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Gambia’s Migration Paradox: The Horror and Promise of the Back Way

Since democracy returned to The Gambia last year, many Gambians are coming home, including from Libya with E.U. aid. Some returnees are warning others against the journey, but many are frustrated that returns and deterrence took precedence over reintegration and jobs.

Written by Sanna Camara, Louise Hunt Published on Read time Approx. 10 minutes
Migrants arrive in Italy at the port of Salerno in 2017.Ivan Romano/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

NJABA KUNDA, The Gambia – As the midday sun bore down on this small Gambian farming village, women shopping in the local market listened as horrifying stories aired over the public loudspeaker system.

“While I am alive and here today to recount this story to you, my friends have been shot, died of disease or been beaten to death before my own eyes,” said Mustapha Sallah, broadcasting from a nearby square, where village chiefs had assembled under the shade of an Indian lilac tree. “I was helpless; I could not do anything to help them,” he told the people of Njaba Kunda.

Sallah was in town as part of a weeklong tour of the region this January by the group he founded with other Gambians in Libyan detention, Youths Against Irregular Migration (YAIM).

The 32-year-old Gambian was imprisoned in Libya for four months after trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. He and fellow Gambian detainees vowed that once they got out, they would persuade others not to put themselves in the same danger.

Sallah was repatriated to The Gambia in April 2017 with the help of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). He soon set to work building an organization of Gambian returnees to warn of the dangers of the route and advocate for migrants’ rights.

“When I left The Gambia, I was hoping to reach my dreams: to pay for my siblings’ education and improve our lives. I was wrong!” a female member of YAIM, who asked to remain anonymous, told the small crowd in Njaba Kunda. Her dyed hair peeked out from under a white headscarf – a gesture of respect to the elders present.

“The days turned to weeks and months even before I crossed the desert to Libya,” she recounted. “I saw deaths upon deaths. I was kidnapped and sold, I survived rebel attacks and I was abused.”

As she spoke, another woman wearing a white YAIM T-shirt quietly left the gathering, tears rolling down her face. Her own memories of the journey were still raw.

Old Traditions; New Routes

The Gambia is a thin, riverine West African nation with a population of just over 2 million. It is one of the world’s least developed countries, heavily reliant on subsistence farming and with a youth unemployment rate of over 40 percent.

People have been leaving villages like Njaba Kunda for opportunities elsewhere for generations. Migration to seek work and support families back home is a traditional way of life. Remittances account for almost 20 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), which makes The Gambia one of the world economies most dependent on transfers from its diaspora.

But in recent years, the number of youth leaving the country has soared. Despairing of The Gambia’s political and economic situation, many had lost hope in the future of the country, says Lamin Darboe, executive director of the Gambian National Youth Council. They were looking for a way out, and were encouraged by the success of earlier migrants who sent money back home and painted a rosy picture of life in Europe on social media, says Darboe.

Then Libya’s 2011 civil war opened a gateway for human smuggling to Europe, but a dangerous one. Tens of thousands of young Gambians have attempted the journey in recent years and many have died trying. Gambians have consistently been one of the top 10 nationalities taking boats across the Mediterranean.

Njaba Kunda lost half of its inhabitants in nine years. The population has shrunk to 3,000 – most of whom are peanut, watermelon and cashew farmers – while some 2,000 villagers left for Europe and 460 died en route, most of them young.

The impact of Sallah and his colleagues’ stories about the journey was clearly visible on the faces of the people gathered in this village, which embodies both the promise and dangers of migration for countries like The Gambia.

As the villagers left the YAIM meeting, grandmother Aminata went home shaken by what she had heard. “We did not know that they go through such things on the journey to Europe,” said Aminata, who is in her 60s.

Her three sons are all in Europe; she lives with her two daughters-in-law and four grandchildren. Their home in Njaba Kunda consists of two buildings made from cement blocks, something families with no relatives working abroad could ever afford.

“We encouraged them to go because they had ambitions to make life better for us here. There were no jobs they could do here,” Aminata said. “I am proud of them but I did not know what they risked to get to Europe,” she said, holding one of granddaughter’s hands tightly.

Returns From Libya

In January 2017 The Gambia’s longtime autocratic leader Yahya Jammeh was forced into exile and Adama Barrow became president, ushering in a new democratic era for the country.

While Jammeh had been uncooperative with E.U. efforts to reduce migration, Barrow’s new coalition government embraced the E.U.’s offers of aid to tackle its unemployment problem – a major contributor to “back way” migration, as Gambians call it.

After inheriting a virtually bankrupt treasury, looted over two decades by Jammeh, the government gratefully accepted a 225 million euro ($278 million) aid package from the European Commission, which came with expectations of a high level of engagement on irregular migration.

Meanwhile, E.U. funds were pouring into the IOM-run program bringing African migrants home from Libya. European support to the Libyan coast guard to stop Mediterranean crossings saw the number of migrants stuck in Libyan detention soar. With Barrow now in office, migrants could volunteer to return to The Gambia.

By November 2017, IOM received 3.9 million euro ($4.8 million) for a three-year returns and reintegration project in The Gambia, part of a region-wide project funded by the E.U. Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF). IOM’s office in Banjul only had two staff before the EUTF project; it now has around two dozen.

In the year since February 2017, some 2,210 Gambian migrants returned from Libya and 520 others from Niger with IOM assistance. Among them, 1,375 arrived under the new EUTF project.

Little Support for Reintegration

Yet some returnees say they feel betrayed, as returns took precedence over reintegration assistance. By February, only 90 returnees had received reintegration packages, while 130 others should receive them soon, an IOM spokesperson said.

