The story was an immediate hit. “In less than an hour we were getting 20,000 views on the website for that story alone,” Emmanuel Dogbevi, the website’s managing editor, told me. Two days later, the news agency Reuters picked up the story and it swiftly became an international sensation.
“No Passport Control: Mobsters busted after running FAKE US Embassy in Ghana for 10 years” (The Sun). “‘Sham’ US embassy in Ghana issued fake visas for a decade” (Fox News). “Ghana uncovers fake US embassy that issued authentic visas” (Deutsche Welle). “The actual US embassy in Accra shut down the fake embassy over the summer,” stated the Chinese news agency Xinhua. “This takes counterfeiting operations to a whole new level,” read a comment about the story on the Times of India website, which triggered an argument between readers over which country did corruption better.
According to a US state department statement, which had been published in early November, the fake embassy was operated by “figures from both Ghanaian and Turkish organized crime rings and a Ghanaian attorney practicing immigration and criminal law”. The American authorities supplied a picture of an old, two-storey pink building with a tin roof, originally captioned: “The exterior of the fake embassy in Accra, Ghana.” The caption was later changed to: “One of several buildings used by the disrupted fraud ring.”
Reuters reported that the Americans, with the help of the Ghana Detectives Bureau, had raided the fake embassy. Several people were arrested, and officials seized 150 passports from 10 different countries. The Ghanaian police did not distinguish themselves. The conmen eluded them long enough to move the operation out of Ghana, and get their associates out on bail. But, the US state department said, the number of fraudulent documents coming from west Africa had gone down by 70% as a result of this and other raids, and “criminal leaders no longer have the political cover they once had”.
The fake embassy became a sensation largely because the story was so predictably familiar. The Africans were scammers. The victims were desperate and credulous. The local police officers were bumbling idiots. Countless officials were paid off. And at the end, the Americans swooped in and saved the day. There was only one problem with the story: it wasn’t true.
On the morning the news broke, Seth Sewornu, who was then head of Ghana’s visa and document fraud unit, got a text message from the director of the police criminal investigation department (CID). Like everyone else, the director wanted to know about Sewornu’s bust. “I was receiving a lot of calls,” Sewornu said when we met earlier this year in an open-air restaurant near the police headquarters in Accra. “A reporter from BBC called me, a CNN reporter called me. The Ghanaian media houses were all calling to find out. I got calls from other police officers.” The US state department story had said that the scammers had also been running a fake Dutch embassy, so the Dutch called, too.
Sewornu was stumped. He knew nothing about any investigations into a fake embassy. He tried to find out which officers had been involved, but the police unit credited by the Americans, the Ghana Detectives Bureau, didn’t exist. Ghana’s national Swat unit, the CID and the Bureau of National Investigation all told Sewornu that they weren’t involved either.
It didn’t make any sense. The entire story seemed to be based on one source: the US state department website. And their source was the US embassy in Accra. “So I called the American embassy to find out, and my contact said: ‘I don’t know anything about it,’” said Sewornu. “It was like they were tightlipped over the matter.”
In Ghana, it can be extremely difficult to obtain visas for travel to other countries. The application processes tend to be expensive, time-consuming and usually end in disappointment. As a result, over the past two decades, a thriving underground economy has sprung up in Accra. It ranges from low-level conmen who can produce counterfeit paperwork to sophisticated criminal organisations that operate in multiple countries. In 2016, of all the American embassies in the world, the one in Ghana had the highest number of pending fraud cases, according to a US state department report.
The operators and middlemen who help circumvent the visa application processes are so ubiquitous that few people realise that what they do is illegal, Sewornu told me. “Some are very bold, they advertise visas on TV,” he said. “Plenty have fallen victim. They think it’s authentic once it’s on TV.”
Sewornu has been a policeman for 23 years, and as we spoke, he was serious and reserved – but when he talked about particularly audacious crimes, he started grinning. “I’ve lost count of the musicians,” he said. “A lot of them are into visa fraud. They go on tour and take people who can’t even perform. They just play CDs and lipsync.” Then, those people vanish.
In the past, he said, passports were easier to tamper with. Fraudsters would steal a real passport belonging to a well-travelled person with valid visas and replace the picture with one of a paying client. The classic method was to put the passport in a freezer for about an hour, which caused the film on the photo page to peel away. Then, said Sewornu, the scammers could “clean off the original picture with chemical eraser, and put in a new one, printed on a thin, almost transparent film.”
Now that passports contain biometric data, such as fingerprints, it is becoming harder and harder to get away with this kind of crime. “You can’t fake everything 100%,” said Sewornu. Instead, the underground economy has started to focus on faking the documents required for legitimate visa applications, both for short visits and for people who want to emigrate. For the right fee, you can get hold of school certificates that turn you from an unskilled worker to a PhD, or bank records that turn you from a shoeshine boy into a successful entrepreneur. Of course, scammers do still offer fake visas, but most of these are not actually intended to get the bearer past border control in other countries. Instead, they’re meant to make it look – to embassies – like you’ve travelled extensively, and returned to Ghana each time. As if you are the kind of person who has no intention of becoming an illegal immigrant.
