By Cecile Jatta and Yusef Taylor, @FlexDan_YT
Irregular Migration has been a persistent “thorn on the side” of African countries and The Gambia is no exception. Besides being the smallest mainland country in Africa, in 2016 The Gambia was one of the highest contributors of irregular migrants through North Africa’s Sahara Dessert, across the Mediterranean Sea and into Europe. Locally known as the “backway”, this is the route of choice for most migrants imbued with reckless courage to brave the harsh terrain and resist dangerous rebels.
At the end of the journey it’s estimated that only half of the migrants make it through to Europe, where most are returned to conflict ridden Libya to await deportation to their home countries in appalling conditions in jails. The lucky ones are then returned home by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Our Younger Ones Will Not Go Through the Same
Speaking to the leader of “Gambia Returnee from Backway”, Alagie Amadou Camara, we learned of how he conceived a business idea while imprisoned in Libya with a group of Gambian migrants. According to Alagie “this business came about as a collective business set up by returnees. We asked ourselves while in the prisons in Libya what could be the next step for us if we return to Gambia to help us as well as play our part in nation building.”
Upon their return Alagie and his group started an “Agricultural business with the help of the elders in north bank who gave us a 100×200 land to cultivate. We also hope to venture into poultry farming soon.” To fund their startup Mr Camara indicated that “IOM and an international organisation from Italy” provided the financial muscle they needed to kickstart their business. Describing the extent of IOM’s support Mr Camara alleged that “they assist us in most of our training.” After his dehumanising experiences through the backway he now advocates against the irregular migration with the motivation that “we don’t want our younger ones to go through the same thing we did.”
Reintegrating Returnees Through Employment
One of the people helping migrants to reintegrate into society is Pedro Gomez of the Catholic Relief Service (CRS). In an exclusive interview with Pedro at a Job Opportunity Fair targeting migrants, Mr Gomez explains that their CRS initiative aims to integrate migrants in The Gambia and is part of a network dubbed “Action for the Protection and Integration of Migrants in West Africa” (APIMA).
CRS main training programs and initiatives are “life and employment skills project, the job opportunity fair, trauma awareness and community conversation”. According to Mr Gomez, “during the community conversation initiative” they “take these returnees to a particular community where they explain their encounter through the backway and what they’ve gone through in Libya.” Explaining the rationale behind the project Mr Gomez explains that “our main aim is to ensure that youths have enough information of the back way journey, especially for those that have not gone yet and still want to go. We also aim that through this returnees will be able to convince other youths to stay.”
In their life and employment skills program they sensitize youths on migration and “support youth and returnees through hard skills training” like welding, plumbing, carpentry, electrical installations etc. This is consolidated with soft skills training such as “how to go for an interview, work ethics, dress codes for work, requirements as an employee and an employer”.
The trauma awareness program assists “returnees to reflect on their roots, personal lives, family and helps them to fight with the stress [trauma]they have been through the back way”. Pedro believes that “this will be the best way to encourage them to push ahead in life”.
Mr Gomez explains that their “opportunity fair brings together trade men, Government officials from different departments that have to deal with youths, the NYSS, Supersonic, Agri-Businesses, NEDI, and other entrepreneurs who have made it but never travel to share their stories to these returnees”.
From Labourer to Employer
Previously unskilled, Buba Jabbie highlighted the challenges he faced as an unskilled person after he took the back way. According to Mr Jabbie while at Libya he earned a living as a laborer and eventually returned to The Gambia by the IOM after which he developed himself with skills training as carpenter which didn’t succeed. He later completed a six months course on electric installation and wiring training and now own multiple business ventures. Jabbie currently owns a tailoring shop which employs two people and also runs a taxi business.
His courage to embark on the backway has now been replaced with the belief that “I can make it here in The Gambia”. In his advocacy against the irregular route he advises young people to improve their skills through training and to change their mentality like he did. In Buba’s own words “if you think the only way you can make it is to travel to Europe or work in the office, I tell you that’s not the solution.”
Tax Frustrated Bah “You can make it here, if you believe”
Muhammed Bah a returnee from the back way explained his frustration with the tax system which he says triggered his illegal journey to Italy. According to him he underestimated the challenges he would encountered and thought “that he will get to Morocco easily”. However, this turned out to be “the worse decision I have ever made in my life”. He was left with no option but to take up laborer work in Mauritania to sustain himself.
After saving some money he then traveled to Morocco where he explained that on his journey he was “piled up like sardines and cartons of spaghetti placed on us for a long distance. I lost a friend on the way, spent two years in Sabha where he was jailed until the IOM returned him back to The Gambia.” After his return, efforts to assimilate himself back home have faced fresh challenges. According to Muhammed he experiences societal discrimination and fells that “everyone point fingers at me with words like, they knew I won’t make it. I now thank God and IOM, if not for them, I won’t have been here speaking.”
He now uses his bitter experiences to advocate for other youths to avoid the illegal route. “My advice to the youths is you can better your life in your own country by skills development. If you believe you can make it here, then you will, but if you believe you cannot make it here, then am sorry for you. I now have my tailoring shop back and have four employees working for me. There is nothing more beautiful than being your own boss.”