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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Deportee decries lack of reintegration support

Alhagie Jobe, a native of Changai Toro village in Sami District, Central River Region north, left The Gambia in 2019 in the early hours of a rainy Tuesday morning to embark on the dangerous journey to Europe.

His parents had gone to bed that night with no clue about his plan to travel.

But Alhagie said his decision to travel without his parents’ knowledge was well planned because they had opposed his decision to go through the back-way – a local name for migration to Europe through the dangerous Mediterranean Sea.

“That night, I had already decided how to sell two of my father’s head of cattle for my transport. I woke up while it was raining and started the journey; I knew it was risky but all I was seeing was Europe,” the young man said.

Alhagie said he sold the two head of cattle along the way and paid his way to Tamba Kunda in Senegal and then to Mali.

“I started encountering my first problems in Mali. The security forces there collected all my money. I was initially hesitant to call home but the situation forced me to contact my people to send me extra cash to proceed to Algeria,” he recalled.

Alhagie said when he reached Algeria, he was lucky to be offered a “well-paid labourer job” at a bakery which made him stay in the North African country.

“I had a very good job there and I was doing well. Although I could not send money back home, I was helping a lot of Gambian migrants in the country [Algeria] with food,” he said.

However, Alhagie said it was during one of his moments of serving food to Gambians that he and other Gambians were arrested by Algerian security forces and handed over to the UN mission in Gao, a city in Mali.  His return to The Gambia was later facilitated by The Gambia government through the Gambian embassy in Mali.

The young man said he did not receive any reintegration package.

“But with or without reintegration support, I have no intentions to take the backway again,” he affirmed, adding: “But if I can have any kind of support, I would want to start something here. I want to start a sheep rearing business.”

Alhagie’s elder brother, Demba Tandi, told The Standard the young man is “discipline and very hardworking”.

Not alone

Alhagie’s lack of reintegration support was not unique.  A lot of those deported migrants do not receive any such support.

Yaya Sonko, a Germany-based Gambian migration activist, from 2017 to 2021, claimed that “no single deportee from Germany or any EU country was supported with any reintegration packages”.

However, records by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) showed that at least 200 Gambians who were forcibly returned from member states of the European Union, including Germany, have benefitted from its [IOM] reintegration program in The Gambia, since 2017.

Meanwhile, Mr Sonko further said the alleged agreement between The Gambia government and Germany to accept deportation of her citizens from Germany “is only respected and enforced by Germany; it didn’t in any way benefit Gambia and Gambians”.

“The next government, after the election, should look into that agreement and make it more effective and more beneficial for both countries,” he said. “My recommendation for the government is to come up with clear and transparent policies in favour of Gambian youths. Also initiate reintegration programmes for all who may come home voluntarily or through deportation.”

As of January 2020, around 2,600 Gambians were at imminent risk of deportation in Germany, and a further 6,000 asylum cases were pending, according to the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a Germany-based non-governmental organisation. 

The ESI estimated that 10,000 Gambians in Germany were potentially subject to return, as of January 2020.  Thousands more Gambians were potentially at risk of return around other European nations, although deportations from Italy and Spain have so far remained very low.

In the past 20 years, The Gambia has become a significant country of origin for migrants and refugees travelling to Europe and North America, according to the 2020 Working Papers of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles.

According to national statistics, The Gambia diaspora population can be as high as 200,000, taking into account undocumented irregular migrants and the multigenerational diaspora. More than 60% of Gambia’s diaspora population live in Europe.

In July 2020, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, International Cooperation and Gambians Abroad, Dr mamadou Tangara informed the National Assembly that 4,837 Gambians in Germany were at risk of being deported.

However, the government’s stance remains that mass migrant returns and deportation will undermine its transition from dictatorship.

No role in deportations

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration and works closely with governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental partners.

Having established an operational presence in 2001, IOM The Gambia officially became a country office in July 2017.  The agency works with The Gambia government to strengthen migration governance through national coordination frameworks and evidence-based policy design, particularly through research and collection and analysis of data to inform policymaking.

Mr. Etienne Micallef, IOM programme manager for Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR), said the agency does not play any role in the deportation of migrants.

“IOM is not involved in facilitating deportations,” he emphasised.

“What IOM does, upon request from the sending government, approval from the Government of The Gambia and through the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration, is to provide post-arrival and reintegration assistance to forced returnees. This assistance is the same voluntary returnees are eligible for, including an allowance upon arrival, medical and psychosocial screenings and in-kind reintegration assistance.”

“Reintegration assistance can include support to set-up or strengthen a small business, support for job insertion, support to pursue education or vocational training, referral to other programmes, and more.”

Operationally, IOM facilitates the sustainable reintegration of returning migrants, placing a particular emphasis on the protection of vulnerable migrants. Between 2017 and June 2021, over 6,000 Gambian returnees were assisted.

The IOM constitution which prohibits the agency’s involvement in forced returns, recognizes the link between migration and economic, social and cultural development, as well as the right of freedom of movement.

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