In 2010, as the number of fake travel documents continued to rise, Ghana’s government founded the Document Fraud Expertise Centre, which verifies documents for embassies, banks and the police. It’s the only one in west Africa, which reflects the sheer scale of Ghana’s shadow visa industry. In 2016, about half the documents submitted to them for testing turned out to have been forged.
For centuries, Ghana was a magnet for immigrants, not a country people were trying to leave. The country’s population of about 28 million is made up of about a dozen ethnic groups, most of which trace their origins to other parts of west Africa. In 1957, after Ghana won independence from Britain, the country’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, embarked on a massive infrastructure programme. All that infrastructure needed people to build it, and partly as a result, by 1960, immigrants made up 12% of Ghana’s population. By comparison, less than 4% of the population of England and Wales had been born abroad.
In 1966, Nkrumah was deposed in a military coup. The country was destabilised and people started to leave almost immediately. Over the next three decades, much of the economy collapsed, unemployment soared and millions of Ghanaians left in search of work.
Today, Ghana is one of the most stable and prosperous countries in west Africa. But while the population is expanding, the economy is not. Each year, 250,000 young people compete for just 5,000 new jobs. Lack of prospects drives many young people abroad. Of the Ghanaian-born citizens currently living abroad, 70% are in other west African countries. Of the remaining 30%, most live and work in the UK, Germany, Italy, Canada and the US.
A small, but significant number of Ghanaians simply travel to these countries on tourist visas, then stay on when their visas run out and work illegally. So wealthier countries now assume that most Ghanaians who apply for temporary visas will become illegal immigrants. Visa policies have been designed to filter out the young and unskilled and the poor, says Paolo Gaibazzi, a research fellow at the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Germany. Such policies sometimes also exclude people who are perfectly qualified and would be granted visas if they were coming from wealthier countries. In one case not long ago, a Ghanaian consultant orthopaedic surgeon with two decades of experience was shocked to have his application rejected for a short-term visa to attend a medical conference in Spain.
Even with legitimate, professional help, filling out the application form for a US tourist visa is a maddeningly difficult and unforgiving process. Applicants have to provide their parents’ dates of birth, but Ghana had no complete register of births until 1965, so a lot of people just don’t know. Then there’s the fee: around $160, which amounts to about 75% of Ghana’s average monthly wage. That fee is non-refundable. If you are rejected, and you want to apply again, you will have to pay another $160.
Once you have done the paperwork and paid, you still don’t get your visa. You just get to book a visa interview at the US embassy. Well before dawn on most weekdays, there is a sizable crowd of people outside the embassy in Accra waiting to go in. “Applicants often waited outside the embassy compound for extended periods, presenting a poor image of the US government and causing a security issu,” according to a 2017 US state department report.
Once you get to your appointment, you must produce proof that you are who you say you are. Then it gets harder: fewer than 10% of people in Ghana have a salaried job, but many applicants have to present a letter of introduction and a payslip from their employer. You will also need a letter of invitation from someone in the US who can vouch for you. Got all that? Congratulations. You can still be rejected on the spot, with no explanation.
People in countries such as Ghana are faced with a simple choice: apply over and over again and spend huge sums of money each time, or pay someone who promises to get you that visa. Each time a new con is discovered, the embassies panic and add another layer of scrutiny to their visa application processes. Each layer of scrutiny gives the fraudsters an extra hurdle – but also creates extra business. “People try to level the playing field. This is where the migration industry kicks in,” said Gaibazzi. “The exclusion from legal ways of migrating creates so-called illegality.”
Kwesi Abrantie is one of the thousands of Ghanaians who have knowingly paid for fake documents to pad out a visa application. In 2008, as the country was going through an economic downturn, Abrantie’s business – signing people up for management courses – began to falter. “Things were getting really bad here,” he said. “I thought hustling in the US would be way better than going through this hand-to-mouth thing in Ghana.” A little fraud was a small price to pay if it meant he could send home enough money to keep a roof over his family’s heads. The tricky part was getting to the US.
Without much money, Abrantie (who asked that his name be changed) stood almost no chance of getting a US visa. He went to see the forgers, and they sold him a story. “I was going to attend, in quotes, a cousin’s graduation,” Abrantie said. The “connection men” – as the middlemen who obtain visas through dubious means are known in Ghana – paid a student in New York to vouch for him. They gave Abrantie the student’s name and address, as well a real letter from the university stating that he was invited to the ceremony. It cost him 7,000 Ghanaian cedi up front, with another 5,000 if he was successful – a total of about £2,000, or twice Ghana’s annual per capita income.