1. Recent trends in emigration from Ghana

Ghana’s history of migration dates back to the pre-colonial period. As the first Sub-Saharan African country to gain independence in 1957 and due to its relative affluence, Ghana became a major destination country for migrants within West Africa through the first part of the 1960s (Schans et al., 2013[1]). During that period, immigration to Ghana stemmed from economic and political factors. The dynamism of the plantations and mining industry led to higher wages and employment opportunities, which attracted large numbers of immigrants from neighbouring countries. Politically, Kwame Nkrumah’s foreign policy promoted pan-Africanism, thereby encouraging immigration to Ghana. Therefore, according to the 1960 census, immigrants accounted for 12% of the population in Ghana (IOM, 2019[2]). Emigration, minimal throughout the early 1960s, mostly involved students and professionals pursuing further education and employment opportunities, mainly in the United Kingdom. Some Ghanaian emigrants also migrated to African countries such as Gambia, Botswana, Sierra Leone, Benin, and Côte d’Ivoire to work in public services (Anarfi, Ofosu-Mensah and Ababio, 2017[3]).

These trends began to reverse in the mid-1960s. From 1965, Ghana’s attractiveness declined as the country went through an unprecedented economic crisis with growing unemployment and poverty rates, and political instability. The scenario resulted in the international emigration of Ghanaian and foreign nationals. This emigration wave was mostly characterised by labour migration from Ghana to other African countries, such as Nigeria or Côte d’Ivoire (IOM, 2019[2]). Emigrants were mostly professionals – teachers, lawyers, and administrators. Those who had left to pursue their studies abroad and came back to Ghana started leaving the country again and Ghanaian students abroad increasingly stayed in their host country to work (Anarfi, Ofosu-Mensah and Ababio, 2017[3]). The creation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1975 and its 1979 Protocol related to the free movement of persons accelerated migration outflows within the region (ICMPD/IOM, 2015[4]). At the same time, Côte d’Ivoire experienced strong economic growth and progressively became the first destination country for emigrants in West Africa.

An intensification in migration outflows and a diversification in destination countries characterised Ghana’s third phase of emigration. In addition, the nature of the flows changed, as emigration was no longer restrained to skilled professionals exclusively. In the early 1980s, unskilled Ghanaians began to emigrate en masse from the south of Ghana to neighbouring countries. The implementation of Structural Adjustment Programmes, coupled with a severe period of drought in 1981-82, further caused high unemployment, inflation, and poverty levels prompting significant emigration flows from all sectors of society. Ghanaian nationals migrated to traditional African and English-speaking destinations but also to new destination countries in Europe, North America, South Africa, the Middle East, and North Africa (Schans et al., 2013[1]). In addition, in 1983 and 1985, Nigeria expulsed more than 1.2 million Ghanaians who, for the most part, migrated to other countries (Schans et al., 2013[1]).

International emigration continued throughout the 1990s. A true Ghanaian diaspora was established in main destination countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Italy and, more recently, the Netherlands. If highly skilled migrants tended to migrate to English-speaking countries, unskilled Ghanaians mainly migrated to Italy or Germany. In the 1990s and the early 2000s, the emigration of health professionals to the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, rapidly increased and quickly became a cause for concern given the growing shortages in the Ghanaian medical sector (IOM, 2011[5]).

Migration flows from Ghana to OECD countries are the second highest among the countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), after Nigeria. Migration flows from Ghana reached 27 400 persons in 2019, according to the OECD International Migration Database (Annex A), while flows from Nigeria were roughly 71 000 that same year. Since 2000, the volume of flows from Ghana has been relatively close to Senegal’s and higher than the volume of flows from Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali (Figure 1.1).

If the annual number of Ghanaian nationals migrating to the OECD area has been higher than for most ECOWAS countries, the growth in migration flows has been slower. Among ECOWAS countries, Ghana ranked tenth in terms of the growth rate of migration flows between 2000 and 2019. During the first decade, flows from Ghana to OECD countries increased by 79%, while flows from Guinea, Benin, Gambia, Mali and Burkina Faso rose by over 300%, and flows from Nigeria, Senegal, and Côte d’Ivoire grew by more than 100%. The growth in migration flows from Ghana was even lower between 2010 and 2019 (19%).

However, emigration from Ghana, especially to the OECD area, is an older phenomenon than some ECOWAS countries. In 2000, Ghana’s volume of migration flows was already higher than other West African countries except for Nigeria. Yet, annual migration flows from Ghana to OECD countries more than doubled between 2000 and 2019, from 12 900 in 2000 to 23 000 in 2008, and to 27 400 in 2019 (Figure 1.2).

