Returning from Libyan detention, young Gambians try to change the migration exodus mindset.
Mustapha Sallah knows all about taking the “back way”, the Gambian expression for migrating to Europe, a journey that for many citizens comes to a brutal halt in a Libyan jail.
Having experienced detention first-hand, 26-year-old Sallah he set up, Youths Against Irregular Migration, (YAIM) using the airwaves in his home country, as well as social media and road shows, to try to deter others from following in his footsteps.
“The phone-in discussion was on the consequences of migration – good or bad”, Sallah said after his recent weekly half-hour segment on Capital FM radio. “One guy called in and said, ‘Italy is already full. There are many things you can do here [in The Gambia].’”
According to the World Bank, Gambians make up Europe’s second largest diaspora as a share of home-country population (in their case 1.9 million). “The Gambia has never had a group of returnees trying to discourage youths from travelling irregularly” Sallah said. “We went there [Libya] and saw and experienced everything, so when we talk [here] we use our own stories on their level. When people see us, they say ‘this is what we needed, you are really supporting society’”.
The Gambia is emerging as a test case for international efforts to reverse irregular migration across the Mediterranean. Sallah was among 2,674 Gambians flown home from Libya by the UN’s International Organization for Migration between January 2017 and June 2018.
These operations only became feasible with the fall of president Yahya Jammeh’s dictatorial regime to a democratic coalition government in January 2017.
Concerns remain over the capacity to assist large numbers of returnees, but the strategy appears to be working: recent IOM data shows that The Gambia has dropped out of the top 10 league of migrant nationalities arriving in Italy for the first time since the Mediterranean crisis began in 2014-2015.
Anecdotally, there is consensus that fewer people appear to be leaving, but there is no hard data to support this assumption.
As well as highlighting the perils of migration, YAIM seeks to draw attention to the potential benefits of staying in The Gambia.
YAIM member Saihou Tunkara, a 22-year-old who returned from Libya with Sallah, told Capital FM listeners about enrolling in a hairdressing course sponsored by the anti-trafficking campaign “I’m Not for Sale”.
“If I had had that support before, I would not have gone the ‘back way’,” he said after the radio show. “Gambia is a place where people don’t support you at the grassroots level. If you are on the journey [to Europe] then they support you, they start sending money, but that is not the right solution”.
The belief that you can only make it in Europe is so entrenched among most Gambians that many families would still rather bet their last dalasi on the hope their youngsters will succeed on the dangerous journey than support them in developing livelihoods at home.
“Changing the minds of the sponsors [relatives and friends] of this irregular migration is the most difficult thing. They lack confidence in the youths and this country”, Sallah said. Sitting in his crowded family compound with friend and co-founder Jacob Ndow, they explain the organisation’s genesis and why they think their message really hits home.
“Youths Against Irregular Migration was created by migrants in the [Libyan] prison. We were there for each other against the hardship. Everybody was saying I wouldn’t even want my enemy to take this journey”, said Sallah, who spent four months in detention.
“We were treated like slaves; we didn’t take a bath for months, so we tried to escape and they beat us seriously”, added Ndow. “That’s when I met Mustapha. He was also punished and he couldn’t stand. That’s when we decided that we must make people aware that the ‘back way’ is a bad road”.
YAIM has just completed the second of its “youth caravans”, with funding from the German Embassy in Banjul. They travelled to communities in two regions particularly affected by irregular migration, sharing their experiences in market squares and meeting places.
A female member of YAIM, who asked to remain anonymous, explained how on the tours she recounts her experiences of being kidnapped and sold. “The ‘back way’ is a dangerous journey, especially for women. We face too much maltreatment,” she said.
Such tales are softened by performances. Ndow is one of the star acts, singing the song he made up in prison. Upon his return he recorded his single, “The back way isn’t an easy road”, which gets regular airplay.
“Even the kids and elders are singing that song, and it will change their concept of travelling because they will know it’s not an easy road”, he said.
Coming home is not an easy option either, and another returnee group is trying to establish its own reintegration project to overcome the stigma of being a so-called “failed migrant” and to lead by example.
“Libya was full of ugly experiences: slave labour, torture. It became a living hell. But how you are looked upon as a returnee is really stressful”, said Pa Modou Jatta, a member of Returnees From The Backway (RFTB), which was also founded in a Libyan detention centre.
“You feel that you have betrayed yourself and your family because you had aims of becoming someone great”
RFTB has been given farmland in the Kerewan Local Government Area by village elders inspired by their cause. The grand plan is to establish a farming cooperative with other returnees and become role models for local youths, then spread the scheme across other regions.
None of RFTB’s members are farmers, so they have persuaded IOM to fund their agricultural training. “You have to seize opportunities to do well in life”, said the group’s chairperson Alhagie Camara.