Even YAIM, which received funds from the German embassy in The Gambia and is heralded by some as the best hope for deterring Gambian migration, has experienced disillusionment. “Most of our members are not benefitting from the reintegration program,” Sallah said. “Most are not working and feel nobody cares about them.”

Members of Youths against Irregular Migration in Banjul. (LAMIN KANTEH/AFP/Getty Images)

The returnees’ frustration has not been helped by misunderstandings over what form the support will take and who is eligible. Initially people like Sallah, who returned before the EUTF project began, were not able to access assistance.

Some returnees expected to receive cash grants, but the IOM only provides in-kind support such as vocational training and work equipment, and only after a “thorough assessment” of the returnee’s needs, said Jarra Dabo, reintegration officer at IOM Gambia.

Many migrants sold off family assets to fund their journey and came home empty-handed. Waiting for reintegration assistance was not an option. Many have started informal businesses, while others have struggled to get by.

In November, IOM staff called in the police after a protest by returnees at their offices near the Gambian capital threatened to veer out of control. There have been other sporadic confrontations, including a group of returnees showing up at the airport in early 2017 to demand reintegration funds.

“Managing the returnees is very complex,” said Darboe, whose National Youth Council runs an orientation program, including counseling. “These youths have been gone for a long time, adopted other cultures and have seen more and know more possibilities than their peers who stayed behind.”

Many returnees struggle emotionally upon return. The head of the E.U. delegation to The Gambia, Atilla Lajos, recalls greeting one flight of Gambians coming back from Libya. “I could see the boys coming down the stairs [of the plane], probably five of them smiled, the rest looked ashamed,” he said.

Some told Lajos they were afraid of returning home to face their families and communities. “This is something we have to work on – a stage where the community, who in some cases sent these boys on the back way, do not consider them to be losers [upon return],” the diplomat said.

Stepping up the Pace

When Sallah returned from Libya in April 2017, the new Gambian government was still settling into office. His group of returnees was picked up from the airport in a truck and its members were dropped off in various neighborhoods without any orientation or much other support.

The situation is different now: Returnees are housed in a hotel for rest, orientation and psychosocial and health assessments before going home, while women and children are also screened by the Department of Social Welfare.

IOM admits that the agency struggled to respond swiftly to the needs of returnees. Staff put this down to the rapid increase in demand for voluntary returns from Libya while their office in The Gambia was still being established.

“We were coordinating emergency returns from Libya every month and it was technically impossible to provide all those people with both returns and reintegration support at the same time,” said IOM West Africa spokesperson Florence Kim.

Gambians return from Libya with the assistance of IOM in late 2017. (Sanna Camara)

The IOM office is now working through the backlog, as the number of people requesting returns from Libya has dropped since the possibility of crossing the Central Mediterranean diminished. EUTF-funded reintegration support has been extended to all IOM-assisted returnees since January 2017.

IOM says it is now developing a more systematically designed reintegration program, including both practical and emotional support, but it may still be some time before it launches. It is also building a database of returnees and reintegration programs.

There is no clear data currently available on how migrants fare upon return. At least one group of returnees who received a boat and fishing equipment through the IOM assistance program later disappeared. Some suspect they left for the back way once again.

Fixing the Unemployment Problem

The bigger challenge ahead for The Gambia is to create enough jobs to offer young Gambians a reason to stay home.

The government is setting up vocational schemes in sectors ranging from agriculture to information technology, as part of the 11 million euro ($13.6 million) Youth Empowerment Program (YEP), also funded by the EUTF.

“These are being developed quickly because there is very high pressure on the government for youths to see there are new possibilities,” said Judith Altrogge, a researcher from the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute, who cowrote the first report on migration governance in Gambia in the Barrow era.

While the YEP is meant for both returning and potential migrants, there appears to be a lack of coordination between the YEP schemes and the reintegration program. Altrogge said some returnees were finding the YEP programs difficult to access, especially if they were not well connected to social networks that funnel information about such schemes.

“Returnees are desperate for opportunities, but the schemes are targeted at the youth in general, leaving returnees with a feeling of being overlooked,” she said. “If returnees don’t face better employment opportunities than before their initial departure, there are considerable chances they might re-migrate.”

Returns from Europe?

If the plight of returnees is not addressed, Barrow’s administration could have an even greater problem on its hands as it is also under pressure to cooperate on increasing returns from Europe.

The deportation of Gambians from E.U. countries remained stubbornly low under the Jammeh government: 12,000 Gambians arrived in Italy in 2016 and just 15 returned, according to latest available Eurostat figures. (2017 figures reflecting the returns under the Barrow government will be published in May.)

The E.U. denies that a formal readmission agreement is being discussed with Gambian authorities. However, an E.U. working party draft on good practices for return to The Gambia from October 2017, seen by Refugees Deeply, outlines plans for more efficient deportation of Gambians from Europe. Taking into account The Gambia’s capacity to reintegrate returnees, “E.U. member states do not intend to return forcefully more than 50 persons a month,” the draft says.

A European Commission spokesperson acknowledged that the E.U. has a dialogue on migration with The Gambia, which includes practical ways to streamline return and readmission procedures, but that no numerical targets were under discussion.

Migration management in the newly democratic Gambia presents both opportunities and risks. Many Gambian exiles are returning to the country and are seen as important contributors to the country’s democratic transition. The government is developing a migration policy to better harness remittances and support the diaspora.

The crux of the government’s quandary over migrant returns is spelt out in Judith Altrogge’s study: Despite the change in government, if there is no radical change in the economic situation in The Gambia, mass returns could worsen the chances for the overall sustainable development of the country. Or as one development specialist cited in the study says: “bringing them back now is a recipe for violence and unrest.”

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