The OECD International Migration Database data refer to the annual legal migration flows from Ghana to OECD countries. Although there are irregular migration flows from Ghana, it is very difficult to measure them. There are no reliable and comparable data available on irregular entries of foreign nationals in OECD countries. Migrants who legally entered destination countries and later become irregular can hardly be identified. Therefore, the data on actual migration flows to OECD countries and the number of Ghanaian emigrants might be underestimated.

On an average yearly basis, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Spain received 85% of Ghanaian nationals immigrating to OECD countries between 2000 and 2019. In the OECD area, the United States has by far attracted the largest annual flows of Ghanaian nationals since 2000, with more than 8 400 Ghanaian migrating to the country in 2019 (Figure 1.3). Flows to the United States substantially grew between 2000 and 2006 (by 115%) reaching roughly 9 400 Ghanaians by 2006, and peaking at more than 10 500 in 2012. After a decline, flows have stagnated at around 8 400 since 2017. In 2019, flows from Ghana to the United States were among the highest of all African countries after Nigeria and Egypt.

The United Kingdom has historically been one of the leading destination countries for Ghanaian emigrants. As detailed above, the highly skilled migration of Ghanaians to the United Kingdom gradually expanded following Ghana’s independence. Between 2000 and 2019, flows to the United Kingdom more than tripled, peaking at 7 000 in 2003 and 6 000 in 2011.

Flows from Ghana to Germany and Italy have increased over the past decade, reflecting a diversification in destination countries. Flows to Italy even somewhat exceeded those to the United Kingdom over the recent years (Figure 1.3). The number of Ghanaian nationals arriving in Italy rose by 66% between 2000 and 2008. It further grew between 2014 and 2017, when almost 4 500 Ghanaian nationals migrated to the country. Similarly, flows to Germany increased almost five-fold between 2008 and 2019 (close to 5 000 persons in 2019).

Overall, men are overrepresented in migration flows from Ghana to the main OECD destination countries. The share of men among is especially high in Italy (59%) and Germany (56%). Conversely, women are slightly overrepresented in migration flows to the United States, representing 54% of Ghanaian nationals migrating to the United States in 2019. Regarding flows to Canada and the Netherlands, slightly more than half of Ghanaian nationals in 2019 were men.

The data collected by Eurostat on first residence permits issued by European countries to third-country nationals (see Annex A) reveals that over the past ten years, European countries have issued the majority of residence permits to Ghanaian nationals for family reasons (Figure 1.5). On average, between 2016 and 2020, family permits accounted for more than 50% of all permits issued to Ghanaian nationals, while 32% of permits were issued for “other” reasons – a category including mostly permits for humanitarian reasons, 13% for education reasons, and only 6% for work reasons. Family based permits are mainly issued to Ghanaian children and spouses joining non-EU citizens.

This distribution evolved over time: the number of first permits delivered to Ghanaian nationals for professional reasons sharply fell from 6 500 in 2010 to 770 in 2015, while the number of humanitarian permits increased, accounting for almost 40% of all permits issued to Ghanaians in 2017. This share then decreased, reaching 10% in 2020. In contrast, the share of permits issued for education remained relatively steady, averaging around 13% of all permits between 2010 and 2020.

The nature of migration flows from Ghana to OECD countries varies across destination countries. The data collected by the United States Office of Immigration Statistics indicate that the majority of permanent residence permits for Ghanaian nationals in 2019 were issued for family reasons. More specifically, most of these permanent permits were issued to immediate relatives of the United States citizens. In addition, the United States also issues a substantial number of non-immigrant temporary permits to Ghanaian nationals, among which 70% are student permits and 20% are issued to temporary workers and families.

As highlighted in Figure 1.6, Germany almost exclusively issued permits for family and humanitarian reasons to Ghanaian nationals between 2010 and 2020. In 2010, permits for family reasons accounted for 74% of all permits issued by Germany. This share decreased over time as the number of permits issued for humanitarian reasons rose. The latter accounted for 18 to 24% of all permits between 2010 and 2018, but reached 43% in 2020. Therefore, data suggest that migration flows to Germany are driven marginally by education and professional reasons.

Most permits issued by the United Kingdom to Ghanaian nationals are also for family reasons. However, the United Kingdom is the only main European destination country to grant a substantial number of permits for education purposes to Ghanaian nationals. This trend can be explained by knowledge of the English language among the Ghanaian population, historical ties, and the perceived quality of the British education system. On average, almost one in five residence permit issued to Ghanaian nationals by the United Kingdom were issued for education reasons. Conversely, only 2% of permits issued by Italy and Spain, and 7%of permits issued by Germany were for education purposes (Figure 1.6).

