Mustapha, a twenty-something who had witnessed the travails of the so-called 'back way' is convinced about the follies of such adventures which are fraught with risks.
Gambian immigrants have been part of a steady human tide of would-be migrants to Europe since the turn of the century, thanks to biting economic hardship at home.
Mustapha had returned to The Gambia imbued with a personal conviction, namely proving that success stories of a personal nature can happen despte a despondent sense of general desperation for deliverance from the throes of an economic quagmire that has characterized life in the country for years.
“We came back because democracy is here now. Since then we were thinking things will change but the only change here is freedom of speech. The economy remains the same,” Mustapha said, his words embodying his personal conviction to find green if not greener pasture at home.
He is among thousands of young people who voluntarily returned from Libya through a programme backed by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in early 2017 following the end of 22 years of repressive rule.
With his colleagues, he formed an association of returnees that goes around sensitizing people on the dangers of the Mediterranean route.
“It was because of a lack of hope in this country under dictatorship that we left and we have been returning to live this change” Mustapha said.
Irregular youth migration to Europe largely caused by lack of economic opportunities at home has been the most popular subject for Gambia’s toughest policy debates for the past decade.
And Sallah’s story is one of many cases.
Gambia faces myraid socio-economic challenges at a time when unsustainable public debt is at 130 percent of GDP as close to half of the population lives below the poverty line with 38 percent youth unemployment.
Risky boat journeys through the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean to Spain has reemerged in 2018 after a whole year of inactivity in 2017.
“We have intercepted two boats in 2018 attempting to leave Gambia, using the Atlantic Ocean to Europe…,” said Superintendent Mamanding S. Dibba, Gambian immigration spokesperson.
The Senegalese police have also intercepted one boat carrying Gambians intending to reach Europe in early August this year.
And in September 2018, seventy-two intending irregular migrants on a local fishing boat were rescued along the coastline of Guinea Bissau, by a South American ship from Panama that was heading to Ivory Coast.
39 of the rescued irregular migrants were all Gambians and the remaining were Senegalese. All potential migrants are mainly in their youthful ages.
The Atlantic Ocean route which appears to be reemerging was Gambia’s most popular irregular migration route in 2005 and 2006.
“There is huge risks that ‘back-way’ (irregular migration) can pick up again fast and possibly it could be very deadly,” said Lamin Darboe, the executive director of National Youth Council (NYC). NYC is the implementing agency under the Ministry of Youths and Sports for youth policies, including youth development.
Source of frustration
Apart from struggling economy, Gambia’s agriculture that used to feed the rural poor has declined significantly in the past decade.
The sector plummeted from employing 70 percent of the population to 31 percent in a decade, according to Multi-dimensional Poverty and Inclusive Growth Report, a joint study by United Nations and Gambia government.
Gambia has the highest level of rural-urban migration in Africa, with 58 percent of the population living in urban centres.
Meanwhile, from January 2017 to March 2018, 8, 681 Gambians were recorded as arriving in Europe by sea. They were the eighth largest nationality of the arrivals and comprised 4.7 percent of the total.
In 2016, 12, 792 Gambians arrived in Italy and Spain by sea. Thus over 20, 000 Gambians have left their country for Europe since January 2016.
To assess the gravity of the damage irregular migration did to Gambia, Action Aid, an international NGO, did a study on the phenomenon published about
The findings of the study, which assessed two villages from both the south and the north bank of Gambia, were disturbing. The study found out that the populations of the two communities shrunk by hundreds in few years. In Njaba Kunda on the North Bank of the Gambian river, a village of 3, 600 people, 700 have left for Europe.
And in the past three years, 23 people have died, mainly in the Mediterranean Sea. And in Bwiam on the South Bank 300 had left and 20 died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
Since the 2016 December elections both donor agencies and various countries felt the need to help the country’s struggling economy. The European Union announced it was going to release €11 million to support youth empowerment programmes.
The EU also released €3.5 million to help the International Organisation for Migration reintegrate Gambians that they have returned from Libya and other African countries. In 2017, IOM budgeted for 1,500 youths in their reintegration programme but ended up returning over 3,651.
