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Saturday, July 13, 2024

Corrado Pampaloni, EU Ambassador to The Gambia (Part 2)

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With Alagie Manneh & Tabora Bojang

Alagie Manneh and Tabora Bojang continue their interview with the EU Ambassador to The Gambia, Corrado Pampaloni. 

The Standard: The EU has always stressed principles and values as the cornerstone of good governance. What has been your assessment of The Gambia in that regard?

Pampaloni: I think The Gambia has made gigantic steps since 2017. Once, I was with my driver and I said, ‘my God what a nightmare this traffic’. And he said, if you came before 2017, there was no traffic because people would be scared to buy a car, they wouldn’t buy a car, they wouldn’t buy a house because if Jammeh was passing by and he liked your car, he would take it from you. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I think this is pretty much the perception. Now they are building everywhere, there are far too many cars, and I am left to think oh how good there are too many cars, and I hate it to be honest. I’m sorry but I hear so many times of people protesting and complaining about things. I wonder if they could do it seven years ago. Were there any protests or complaints, or public newspapers that were expressing their dissent? No. I think I cherished what The Gambia has done until now, with all the difficulties, and with all the problems, I think I am proud of being in The Gambia now and seeing this happening. And it’s the most stable country in the area, let’s not forget. In spite of people being critical, in spite of the dissent etc, Gambia remains not only stable but also a fundamentally peaceful country. I never felt like I feel here in The Gambia that I can walk, and I am the ambassador, everybody knows me, so I should pay more attention perhaps. But here I feel that I can, I go out to do my errands alone, I walk on the streets, I feel safe, I don’t feel threatened. And this for me, people should remember. Yes, I agree with you, police should increase their knowledge of human rights, they should respect it more. Yes there is still abuse, but where does this not happen?

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In December 2022, the EU Council increased Schengen visa fees for Gambians from 80 to 120 euros to force Gambia to cooperate on accepting its citizen deportees from EU countries. Based on current realities, the government is fully cooperating. Shouldn’t that have changed your coercive policy by now?

First of all, I would like to underline that there is an obligation under international law for a country to take back their citizens, and there are rules on migration. That’s why we say legal migration, and illegal migration. This is the backdrop of this, and The Gambia is obliged to take back citizens that have exhausted their legal remedies to remain in Europe. I think you should write this definition because it’s very important. Europe is not taking away the Gambians indiscriminately. Since 2020, a little more than 625 Gambians came back, were forced to return. There are more than almost 100,000 Gambians in Europe. So, it’s not that we are… because what I read in the newspapers is a massive deportation etc, no. On the contrary, in 2021, one of the member states decided that 4000 Gambians out of over 5000 that were illegal, would remain in that country because they have proven valuable contribution to the development of that country. The 1000 that remained didn’t adapt, and so they didn’t have any legal remedies to remain in that country. Why am I talking about legal remedies? Jammeh  was a dictator and some Gambians were persecuted by Jammeh and they didn’t feel safe and they asked for asylum or they were refugees in Europe. Europe always welcomed refugees under this status, but this is a legal remedy because the status of refugees is a legal one. However, when this status disappears and there are no other legal remedies like for example you have [not] found a solid job with permanent contract etc, then you cannot stay. This is valid for the Gambians, and now it is valid for the people of the UK because the UK is not part of the EU anymore, so, if they don’t have a legal way to remain, they cannot stay. A lot of UK citizens have been kicked out of the EU after Brexit. It’s not different; it’s under the same concept. So, The Gambia at the beginning didn’t cooperate with the returns, they were indeed trying to slow down. There were many problems at the beginning such as the Covid-19, the presidential election whatever, so, we wanted to wait until there is [stability] in this country, but now after 2022 as you said, we are negotiating with The Gambia the return of some of the people that are deemed not to remain. Don’t think that the government is happy, because they would like to solve the situation in a way that their citizens followed their aspirations, but they are obliged by international law. So, hence we have a negotiation between what we would like to send back and what The Gambia is willing to accept, which is far different from what we would like. So, from these negotiations, there is a sort of an operational procedure where a set number of Gambians are asked to leave Europe because they don’t have a legal status anymore. Now, the European Council which is made of up of the ministries of the member states, decided that The Gambia was not cooperating, and therefore put these measures in place called Visa Code Article 25A, and it prescribes that some measures are inflicted upon some Gambian travelers who wish to come to Europe, such as the increase of the cost of visa. Before the measures, there was a sort of a gentleman’s agreement that the visas will be dealt with in 15 days, but now those guarantees no longer exist. Also, multiple entry visas are not to be delivered anymore, only single entry visas, and the cost of the visa also increased like you said… Since these measures have been decided, we re-established a very frank and very open platform where Gambia and Europe discuss our cooperation, where satisfaction and dissatisfaction were discussed. So, in three years, from 2020, we have repatriated 600 people. It’s not what is defined as massive deportation. Massive deportation involves thousands per month, or thousands per year, and they don’t occur anymore in the world now, I think. 

