By Ndey Sowe
It was only when he aborted his dangerous irregular journey to Europe, after spending two long years and about seventy thousand dalasi (D70,000) in the process, that Alagie Fatty realised that the grass is also green at home.
The 29-year-old left his home village of Bajonkoto in Wuli West, Upper River Region (URR) of The Gambia in search of greener pasture from afar: Europe. His desire was genuine given the sorrowful state of his family, but the journey was just disproportionately dangerous. And his vision of life at his proposed final destination of Europe was an illusion.
“I started my back-way journey from my village, Bajonkoto in Wuli,” the young man recalled. “From there, I moved to Senegal then to Mali where I spent two weeks, and moved to Togo where I spent one year doing business and from there I proceeded to Libya.”
The ‘backway’ is the Gambian name for irregular migration either by land or sea via the Central Mediterranean to Europe, mainly Italy and Spain.
While in Libya, the realities of the journey began to fully dawn on Alagie. It was a daily battle for survival from the myriad armed bandits and militia groups in that country. But since survival was outside, going out could not be avoided.
“One day, as we were out, me and some other people were caught by some security men who took us straight to prison,” he said. “I was in prison together with many other people.”
Libya has many state prisons and detention centres run by armed groups. Life there was unbearable. Prisoners are treated in the worst inhumane way by the guards.
At the time Alagie was in prison, a total of 86 Gambians died in Libya, with the majority dying in prison, from April 2016 to April 2017, according to the Gambian Association in Libya. In 2017 alone, about 512 Gambians were recorded to have been jailed in Libya, the association is reported to have said. The Gambia has no embassy in the North African country.
In the past 20 years, The Gambia has become a significant country of origin for migrants and refugees travelling to Europe and North America, according to the 2020 Working Papers of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles.
According to data from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, over 35,000 Gambians arrived in Europe by irregular means between 2014 and 2018, with many others in Africa along the Central Mediterranean route.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration and works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners.
Operationally, IOM Gambia country office assists in the voluntary return and reintegration of migrants through its Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programme.
Like Alagie, IOM has assisted the voluntary return of over 6,000 Gambian migrants stranded in Libya and other countries, between 2017 and June 2021.
Etienne Micallef, IOM Programme Manager for the AVRR programme, said the programme is an indispensable part of a comprehensive approach to migration management aiming at orderly and humane return and reintegration of migrants who are unable or unwilling to remain in host or transit countries and wish to return voluntarily to their countries of origin.
“For migrants who need to return home but lack the means to do so, IOM’s AVRR programme is often the only solution to their immediate plight,” he explained.
Etienne highlighted beneficiaries of IOM’s assistance, including individuals whose applications for asylum were rejected or withdrawn, stranded migrants, victims of trafficking, and other vulnerable groups, including unaccompanied migrant children, or those with health-related needs.
Alagie falls within the category of stranded migrants. As the condition in his Libyan prison was increasingly getting worse and life outside the cells was not any better, he opted to return to The Gambia.
“I returned to The Gambia with the help of IOM on 4th April, 2017,” he said. “The thing that motivated me to return was because I want to build a better future for myself and my family too. IOM facilitated my return to Gambia and their reintegration package helped me to sustain myself while I settled myself at home.”
He said the cash spent on his journey was around sixty to seventy thousand dalasi (D60,000 to D70,000).
“I got to realise that if I had properly used this money in The Gambia, I could have done a lot of things,” he said.
As Alagie started to get himself back into the society, he got enrolled for a course on solar installation services and plumbing offered by Sterling Consortium which was supported by GIZ and United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Now that he has graduated, he is enjoying the fruit of his newfound skills.
“The job is rewarding,” he affirmed.
Together with fellow back-way returnees, Alagie formed the Youth Against Irregular Migration (YAIM). They are using their stories to tell people about the realities of the journey and the fact that the grass can be greener at home, as well.