ESSAU, Gambia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sitting in their dusty schoolyard in rural Gambia, the students shook with laughter as they watched a skit about a naive migrant embarking on the treacherous journey across Africa to Europe.
“I’ve got some friends in Libya. So, you know, I’ll just pass through and then get on the boat,” said the would-be migrant, in a hoodie and backpack, to the crowd’s amusement.
“No, no, brother, you know what happens in Libya? I was sold there,” said a young man playing the part of his wiser friend.
The students sobered as he told a story of enslavement, starvation and torture. Then the actors broke out of character and explained that their compelling drama was in fact true.
Gambia, a tiny country in West Africa, loses thousands of people a year to illegal migration, with a long history of locals leaving in search of work. Dreaming of life in Europe, many are detained in Libya or drown in the Mediterranean.
Now a group of returned migrants, fresh out of prison, are traveling the country on a mission to dispel rumors about the journey and persuade young people not to risk it.
“What we experienced... it isn’t worth it,” said Mustapha Sallah, 26, secretary general of the local association Youths Against Irregular Migration (YAIM).
“Had I had someone who went there and told me everything involved, I would not have taken the journey,” he said.
Sallah created the group with more than a dozen young men who met in a Libyan prison and were flown home last year by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a United Nations agency.
The ex-inmates embarked on their first awareness-raising tour last month.
Bumping down dirt roads, blaring dance music across the poorest parts of Gambia, the returnees draw crowds - and officials hope they will be more successful than government or U.N. workers in spreading the message to stay home.
Some villages visited on the tour are half a day’s drive from any visible business. The population has a tradition of migrating that goes back decades, residents said.
But many people hear only the success stories of those who make it to Europe, not the trauma encountered along the way.
“I think by the end of this sensitization, it will reduce the rate of people leaving,” said Lamin Jammeh, an immigration department officer who joined the tour.
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. Countless others try their luck and do not make it.
On the north bank of the Gambia river, a poor region dependent on farming, nearly everyone knows someone who has taken “the back way”, as the escape route is locally known.
“I have friends in Italy right now, posting beautiful pictures, showing us they have money. It makes us want to go,” said Cherno Jallow, 19, a student in Essau, a small town of concrete houses and wandering farm animals.
Images of a lavish European lifestyle contrast sharply with the returnees’ tales of prison, hunger and torture.
“We never knew such things were happening,” Jallow said, after listening to the migrants’ stories of suffering.
Several returnees said that they had heard stories of the horrors of Libya before they left, but ignored them because they had not come from first-hand sources.
“We are the very victims that can convince them,” said Tombong Kuyateh, 25, a member of the returnees’ association.
A video appearing to show African migrants sold as slaves in Libya gained global attention when it was published by CNN last year, but such news does not always reach rural West Africa.
The government has previously tried to spread the message through radio shows and information campaigns, but said this was the first time returnees have championed the cause.
“It is important that youth talk openly to their friends about the hurdles they encountered and the risks they faced,” said Fumiko Nagano, IOM chief of mission for Gambia.
“Those who return from the journey play a key role in our efforts to ensure that Gambian youth keep hope in their future and do not lose their lives,” she said.
The returnees use song, dance and competitive football - migrants v students - to break the ice, then share information about job and education opportunities, hard to come by in Gambia’s remote farming regions.
Faced with unprecedented numbers of migrants in recent years, 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.
Representatives from some of these programs came on the awareness-raising tour, and several students raised their hands after the presentations, asking how they could sign up.
Signup is not a ticket to Italy, but it may lead to a job.
Muhammed Njie, 18, was not convinced that his future would be promising in Gambia. But he was sufficiently shaken by the returnees’ stories that he plans to heed their warning, he said.
“I think Europe is better, but I’ll stay here.”
Reporting by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org