How many deportees will The Gambia have to accept for the EU to lift these visa restrictions? What will it take?

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On this, I don’t have an exact figure, we are talking about a few thousand. I think what the EU wants to see is regular cooperation. What we would like to put in place is a circular migration which means a person that is out for example, works in the countryside, like in cultivation or picking up fruits, but also skilled labour of a vast array of types can enter in Europe for a certain number of months, and then they can come back to The Gambia. It’s a little bit the same concept with the sea-farers, they have contracts, they go away, they stay for the season and then they come back. That’s what we would like to work on with The Gambia, but because there were a lot of people who migrated to Europe in the last ten years, ten percent of Europeans have not been born in Europe, so, it’s a very high number. I would like to try to modify your perception that we have a wall, we don’t have a wall… during the era of Jammeh, there were 15000 Gambians per year coming to Europe, and they entered because they had the status of refugees.

Is the visa fee going to be reduced and when?

It’s going to be reduced, but when, I can’t tell you because it’s an evaluation that member states are doing on a regular stage, in a regular way, on the cooperation on the returns. It is an analysis on how many we need to repatriate and how many The Gambia takes. When the European Council is satisfied and happy on the returns, the measures will be lifted. 

Do you have figures of how many Gambians are scheduled for deportation across the EU zone? 

There is no schedule. We know that there are some thousands that have no right to remain, but if it’s 7000, 10000, or 12000, at the moment, I don’t know. But I would say around 10,000 people. If 200 per year are returned, let’s say that we arrive at 300 per year, to make 10000 it will take our lifetimes. In the meantime, maybe the situation of each person can change. So, it’s more of a working progress that interests the EU rather than the final result, but do the math, if it’s 10000 and we are returning 300 a year.

Everyone knows there’s no love between former president Jammeh and the EU which wants him prosecuted for crimes against humanity. How does your office see the political will of The Gambia government to bring Jammeh to justice.

Yes, we are working together on the tribunal for The Gambia. This is definitely happening. There are many stakeholders around the table of transitional justice, and we are going to establish, together with other partners including The Gambia government, the tribunal for The Gambia. It’s not a very easy thing to do because we need to use the international common law, and not the Gambian law. But it’s going to happen, and we have people, experts that we have been asked to supply to the Ministry of Justice, in order to help organise the agenda. I think there’s the will to do it.

One legitimate concern though for many Gambians is the recycling and presence of former Jammeh enablers in key positions of government, like at the National Assembly for example. Don’t you think the presence of those who enabled the dictatorship could undermine the entire process?  

I’m sorry [but] this is not led by the National Assembly; it’s led by the government. It’s the Minister of Justice and Judiciary that are involved, and not the National Assembly. [But] I think it’s a legitimate question, and it’s a true question. The TRRC has made the recommendations, and as you know, 98 percent of the recommendations have been taken on board by the government, by the Ministry of Justice. I think that within these recommendations are also the people involved in whatever. So, what we are supporting is a fair process. When we get to the indictments, we will see what happens.

Poll after poll has indicated that corruption is on the rise in The Gambia. How do you think it can be addressed?

You asked me a million-dollar question, my dear. Corruption in The Gambia is on the rise, is that true? These are perception surveys, based on perceptions. What I see on my side is that there are some ministers and PSs that have been dismissed on allegations of corruption, or more than corruption – let’s call it general personal interests. And there is the day-to-day corruption that I have seen myself. I’ve been asked for money by people who have some power and they didn’t know who I was. The corruption in The Gambia is not only the ministers, the permanent secretaries, the SG. The corruption in The Gambia is also at the level of the street, whoever has a little bit of power tries to be bribed. Isn’t it true? It’s a culture of corruption, and the culture of corruption needs to be eradicated, it needs to be refused also by the people… There is the will to fight corruption, but I think that we could improve this. And I am not talking about the corruption as I say of the high people because that is even more complicated, but it’s the day-to-day corruption that needs to be tackled because that is what hampers the development of a nation. Corruption is endemic all over the world – in Finland, like in the US, in Germany, like in Italy – corruption is everywhere. Corruption needs to remain at a level that allows a country to develop… I’m not [concerned] by the director general who takes a bribe, I am concerned about the small officer who takes 600 dalasis from poor people just to let them pass through. But I don’t think corruption is systemic [at the high level], I think it’s opportunistic. I don’t condone corruption; it is something horrible. What I am trying to give you is a pragmatic answer. Is this government favouring the culture of corruption? I don’t think so, because if I see what happens to certain ministers and certain PSs accused of wrongdoings and fired. But I think we need more laws that protect the population and the country as a whole from corruption, and I think this is happening.

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