Freed from Libyan jails, frustrated migrants pose challenge to new Gambia

BANJUL (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Jobless, restless and frustrated, 24-year-old Saikou Jammeh persuaded his father to sell the family home and give up his life savings to pay for the journey from Gambia to Europe.

Jammeh saw no future for himself in Gambia, a tiny impoverished country on West Africa’s coast, so he joined an exodus of young men willing to sacrifice everything to leave.

But after being robbed, beaten, and locked in a Libyan prison for several months, Jammeh found himself back where he started - in Gambia with no job prospects and empty pockets.

“I felt abandoned by the government,” he said on a busy street in Churchill’s Town, a suburb of the capital Banjul.

“I was just sitting, wondering what to do.”

Thousands of thwarted migrants like Jammeh are returning to Gambia, straining its fledgling government as officials scramble to get European-funded reintegration projects up and running.

President Adama Barrow took office a year ago, ending former leader Yahya Jammeh’s 22 years of autocratic rule, and is under pressure to deliver on promises of sweeping economic reforms.

Nearly 2,500 Gambians were flown home by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) last year, most pulled out of prisons in Libya after reports emerged of Africans being sold in slave markets in the lawless country, the U.N. agency said.

The returnees are a noticeable presence in the nation of 2 million, posing a bigger threat to stability than in other West African countries wrestling with migration, experts said.

“We are not ready to receive all these people,” said Bulli Dibba, permanent secretary of Gambia’s interior ministry.

“We are very much concerned for domestic security,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

In November, a group of newly-returned migrants threw rocks at the IOM offices because they were unhappy with the support they had received, according to IOM spokeswoman Florence Kim.

“The government is already struggling to deal with unemployment,” added Dibba, a veteran Gambian civil servant. “If we have more people coming in, what will we do with them?”


Gambians have accounted for about one in 20 migrants arriving in Italy in recent years, making it the country with the highest number of migrants per capita reaching Europe.

Trying to stem the flow, the European Union is funding job training and youth empowerment programs across the continent with its 3.2 billion euro ($4 billion) Trust Fund for Africa.

While the fund was created in 2015, most of the programs in Gambia only started last year, according to the IOM.

“Thank god my life has grown into a plan,” said Saikou Jammeh, who did an EU-funded CCTV installation course after returning, and is now saving money for school.

But many young Gambians are missing out.

Of the 2,435 migrants who returned to Gambia in 2017, only 170 so far have received reintegration packages from the IOM, which consist of funding for education or business start-ups.

The agency has received complaints, and is striving to avoid tensions and divisions within communities, said Kim of the IOM.

Give one former migrant more money than their peers and you create competition, she said. Offer returnees more support than their neighbors and it could spur others to leave for Europe.

Many of the returned migrants are traumatized, illiterate, or live in remote areas - making them difficult to assist.

“I know people who have ideas, but they don’t have any help,” said Donald Greywoode, 36, who quit his office job and set off for Europe on a route known locally as “the back way”.

When Greywoode came back, he found himself collecting trash.

Without education, training or job opportunities, boredom and resentment could boil over into conflict, analysts said.

“The stakes are very, very high,” said Franzisca Zanker, a researcher at Germany’s University of Freiburg, who has studied migration governance in Gambia.


Several returnees told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that they had not wanted to come home, but having been locked up, abused and starved in Libya, were left with no other choice.

“We don’t see ourselves as voluntary returnees,” said Mustapha Sallah, 26, who came back from Libya in April.

“They said if you don’t want to go home, you die here,” Sallah said. “Leaving was the only option.”

Coupled with the lack of opportunity, such frustration could drive people to migrate once more, experts warned. Others said broader economic changes would be needed to keep youth at home.

“Even after training all these people in all these skills, if the industry is not there, they will still struggle,” said Kebba Sillah, head of Sterling Consortium, a vocational training institute supported by the EU Trust Fund for Africa.

“I think the EU needs to encourage their businesses to come set up here, not just pump in money,” Sillah added.

While many returnees said they would never again attempt the treacherous journey through Libya, some still dream of Europe.

Jerreh Cham, 22, has received EU funding to complete a satellite installation course and attend business management school since returning from Libya in August.

But it is not enough to keep him at home.

“My plan is to get my qualification before reaching Europe,” said Cham, sitting in the yard outside his family’s small home.

“If I go with my qualification and everything, I don’t think anybody will discount me. I think they will give me my respect.”