In the early 2010s, Italy granted most residence permits to Ghanaian nationals for work reasons. While this share gradually decreased, the number of permits for humanitarian reasons increased in 2015 and peaked at 4 500 in 2017 (72%). Therefore, the overall increase in the share of permits for humanitarian reasons issued by European countries to Ghanaian nationals in 2016 and 2017 is mainly attributable to the increase in Italy, and a lesser extent, in the United Kingdom.

The increase in the issuance of permits for humanitarian reasons by Italy to Ghanaian nationals coincides with a surge in first-time asylum applicants in 2016 and 2017. Between 2013 and 2017, the number of Ghanaian asylum claims in Italy grew ten-fold to reach almost 5 000 claims in 2017 (Annex Figure 1.A.1). The number of Ghanaian asylum applicants from Germany also peaked in 2016 (2 600 claims).

Women are more likely to receive permits for family reasons than men are. As highlighted in Figure 1.7, in 2019, over 60% of permits issued to Ghanaian women by all European OECD countries were family permits, while they accounted for only 38% of permits issued to men. This gap is especially pronounced for permits issued by Spain and Italy: 90% and 87% of Ghanaian women received family permits in Italy and Spain, respectively, compared to about half of men in 2019. Furthermore, in every main European destination country, men are more likely to receive humanitarian permits: 46% of Ghanaian men received humanitarian permits in 2019, while only 29% of women did.

Data on emigration intentions among the population living in Ghana provide a better understanding of the scope and drivers of Ghanaian emigration flows. Furthermore, emigration intentions can provide valuable insights into future trends in these flows. The Gallup World Poll (see Annex A) collects information on the emigration intentions of persons born and residing in Ghana aged 15 years or older. Data on the characteristics of these individuals make it possible to analyse correlations between intentions to leave the country and various socio-economic variables such as education level and employment status.

Between 2009 and 2018, 44% of persons born and living in Ghana aged 15 or older expressed the intention to emigrate (Figure 1.8). This share is one of the highest among ECOWAS countries after Sierra Leone (61%) and Liberia (58%). An average of 36% of persons living in the ECOWAS region and 37% of those living in Sub-Saharan Africa indicated a wish to emigrate. If intentions to emigrate in Nigeria, Togo and Gambia were only slightly lower than in Ghana, emigration intentions in Benin (29%), Burkina Faso (27%), Mali (20%), and Niger (16%) were significantly lower. The reported favourite destinations of Ghanaians intending to migrate in 2018 were the United States (28%), the United Kingdom (14%), Germany (9%), and Canada (6%). These countries reflect Ghanaian nationals’ actual main OECD destination countries in 2018. However, although they rank fourth and fifth in terms of annual flows from Ghana to OECD countries, Ghanaians rarely designate Italy and Spain as desired destinations (only 2% and 1%, respectively). Similarly, only 2% of Ghanaians indicated Nigeria as their favourite destination, whereas flows from Ghana to Nigeria have been and remain substantial. Therefore, these countries seem to represent more of a step in the migration experience than destination countries where Ghanaian emigrants intend to settle permanently.

However, these intentions rarely materialise in the short or medium term. The question “Do you plan to move permanently to another country in the next 12 months” included in the Gallup survey makes it possible to assess whether the desire to emigrate is likely to be translated into action within a defined period. The responses to this question reveal, for Ghana and every ECOWAS country, a significant gap between the intention to emigrate and the probability of this intention materialising in the short term. While 44% of Ghanaians wish to emigrate, only 17% of them considered doing so within a year. This share is the lowest out of all ECOWAS countries except for Nigeria, where only 10% of people considering emigration indicate a wish to leave the country within a year.

Emigration intentions vary significantly according to socio-demographic characteristics such as age, education level, and labour market status. In Ghana and other ECOWAS countries, emigration intentions are particularly high among young people. On average, between 2009 and 2018, 47% of people aged 15-24 living in ECOWAS countries wished to leave the country permanently. This share in Ghana is even higher: more than half of young Ghanaians (56%) indicated considering emigration, a share that is 12 percentage points higher than that recorded in the total population. However, very few planned to leave the country within the next 12 months (17%). Intentions to emigrate further vary across genders: in Ghana, 48% of men said they would like to emigrate, while 40% of women did.

