Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Interrupted Migration, Disturbed Hope: Gender and Family Dynamics after Deportation to Ghana



Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Nauja Kleist, senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. Nauja works on African migration, with particular focus on return, mobility regimes, and the role of family, gender, hope, and belonging in migration practices. In this post, Nauja writes about life after deportation to Ghana, based on a recent article in the journal Africa and a chapter in the volume Hope and Uncertainty in Contemporary African Migration, (Routledge, 2017; Kleist & Thorsen eds.).

In the age of mass mobility, deportation has become a key means of managing and deterring irregular migration, in both Europe and Africa. However, while deportation may curb migration, it rarely ends it. Rather deportation constitutes a disruption – a disturbance and interruption – of migration projects, often with severe implications for deportees and their family.

In this blog post, I explore post-deportation life, based on my research on involuntary returns to a rural district capital in the western part of Ghana. This town is the starting point of long-established practices of high-risk migration to Libya especially, but also to other North African countries, the Middle East, Europe, and North America. Such migration projects constitute a livelihood strategy for mainly men whose aim is supporting their families and saving money to establish a future in Ghana. In doing so, they reflect local expectations to reciprocity where family members help each other – sometimes over several generations – as well as ideals of proper masculinity and adulthood. Their migration projects tend to be characterised by stepwise mobility, moving from one location to the next, rather than directly to the destination, and often multiple departures and arrivals, whether caused by deportation, evacuation, flight from conflict, or return by choice. Indeed, more than half of my interlocutors had engaged in two or more migration projects to Libya or beyond; likewise, many had been deported more than once. William Mensah is an example of a migrant whose migration projects had taken several undesired turns.

Photo: Nauja Kleist

William’s story

William Mensah, a Ghanaian man in his 30s, is a persistent migrant and returnee. Like so many other young men, he did not want to be a farmer and learned welding for a living. When he was twenty years old, he traveled overland to Libya to help his parents build a house and collect a start-up capital for establishing a small business. His father – who was already working in Libya – paid for the journey. After three years, William decided to leave Libya and go to Israel to find more profitable work. He returned to Ghana from where he flew to Egypt and hired a local connection man who guided him through the Sinai desert to the Israeli border. There, however, William was caught by the authorities and spent half a year in prison in Israel. He was then deported to Ghana where he spent nine difficult months, living with his mother, before he went to Libya again. After a couple of years, the civil war broke out and William had to flee, once again returning to Ghana with no belongings or savings. He described the shame of coming back to his hometown with nothing to show, despite having endured the hazards of crossing the desert and working hard in Libya. William, who had sent money to his mother and paid the school fees of his nephews and nieces, now had to live in his parents’ house and spent most of his time ruminating about his future and contemplating going to Libya once again, feeling disoriented and depressed.

Re-migration after deportation

The story of William shows how deportees often return to the same or worse social and economic conditions than the ones they left. This situation is especially pronounced for those returning to places in conflict where security is an additional concern, but also applies to stable democracies like Ghana. Migration often requires the collective pooling of resources and the borrowing of money. Deportation therefore has severe implications for poor households when migrants stop – or never start – sending remittances. Debt and strained resources may be one aspect of the difficulties of post-deportation life; another is social stigmatiσation as returning empty-handed is widely seen as shameful in Ghana, and indeed in many other places around the world – e.g. in Cape Verde, Somaliland, Afghanistan, Iran and the Dominican Republic. Given high unemployment rates and few available (or attractive) local livelihood opportunities, many deportees re-migrate, or aspire to do so, to be able to support their families and/or establish a better future – as William had done and considered doing again.

Moreover, deportation often causes tensions in gender and family relations as returnees turn from providers to dependents. William was blamed by his parents for not contributing to their household after his deportation and he reproached himself for not being able to provide. His situation illuminates the ambivalence of family reciprocity and interdependencies in migrant families. While their migrant husbands, sons or brothers leave, women stay behind and hold everyday responsibility for providing for their families. For migrant men, returning empty-handed destabilises masculinity ideals, related to adulthood, responsibility and the ability to provide. Deportation may thus result in existential crisis for some deportees who feel that the risks and ordeals they endured during migration did not pay off but, on the contrary, that they ended up aggravating their own life as well as that of their family.

Photo: Nauja Kleist

Despite the well-known risks and hazards of crossing the Sahara and working in places like Libya, deportation is often perceived as a result of individual failure or bad luck. Indeed, many migrants aim to leave again as soon as they can. While re-migration constitutes a way of dealing with socio-economic problems, it is also a means to reestablishing masculinity and restoring the social and collective hope of migration as a pathway to progress and transformation. Fending off deportation as individual failure – rather than a result of structural constraints – keeps alive the hope of those who migrate and tones down the challenges the migration journey entails – if not the first then the second or third time they will succeed. However, with increasingly restrictive mobility regimes around the globe, the risk of being deported is very high, with the implication that this hope remains uncertain and precarious.

Note: The research was part of a research program on the social effects of migration management for West African migrants, funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Kleist, N. (2017) Interrupted Migration, Disturbed Hope: Gender and Family Dynamics after Deportation to Ghana. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/06/interrupted (Accessed [date])

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