They survived hell, now reluctant returnees help tackle Gambia’s migrant problem

Gambians are amongst the many migrants from across sub-Saharan Africa heading toward Europe. While some are fleeing violence, others are fleeing poverty. (AP/Jerome Delay)

Despite an arduous journey through known trafficking hotspots, Mustapha Sallah’s dream of a new life in Germany ended in Libya.

“The day the police arrested us, after removing us from our houses, they burnt everything. Some [migrants] were still hiding so they got burned,” he recalls. “Others were shot because they ran trying to escape.”

The 27-year-old Gambian native had spent more than €2,000 (approximately US$2,300) travelling on foot and public buses through Nigeria’s northern states notorious for Islamist insurgencies, passing through the central Nigerien city of Agadez and Niger’s desert before being detained in Tripoli for four months.

“Inside the prison, they tortured us, they beat us,” says Sallah who was voluntarily repatriated to Gambia in April 2017 with the help of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Once back in the capital city of Banjul, he and his fellow Libyan detainees resolved to formYouth Against Irregular Migration (YAIM) and warn the public on the dangers of a journey known locally as ‘the back way’. “We share our experience and talk to the elders that do not support the youths through this back way. Many of them will not make it,” explains Sallah.

In August 2018, the group embarked on a week-long campaign taking their message to markets, schools and village gatherings in Gambia’s central and upper river regions. “Because there are some villages if you go [there], you will find very few youths inside. Everybody has gone on this journey,” he tells Equal Times. Experiences like Sallah’s are becoming all too common.

Preventing “unimaginable horrors”

Gambia is mainland Africa’s smallest country with a population of just over two million people. Yet it accounts for around one in 20 migrants arriving in Italy, making Gambians Europe’s second largest diaspora per capita. But recent efforts by the European Union to intercept Mediterranean boat crossings has seen the number of migrants stuck in Libyan detention centres soar. The United Nations recently condemned the “unimaginable horrors” of these centres, highlighting cases of “torture, rape and forced labour.”

Since June 2017, some 3,800 Gambians have been flown home from Libya by the IOM. “The assistance to voluntary return is actually one of the only life-saving options that they are offered,” explains IOM West Africa spokesperson Florence Kim. “Our initial target over three years was 1,500 returns of Gambians so in one year we’ve doubled that target.”

“Inside the prison, people were losing their senses,” recalls YAIM’s Sallah. As a result, his organisation is no longer alone in its attempts to keep Gambians at home.

Ascend Together is a case in point. The non-profit organisation uses basketball tuition to improve educational attainment and legal pathways. Each basketball game begins with a guest speaker, explains admin officer Ebrima Sanneh. “They come and talk to the students and say: ‘Look, these are the consequences if you go through the back way. You will be abused whether you are a girl or a boy.’”

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By employing young people, 27 years and under as basketball coaches, Ascend hopes the message will stick. It has proved popular. More than 120 students showed up for its last open court session. “We normally tell them you can use basketball as a route,” says Sanneh who explained that two of its students and one coach had recently gained overseas training in Spain.

But wins like this are incremental. Most young people leave Gambia because of poor wages explains Sallah, and when they are repatriated, they return to the same poor wages.

“The majority of people here earn €50 (approximately US$58) a month, or less than that. The rent is almost the same. You cannot sustain yourself,” he admits.

“That’s why you have civil servants who also migrated. Some are teachers, nurses, soldiers who left their work and took the journey.”

“If you go, you will suffer”

“It was not by choice to come back,” says 35-year-old Karamo Keita. But after being beaten and locked up in a Libyan detention centre for several months, Keita decided “there was no way forward.”

“I’ve seen a lot of people die.”

His journey from Gambia to Libya took more than six months to complete, supported by odd jobs along the way. By speaking on local radio stations and social media he hopes to persuade others not to take the risk.

“If you go, you will suffer…but the solution is to create jobs [at home],” he says. “There’s a lot of talk about opportunities but we need real jobs from the government and international communities, not opportunities.”

The Gambia Youth Empowerment Project provides in-kind support of up to 47,000 dalasi (approximately US$978) for training and start-ups. It’s supported through the EU’s €3.3 billion (US$3.83 billion) Trust Fund for Africa aimed at reducing migration.

“Our approach here is not going to change anything overnight,” says project manager Raimund Moser. “To change the narrative we need to have economic transformation and the economy of Gambia doesn’t change with a big change politically…there is still a lot of hard work required.”

Gambia is heavily reliant on the money that migrants send home. Remittances account formore than 20 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). A figure comparable to one of its biggest income generators – tourism.

The role of trade

But while EU initiatives aim to tackle the causes of migration, others question policies that limit the ability to create sustainable jobs. “The EU’s approach of sending back as many Gambians as possible can only be a recipe for violence without making the effort to understand the role that European countries are playing in these conditions,” says Lorenzo Kamal, an expert on post-colonial politics at the University of Bologna in Italy. “The EU’s EPAs [Economic Partnership Agreements] prohibit the use of tariffs for industrial development which is a problem because several EU countries use tariffs to defend their own economies.”

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The EU plans to remove trade tariffs between 16 ECOWAS countries (Economic Community of West African States) and the European Union on goods through an EPA. But west African countries export very little in finished goods compared to the EU, experts argue.

“There are not many deals connected beyond raw materials and that often does not benefit the local population,” says Kamal. “It is quite a hypocrisy to ask African countries to just open up their borders and not try and defend the little economies they are able to build up.”

Gambia’s ministers had initially opposed signing an EPA. “The developed economies know that we are so disadvantaged and cannot produce anything to compete with them and that is why they want us in an arrangement that makes us to serve as their markets perpetually,” Gambian MP Sidia Jatta told local newspaper, The Point, when the deal was first proposed in 2017.

Facing a bankrupt economy left by the autocratic former leader Yahya Jammeh and with a€225 million (US$261 million) EU aid bailout, Gambia’s position changed when President Adama Barrow took office last year. Currently, west Africa makes up 40 per cent of Europe’s trade with African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. Researchers estimate west Africa as a whole stands to lose US$1.8 billion in import tax revenues by signing the deal. Nigeria remains the only country not to sign the agreement.

Would-be migrants like Sallah know first-hand just how such political wrangling impacts livelihoods. In March 2016, Gambia resumed diplomatic ties with China, cutting out former ally Taiwan. But Sallah had flown to Nigeria to process his visa for a scholarship in Taiwan.

“Based on that the Taiwanese also said they will not give us any visa. Me and 20 other students ended up getting rejected,” he says.

Having spent the majority of a loan from his sister on a futile trip, his friends advised him to take the back route to Europe. “But this was never my intention when I arrived in Nigeria,” he says.

Sallah believes Gambia’s government should involve youths in development decisions. “We try our best to engage the government but it’s slow,” he says. “Everything is slow when it comes to bureaucracy.”

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