“This is a three-year project and we were expecting 1500 returnees but in less than six months, we have had twice that number,” Pierre Jatta, reintegration assistance at the IOM said.
Gambia’s economic growth figures have improved from 2.7 in 2017 to 3.5 in 2018 but youths’ despair hasn’t move an inch.
Government and donor interventions have so far proven inadequate. The study by Action Aid said while the new government is committed to addressing challenges, not all of its policies, nor those of the donors, are positive.
Recent Deportation of Gambian Youths from EU and US
Hundreds of demonstrators last month gathered in Westfield’s Youth Monument 6KM from the capital Banjul to protest against deportation of Gambians from the EU countries.
The protest was in response to what the protesters referred to as the regular deportation of Gambian migrants. In recent weeks, the migrants, many of them in Germany have been deported ‘in large numbers’, sparking concern and outrage in the country.
Wearing t-shirts and holding placards with anti-deportation messages, the protesters chanted ‘no to deportation’. Alieu Ceesay, a 27-year-old teacher said he was protesting out of anger over the treatment of the deportees.
“The other day I was out there at the airport the other day when a flight loaded with deportees arrived. They all looked rejected and desperate because they arrived back with just plastic bags.
For migrants who risked their lives and spent everything they ever owned just to go to Europe and help their families out of poverty, it was disheartening to see them being treated like this.
They are not supposed to be treated like criminals”
Lamin Sarr alias Laus protested for the government to look out for its citizens. “What is happening to Gambian migrants wouldn’t happen to any other citizens from other countries in the sub-region.
While other countries are looking at the interest of their citizens, our government seems to not care what’s happening to our brothers and sisters in Europe. I want to send a clear message to the authorities that they are either with the citizens or against them.”
The government has been under heavy criticism over the regular deportations. Anti-deportation activists accused the authorities of signing dodgy deals with the European Union for Gambians to be deported from EU-member countries, an accusation the government denied.
Ida Faal, a young protester has challenged the government to do more than just issuing press releases to convince Gambians that no such deal was signed.
Currently, Gambia has two EU-funded projects that are directed at helping young people.
One of them, the €11 million Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) being implemented by International Trade Center, aims to support 4000 youths in skills development and 4000 youths in entrepreneurship and access to finance.
YEP has already trained 1531 in various skill areas such as construction, mobile repairs, tech and others, said Modou Touray, the project’s technical advisor and monitoring and evaluation specialist.
But like IOM, YEP is struggling to meet quarter of the demands for their trainings.
“The need out there and the resources available is a huge gap… YEP is just €11 million. If you have to train every youth at a cost of $250 to $300, you cannot train up to 10, 000 people and give them the necessary support,” said Touray.
And YEP’s €11 million is the entire project money including its administrative cost with some staff who are expatriates. For YEP, the cost of training per person is between US$200 to $300.
Baboucarr Sallah, the project operations and finance officer, said sometimes they could only select 10 percent of the people who apply for their trainings because of limited resources.
Aside from the YEP and the IOM reintegration programmes, Gambia government has very limited resources to invest in youth empowerment policies.
President Adama Barrow announced on September 14 2018 that his Government will dedicate D1.3 billion towards poverty eradication. However, it remains to be seen how much youths related projects will benefit from this fund.
Despite the good intentions, the projects that are currently being implemented by the ITC and the IOM are not without criticisms.
According to the Action Aid study, criticism against the YEP is the fact that the country’s key migration aid project is outsourced to an international NGO “coordinated by an expatriate”.
Similar criticisms are leveled against the EU €3.5 million which is being managed by IOM.
But despite the inadequate funding and control by outside agencies of key migrant aid funds, some project areas have failed.
The IOM officials told me that they monitor their reintegration projects to ensure success. However, the returnees poultry farm project in Salikenni which started last year has failed.
One of the benefactors of a poultry farm supported by the project, Demba Njie, said they were not given the adequate training and capital for the survival of the project.
Within a year, the poultry collapsed and Njie blamed this on the inability to feed the poultry.
Gambia’s young democracy may have brought about hope for the future but prosperity is still a distant dream for many of her young people.