By: Saikou Suwareh Jabai
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. A total of 2,368 Gambian migrants who were en route to Europe through Libya, have voluntarily returned home from February 2017 to February 2018, according to International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports.
The facilitation of the returnees’ coming by IOM and partners, came high on the heels of reports that Africans are sold as slaves in the North African country.
In the Gambia, barely a day goes by without discussion on migrant returnees, who now add up to the list of the 38.5 % jobless youth in the country.
26 year old Mustapha Sallah returned home in April last year. He did not want to come home, but having been locked up, abused and starved in Libya, he was left with no other choice but to return. He expressed dissatisfaction with Government for not taking care of them since their return.
“Most of us don’t see ourselves as ‘voluntary’ returnees. We were arrested and we lost all our belongings because our houses were burnt down. They took us to prison and locked us up. Life in that prison was very hard and no one would want to spend even a second there,” he said, adding that IOM officials who visited them in prison, gave them only one option and that was the option of returning home; that they were not assisted by Government and some of his fellow returnees are still suffering from the effects of the trauma and frustration they went through.
“Some of them are still nursing their injuries. There was no Counselling or psychotherapy done for us and nothing was given to us except D2,500 we receive from IOM. We really need Counselling because some of us are not yet back to our senses because of what we have encountered there,” he said.
Mustapha and fellow returnees now have an Association they formed to promote their welfare and offer advice potential migrants to stay home. He is the Association’s Secretary General.
“We were about 175 Gambians in prison. We sat together and thought about forming an association upon our return home. The objective is to discourage irregular migration by telling our own stories and experiences,” he said in an interview at his office in Churchill’s town.
Fatou Cham, a 21 year old migrant returnee, used her uncle’s money to embark on the journey. Fatou said she was misled into believing that life could only improve in Europe, but got the reality when she arrived in Libya.
Fatou now has a scholarship from Red Entertainment and is doing a one year hair dressing training. However, the memories of those horrible moments she went through in Libya, are still fresh in her mind.
“Being an irregular migrant in Libya and female, was not easy at all. As a woman, you face lots of challenges,” Fatou said. She is however hopeful that if she acquires the requisite skills in hair dressing, her life will change for the better. “After my training, I want to open my own salon to help myself financially. Government should really support us,” Fatou appealed.
Like Mustapha Sallah and Fatou Cham, many of the migrant returnees show no sign of relief for coming back home as they are fully aware that job prospects in the country remains slim.
While noting that they would never again attempt the risky and dangerous ‘back way’ journey through Libya, they still dream of going to Europe.
There is no denying the fact that the returnees need skills training programs but many of them are traumatized and without the much needed assistance from Government, their status could get worse.
The Executive Director of the National Youth Council Lamin Darboe, said the Council has stuck to the principle of the safety of the returnees first; that Council is still helping those migrants who are willing to voluntarily return home.
Despite the growing number of unemployed youth in the country, Darboe maintained that there are many opportunities for young people to tap from.
Darboe admitted that they are helping returnee migrants but their effort is not enough.
In trying to stem the flow of migrants, the European Union (EU) initiated the ‘Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) to address the push factors of irregular migration, through youth employment and entrepreneurship. Since its inception in January 2017, the project has developed the capacities of thousands of young people and gave seed capital to some of them.