By Sally Jeng
Fatou Njie campaigns against irregular and undocumented migration by sharing her own lived experience of the deadly journey. But her most unique and powerful tool is not just the journey experience; it is her ability to deal with the stigma and stereotypes that greeted her arrival to The Gambia when she decided to return – voluntarily.
The 30-year-old traveled to Libya in 2014 to meet her husband who was en route to Italy through the ‘back-way’, the Gambian parlance for the perilous irregular migration journey through the high deserts of Libya and the dangerous Mediterranean sea.
For about four years, until 2017, Fatou lived in Tripoli with her husband who developed an ailment.
“He became seriously ill,” Fatou recounted with a crimson face. “As undocumented migrants, we could not access the best of health facilities and that was when we decided to return home.”
Fatou and her husband were two of over 5,600 stranded Gambian migrants, as of August 2021, that voluntarily returned with support from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Meanwhile, between 2014 to 2017, over 35,000 Gambians arrived irregularly on European shores, according to Frontex, the EU border agency. A lot more stranded in Libya, like Fatou and her husband.
The challenges faced by returning migrants are numerous, not least the negative perceptions and stereotypes about returning home without ‘realising their European dreams’.
“I almost got frustrated when I first came back, I had no one to support me, the stigma and the stereotype almost broke me,” Fatou said.
To add to her frustration, few months after she and her spouse returned, the young man passed away. He could not survive the illness developed in Libya. The couple had two young kids.
Despite the challenges of being a single-mother, Fatou started a campaign against irregular migration with her fellow returnees. She uses the campaign platform to share personal experiences of the journey which gave her tribulation and claimed her husband.
“Our campaign is not just to discourage others against irregular migration, but we also try to encourage other returnees that things can be better here,” she explained.
Fatou is not just telling returnees, and potential migrants that things can be better. She is showing them, using herself as the model.
Through the reintegration support that she received from the IOM, the young widow set up a business. She was one of over 3,600 returnees who benefited from the EU-IOM joint initiative for migrant protection and reintegration assistance programme. The assistance comes in different ways: support to set up or strengthen a small business, to pursue education or vocational training, and so on.
Fatou chose to start a business. She opened a shop at Latrikunda market.
From the reintegration support package, she was able to establish and now manages a sustainable business. Today, she wants to venture into another business.
“I now want to start a poultry farm to support other female returnees,” she explained.
“Despite the stigma and discrimination, I decided to challenge myself that it is up to me to positively tell my story and today I can say I am proud of what I am able to do for myself,” Fatou said.