By Cherno Omar Kebbeh
The total number of Gambians living outside of The Gambia reached 140,000 in 2017, according to a new dataset on Gambian migration. According to the new dataset, irregular (backway) migration to Europe has immensely contributed to the total number of Gambians living outside of The Gambia. Between 2008 and middle of 2017, over 60,000 young Gambians crossed into Europe as first time asylum seekers with the majority arriving in Italy. Because of this, Italy has for the first time surpassed Spain as the top destination country for Gambian migrants. This dataset also revealed that the United States is becoming an important destination for Gambian migrants with the number of Gambians reaching 21,000. Spain, which has been the top destination for Gambian migrants, is now the third destination country.
Gambians in Italy
For the first time in Gambian migration history, Italy in 2017 became the top destination for Gambian migrants. Between 2008 and middle part of 2017, over 34,000 young Gambians arrived on the shores of Italy seeking asylum as first time asylum seekers. While some of these young Gambians moved to other parts of Europe, majority stayed in Italy because of the Dublin Regulation, which is meant to prevent an asylum applicant from submitting applications in multiple Member States – in addition to reducing the number of “orbiting” asylum seekers, who are shuttled from member state to member state. The country in which the asylum seeker first applies for asylum is responsible for either accepting or rejecting the claim, and the seeker may not restart the process in another jurisdiction. The majority of Gambian asylum seekers are male and with over 80 percent between the ages of 18 years to 34 years. While “backway” migration is dominated by young Gambian men, the number of young Gambian female asylum seekers continues to increase – reaching almost 300 in 2016. As a share of population, the Gambia has the highest rate of asylum seekers in Italy among African countries.
Gambians in the United States
The United States continues to be another important destination for Gambian migrants. According to this new dataset, close to 21,000 Gambians are living in the United States in 2017. While Gambians are spread out throughout the United States, states with high concentration of Gambians include New York, Maryland, North Carolina, Texas, Georgia, and Washington. Most Gambians in the United States are documented with a good share obtaining US citizenship or permanent residency (Green Card). Between 2005 and 2015, more than 10,000 Gambians obtained permanent resident status while a little over 5,000 obtained US citizenship. The United States was also an important destination for Gambians seeking asylum. Between 2004 and 2015, a little more than 1,000 Gambians were granted asylum. In the same period, more than 1,000 Gambians were apprehended and another 200 deported.
Gambian migrants in the United States are among the most educated, with 19 percent holding a bachelor’s degree relative to 17 percent for all foreign-born. Almost 6 percent of Gambian migrants hold a graduate degree.
Gambians in Spain
While there are no historic, cultural, or trade ties between Spain and The Gambia, Spain continues to be another important destination for Gambian migrants, in part because of geographic proximity. Gambians are dispersed across the various regions, with the largest concentrations in Catalonia, Aragon, and Andalucía. Catalonia has by far the highest concentration of Gambians, accounting for over two-thirds of the total Gambian population in Spain.
Gambian migration to Spain spans over three migration periods, starting at the end of the 1970s and driven largely by post-independence economic deterioration. The worsening economic conditions and drought in the early 1980s prompted more Gambians to migrate during the following decade. The third wave of Gambian migrants arrived in the 1990s mainly for family reunification but also to seek refuge after the 1994 military coup.
Immigration to Spain slowed significantly after the onset of the global economic crisis in late 2007 and the resulting rise in unemployment. According to the Spanish Statistical Office, the total number of residents fell by 206,000 in 2012 — a figure largely accounted for by the fall in the number of registered foreign-born residents. Similarly, the Gambian population in Spain fell slightly from 2011 to 2012, after a sustained increase which began in 1998.
Ongoing issues and future concerns
One central concern for many Gambian migrants and their families is efficient regulation of the money transfer market which currently lacks competition, leaving the cost of remitting earnings virtually unchecked. Poor regulation of this market also poses a challenge in terms of collecting accurate data on remittances — and development efforts that rely on these data. Many Gambian migrants choose informal channels for remitting their earnings because of the high costs of doing so through legal channels. The new government should open up the remittances market space by allowing competition.
Many remittance-receiving countries around the world have begun working with commercial banks to develop special products and services such as allowing mortgage payments, bill payments, and school fees to go through flexible foreign-exchange accounts. This arrangement is beneficial because it allows migrants to engage in important economic activities without having to travel home, thus maintaining the volume of remittances. In addition, many governments around the world encourage migrants and their families to hold remittances in checking or saving accounts, because these are more secure, can earn interest, and can be directed toward business investment and education.
Further, there is potential for increased cooperation between the Gambian diaspora, Gambian international civil servants working abroad, and Gambian diplomatic missions across the globe. Similar to the Philippines, the Gambian government could create an overseas employment administration to protect the rights, interests, and welfare of its citizens abroad. In addition, the new government should recognize the immense contribution diaspora organisations, especially during natural disasters. These organisations should be exempted from custom duty especially on shipments of goods meant for helping Gambians.
One challenge looking forward will be managing and encouraging legal migration, especially for young Gambians who risk their lives with hope for better livelihoods in Europe. Because a major push factor is lack of opportunity for The Gambia’s best and brightest, improving skills training and higher education, coupled with efforts to improve overall job prospects, should be a major priority for the new government.
Another important issue for Gambians living abroad is the ability to participate in the Gambia’s elections process by being allowed to vote from abroad. Considering the number of Gambians living abroad, the new government should put in place policies that will allow Gambians to be to register and vote at various Gambian diplomatic missions.
Finally, these data will allow the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to prioritize the staffing of Gambian diplomatic missions abroad. Countries with large populations of Gambians such as Spain, Italy, Germany, UK, and USA should be given higher priorities in staffing and opening new embassies.
The author, Cherno Omar Kebbeh, a native of Brikama, is a Gambian economist based in Washington DC. He attended Nusrat High School and is a graduate of the prestigious Duke University.