks of the White Volta river, peppered with bullet holes.” A Fulani informer told the New Humanitarian “We know we are not wanted in Ghana, but they will kill us in Burkina Faso.”

Africa Expulsions and Deportations Ghana Humanitarian Crisis Refoulement UNHCR