As expected, emigration intentions also differ according to labour market status: 58% of self-reported unemployed individuals expressed the desire to leave the country against 41% of employed individuals and 46% of individuals out of the workforce. Education levels also influence the desire to emigrate. Individuals with high or intermediate education are more likely to express an intention to emigrate compared to low-skilled individuals: 54% of Ghanaians with an intermediate education level and 41% of those highly educated express the wish to emigrate, while 37% of those with low education levels declare an intention to emigrate.

High unemployment and a low labour force participation rate characterise the labour market situation of young people in Ghana. As the young population and the number of highly educated individuals in Ghana grew increasingly faster, employment opportunities have lagged. This gap between educational attainment and the labour market has triggered high unemployment rates among young people, especially tertiary graduates (Dako-Gyeke, 2016[8]). Therefore, the significant mismatch between labour supply and demand and the difficulty for Ghanaians with an intermediate or high education level to find a job matching their qualifications and aspirations may push them to consider seeking a better situation abroad.

However, intentions to emigrate do not always correspond to actual emigration decisions, especially for certain demographic groups. Employed or skilled people are likely to possess higher economic and social capital necessary to emigrate than the young or unemployed, who face more difficulties concretely contemplating emigration.

Available data on the subjective well-being of Ghanaians who wish to emigrate shed light on the determinants of emigration intentions and, indirectly, on the factors that drive actual migration flows. The majority of the overall Ghanaian population reported having difficulties living on their current income and being unsatisfied with the availability of good jobs. Only 55% of people considering emigration declared that their current job was ideal, compared to 68% of Ghanaians who did not wish to leave the country (Figure 1.10). Furthermore, individuals considering emigration are slightly more likely to be unsatisfied with the availability of good jobs than those who do not consider emigrating. In addition, those expressing a desire to emigrate are more likely to have a network of friends or family to rely on abroad: 35% of them declared being able to count on those networks outside the country, against 30% of those who do not wish to emigrate.

Furthermore, according to the data collected by the Afrobarometer survey in 2016/18 (see Annex A), more than half of Ghanaians aged 18 or older (53%) reported that the most important reason for emigrating is to find work (Figure 1.11). For almost 20% of them, the desire to emigrate is related to the economic difficulties they face in Ghana. Finally, 8% argued that their intention to emigrate stems from the lack of good business prospects, and 6% from the wish to pursue an education abroad. Overall, more than seven Ghanaians in ten wishing to emigrate (72%) would do so for economic reasons.

A comparison with regional counterparts suggests that economic difficulties and the desire to find work are the two main reasons for emigration for most people in West African countries. However, the share of Ghanaians who consider finding work the most important reason for emigrating is 11 percentage points higher than the ECOWAS average (42%). Along with Senegalese (54%) and Cabo Verdeans (64%), Ghanaians much more frequently invoked this reason than other populations of ECOWAS countries. It, therefore, seems that the lack of employment opportunities in Ghana is a determining factor in the emigration process.

Migration flows from Ghana to OECD countries have intensified over the past 20 years. The United States has been, by far, the leading OECD destination country for Ghanaian nationals, followed by the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain. The majority of residence permits issued annually to Ghanaian nationals are first and foremost issued for family reasons, although the number of permits issued for humanitarian reasons has increased since 2015. The Ghanaian population expresses higher emigration intentions than most West African countries, although these intentions rarely materialise in the short or medium term. The desire to emigrate permanently from Ghana is even higher among young and unemployed individuals. The difficult employment situation is the main driver of emigration intentions in Ghana.


[3] Anarfi, J., Ofosu-Mensah and E. Ababio (2017), “A historical perspective from and to Ghana”, in Migration in a Globalizing World, Sub-Saharan Publishers, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvh8r2m4.8.

[8] Dako-Gyeke, M. (2016), “Exploring the Migration Intentions of Ghanaian Youth: A Qualitative Study”, Journal of International Migration and Integration, Vol. 17/3, pp. 723-744, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12134-015-0435-z.

[4] ICMPD/IOM (2015), A Survey on Migration Policies in West Africa, International Centre for Migration Policy Development, International Organisation for Migrations.

[6] IOM (2020), Migration Data in West Africa - Regional Data Overview.

[2] IOM (2019), Ghana Migration Profile, International Organisation for Migration.

[7] IOM (2019), Ghanaian domestic workers in the Middle East, International Organisation for Migration.

[5] IOM (2011), National Profile of Migration of Health Professionals – Ghana, International Organisation for Migration - Migration Health Division.

[1] Schans, D. et al. (2013), “Changing Patterns of Ghanaian Migration”, in Migration between Africa and Europe, Springer International Publishing, Cham, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69569-3_10.

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