Migration policy in Gambia: A new hope

For years, the Gambia's young people have fled abroad to escape poverty and repression. In 2016, however, a new president was elected. Adama Barrow promises alternatives to emigration.

Gambians celebrate the victory of Adama Barrow in the streets of Serrekunda, Gambia Foto: ap

The first week of December 2016 will remain unforgettable. Even before the election results were official, long-standing dictator Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh had already conceded defeat. On the third day after elections, members of the opposition were released from prison. The new president Adama Barrow promises an economic recovery in which the perilous escape route through the desert, the “back way“ as it's called by Gambians, will also become a thing of the past.

For the youth of the Gambia, the first week of November 2016 had been a difficult one to bear: the young football player Fatim Jawara died crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy. Goalkeeper of the national team, Jawara was just 19 years old. She had wanted to play for a European team at all costs. One week later, 22-year-old wrestling superstar Ali Mbengu perished when the boat that was supposed to carry him to new horizons capsized off the Libyan coast.

Gambians are on the Frontex 'Top 10’ list of refugees arriving on Europe’s Mediterranean coasts, though the small nation has only 2 million residents. Gambia's state president Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh was quoted in the European media as saying he shed no tears over the emigrants and refugees leaving the Gambia, and he refused to accept failed applicants for asylum back into the country. In October, the USA had instructed its embassy to stop issuing visas to Gambian government officials as long as the Gambia continued to refuse to take back 2,000 Gambians who were not granted residency in the USA.

This didn't trouble Jammeh much. For years, he had been steering his foreign policy in a different direction. In 2012, the Gambia was declared an Islamic republic, and the oil states of the Persian Gulf its favoured contact partners. After a failed coup attempt in December 2014, there was no end to the reports of human rights abuses, torture in prisons and arbitrary arrests. Amnesty International reported on how undesirable members of the opposition were “made to disappear“. Crude insults about persons with AIDS and homosexuals were common in Jammeh's repertoire of propaganda. Since 2012, the numbers of emigrants leaving for Europe and the USA has increased fivefold. Italy, Germany and Switzerland are favoured countries of refuge.

Economic power through migration

This small nation located on the Gambia River, wedged between Northern and Southern Senegal, has lost some 20 percent of its gross domestic product in the past three years, according to the World Bank. The largest source of foreign currency is tourism. 60 percent of the population lives on less than 1.25 US dollars per day. Now a solid 25 percent of its gross domestic product comes from foreign bank transfers.

Europe seems so close, which intensifies the attraction, as well as the pressure from families, to emigrate. About 8,000 Gambians per year land on European shores. While 11,773 are registered as asylum seekers in Europe, World Bank statistics count 76,400 migrant labourers worldwide – about 9.7 percent of the Gambia's population. Their bank transfers of foreign currency have grown to a fifth of gross domestic product. Each €100 note is enormously valuable to families, since there is little domestic economic power to speak of.

It's no wonder then that President Jammeh had done nothing to stop emigration. In any case, the so-called 'brain drain’, the emigration of highly skilled workers, is immense: over 60 percent of those emigrating belong to the educated segments of the urban population. This lost labour force can scarcely be compensated by foreign labourers (who make up 17% of the population) coming into the Gambia from bordering nations. Persuading emigrants to return will cost not only great effort, but will require convincing financial incentives as well. While European development aid has been frozen until now, there is now a possibility to kick-start employment projects for young people and investments.

Transit for Senegal

Officially, the Gambia is involved in the Rabat Process. In 2006 in Rabat a dialogue on migration and development was held in which preventing irregular migration and forced repatriation were also discussed. Relations with the EU are based on the Cotonou Agreement, a partnership contract with the West African economic community (EPA EU – ECOWAS). Article 13 of that document provides for the consolidation of expelling irregular migrants. Back in 2010, under Austria's direction, Frontex carried out a large-scale expulsion of Gambians and Nigerians from Cyprus, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Norway, Poland and Sweden. To date, no such action has been repeated.

The Gambia's unique location, wedged as it is between northern and southern Senegal, automatically makes it a transit country: when the Senegalese want to go from the southern province of Casamance to the capital city of Dakar, they must pass through the Gambia. This makes the Gambia a more or less perfect example of a transit corridor nation.

Until now, flight and migration have gone hand in hand in Gambia. Since the Gambia belongs to the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, which guarantees freedom of travel without a visa, borders can be crossed easily.

Cheap fares for airline flights within the region are still impossible to find, so overland trips are handled by small buses and shared taxicabs. In its Africa Report in 2016, Frontex listed the names of four bus companies offering a regular direct connection to Niger's capital, Niamey – as if it views these enterprises as people smuggling operations.

Support for the new president

With the election of the dynamic new president, who comes from a business background, the cards have been reshuffled. This situation offers opportunities for the European Union to build new relations and to follow through on interlinking countermeasures to migration with development.

Once the Gambia was proclaimed an Islamic republic in 2012, EU development aid was frozen. After the UN Special Rapporteur published a report on torture in Gambia's prisons, relations between the EU and the Gambia turned even frostier. In the period from 2008 to 2013, the European Development Fund (EDF 2015/2016) for the Gambia was reduced from €21.96 billion to the paltry sum of €30 million.

The contract was signed only in January 2016, after the Migration Summit in Valetta, where President Jammeh expressed regrets over those who had died in the Mediterranean Sea, adding that his government would not be able to implement its youth employment programme “for various reasons“. For instance, a youth training programme costing €11 million was put on hold. In December 2015, after the Migration Summit in Valetta, it had been admitted onto the list of projects to be supported by the Trust Fund for Africa. Now that money could be immediately released for use.

A joint press statement on December 3, 2016 from the European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini and the Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development Neven Mimica on the presidential elections in the Gambia promptly expressed that the EU stands solidly with the people of the Gambia and is prepared to support the new president in all his proposals.

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