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Opinions of Sunday, 19 February 2017

Columnist: Jamila Akweley Okertchiri

Taking the untrodden path

For a long time now, the youth have been eager to start something for the betterment of their future, whether it is seeking a better job aboard or scholarship for higher education.

This search for greener pastures sometimes leads them into all sorts of highly costly and risky adventure to untrodden paths.

While some end up giving moneys to some so-called illegal travel agents who squander it and disappear, others get to their destination after committing so much money and time, only to find out that they have been deceived.

Often, they are left on their own to take care of themselves in the foreign land upon their arrival to their destination or are handed over to their self-styled owners who exploit and abuse them.

Despite countless warning by state agencies such as the Ghana Immigration Service (GIS) and the Labour Department about fraudulent advertisements for job opportunities in various countries, including the Middle East, and testimonies by victims, many Ghanaians, particularly females, fly out of the country with illegitimate documentation on daily basis.

The new trend is the usage of social media channels such as Facebook and WhatsApp by illegal recruitment agencies to lure unsuspecting aspiring students to foreign countries and abandoning them after collecting so much from them.

Statistics

According to the Ghana Immigration Service (GIS), migrants, particularly women and young girls, are increasingly recruited through licensed and unlicensed recruitment agencies for domestic work in various countries.

Information collected by the service shows that over 2,000 Ghanaian women departed for work in the Middle East between September 2014 and January 2015.

Since then, about 350 women have returned, reporting exploitation and abuse.

Alhaji Dan Liman Abubakar of the Ghana Association of the Private Employment Agencies which has about 22 registered members said the association has about 9,000 Ghanaian immigrants working in the Golf States.

But, there are thousands of Ghanaian students studying outside the country through the help of agents working as the representatives of the educational institutions.

These students, contrary to what they were promised, including full scholarship and good paying jobs, are compelled to return home after realising their contacts could not keep their part of the bargain.

Isaac’s Experience

Isaac, a level 200 Economics and Mathematics student of a public tertiary institution, is one of the unfortunate students who fell victim to a social media scholarship scam.

After abandoning his studies in Ghana and paying various sums of money for a study abroad, Isaac had to return from the south Asian country after three weeks of stay because he was deceived.

“I saw the post on a group page and I applied by signing up at the MMA website. I wanted to experience foreign education and I had other Ghanaians who were there and they had made videos that the place was good,” he recounts his ordeal. “

After signing up, Isaac was contacted via WhatsApp by one Vivek who claimed to be a counsellor from the school he had applied for scholarship in the south Asian country.

The counsellor through the social media application succeeded in convincing Isaac to take up the scholarship.

He says the initial post he saw indicated a full scholarship for an Economics programme but after showing interest, his counsellor asked that he pays $200 as membership fees before he could be considered for the scholarship.

Being convinced, Isaac spoke with his guardian who was supporting him in Ghana about the full tuition free scholarship in the south Asian country and the money he had to pay to get it.

“MMA then sent me an intent letter showing their account details and I paid charges of $105 to send the $200 to the account I was given. After I sent them the transfer, they sent me a provisional letter in a week’s time,” he narrates.

On the provisional admission letter, it stated that Isaac had gained admission to a particular school in the south Asian country to study a Bachelor of Arts in Economics, but no mention of a scholarship was included, instead, more charges were added.

“There were three money applications on the letter, tuition was free, but I had to pay hostel charges $150 per year and other charges $200, I also had to pay $1150 every year.

That was when I started asking questions. And they told me they will get me a job to help me finance my stay,” he explains.

The Travel

As Isaac had already committed himself by paying the $200, he decided to continue the process by acquiring his travel documents.

The counsellor sent him the original letter and other supporting details, but before that they asked that he pays another amount called a booking fee which was 25 percent of the $1150. Isaac again paid the amount and the original letter of admission was sent to him to process his visa.

After receiving his visa on October 18, 2016 which he processed himself, Isaac purchased his flight ticket and flew out of the country on October 28, 2016.

Isaac arrived at his destination the following day and contacted his counselor, but he was directed to wait for a bus to the school.

“From the airport to the school was about a five-hour journey and I had to pay an equivalent of GH¢150 as bus fare,” he says.

Disappointment

Isaac did not see his counsellor days after he had arrived at the school, so he decided to inquire about his admission himself. That was when he realised he had been deceived.

“The school was not aware they had given me admission, so I showed the dean of students the admission letter and they accepted it was the school’s logo.

I was directed to the international affairs office where I realised that the course I chose was not being offered by the school.

They said they do not offer BA Economics as a programme, but they offered me an alternative which was Bachelor of Commerce. I went to them the next day and I accepted the new offer,” he recounts.

Isaac also realised that the assurance that the course he was offered will be taught in English was untrue.

“Before I went to the country, MMA told me that the course will be taught strictly in English and he also assured me that when I get there I will be given special classes for me to get to the level of the class.

I went there and it was only five percent English. I could not recover the classes because there were no special studies like they promised,” he recalls.

After meeting the other students and finally speaking with his counsellor on his scholarship package, Isaac was told there was no such thing.

“They later gave me an offer that we should convince other Ghanaians to come to the school for GH¢120 a month. They said if the Ghanaian pays the $200, I have a share of $40 and if they pay the 25 percent, I will have $60 so each student that arrives, I will get $100 but I told them I could not do that,” he says.

Isaac was left on his own after refusing to oblige by the counsellor’s directive, and so he decided to return home.

Isaac’s Return

He called his guardian back home and told him about his situation and he agreed that Isaac should come back home.

“I came back to Ghana for three reasons – the certificate I will receive after completion is not internationally recognised, two I was not offered the programme I wanted and then the conditions of leaving there was bad. It was a very dusty area and we could not adjust to the food,” he says.

Isaac was lucky to come back to meet the semester examination and he’s since been back in school.

“I’m not discouraging students from going to study abroad but I want them to know that they should apply straight to the school and not any agent,” he said.

Government Measures

Eugene Narh Korletey, Chief Labour Officer at the Labour Department of Ghana, in a presentation at a stakeholders’ workshop on international migrant’s day says the department has designed a modality for agents to take people out of the country to work.

He, however, mentions that the anxiety of the youth to have a better future has caused them to fall prey to scams and illegal agencies.

Employment Agencies’ Perspective

Alhaji Abubarkar calls for the issue of exit permit to be a mandatory feature of visa application to ensure proper documentation of migrants for school and work.

“Labour Department must try to foster connection with embassies where we have problems and ensure that every applicant come with an exit permit meaning the person has to be oriented and ready to work and had understood the conditions there before going,” he says.

The International Organisation for migration also calls for the upgrading of the Ghana Immigration Service Migration Information Centre (MIC) in Sunyani and the Migration Information Bureau (MIB) in Accra.

“There should be sensitisation of Ghanaian ambassadors and capacity building initiatives for relevant stakeholders to address issues of exploitation of Ghanaian migrants by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Regional Integration.

The government should look at providing assistance for voluntary return and reintegration of those stranded in countries of destination by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Also, there should be the establishment of a unit (in the final stages) at the Kotoka International Airport to help identify potential victims of trafficking prior to departure,” IOM suggested in a joint statement with stakeholders.