By Ebrima Drammeh,
Gambian migrant in Malta
Today marks the eighth year of my back way to Europe. I want to take this opportunity to pray to the Lord for the young people who lost their lives on the backway. Indeed, he who feels it, knows it.
I pray for all those who lost their lives either in the desert, prison or in the hands of the traffickers or in the Mediterranean sea. They are our fallen soldiers. Our heroes died for no other reason than helping our poor parents (mothers and fathers).
Some people will never understand how many sacrifices and the suffering you have encountered and experienced in life before meeting them. Some people will never understand that this small boats they are seeing, is ready to carry more than hundred men and women across the Atlantic Ocean. Some people will never understand that many of us risk our lives in these boats for a better life and better future. Some people will never understand how painful it is to be far from our families, friends and loves ones.
Many Gambian migrants have died trying to cross the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. There are lots of major risks one should be aware of before taking the back way from The Gambia to Europe.
Dangerous places like Libya, the desert and the sea that migrants have to travel through and through many different countries before they reach Europe. Every step you take, there are risks associated to you.
In Libya, many migrants are arrested and detained in detention centres run by militias, with high levels of violence.
Hundreds of migrants die in the Sahara Desert every year. The extreme heat and arid conditions of the Sahara Desert have killed hundreds of migrants trying to reach Libya and European countries, some of whom are abandoned there by unscrupulous smugglers.
Smugglers lie about the safety of the route and modes of transport, particularly boats. From 2014 to mid-2018, 16,850 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Many migrants die crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Two Gambian migrants were reported to have drowned in the Sea. They were many kilometers away from the coast and the sea waves were threatening.
The second main risk is exploitation of people by smugglers. Smugglers are criminals who pretend that both the journey and settling in Europe are easy in order to get money, regardless of what may actually happen to migrants.
Knowing smugglers personally does not mean they will be reliable.
Even if smugglers know a migrant’s family and friends, they can still exploit them and put them in dangerous situations. Often, smugglers pass or sell Gambians to other smugglers enroute.
Smugglers may demand ransoms from family members when migrants run out of money and can no longer pay, they can be very violent and can even kill migrants. Smugglers have shot migrants on the beach in Libya when they refused to get on the boat or, for example, a young Gambian that did not want to give them his baseball cap.
There are many stories of migrants being kidnapped when crossing through countries such as Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Libya. Kidnappers often torture migrants and call their families so they can hear what is happening and demand money for the safe release of the migrant.
One of my friends called Bakary was kidnapped and his brother in The Gambia had to sell his land because his brother, who had taken the back way, was kidnapped in Libya. The kidnappers said they would kill his brother if he did not pay the ransom.
I was also robbed by bandits as we travel through the desert and often lose the few belongings I had.
Instead of supporting our families, we the migrants place a financial burden on our families.
Omar, a 22-year-old Gambian, and his brother were kidnapped and robbed on the border of Burkina Faso and Niger. Their parents sent ransom money, but it wasn’t enough for both of them so the kidnappers kept Omar’s brother. His family is now in debt and in a worse position than before the brothers took the back way journey.
Abuse and exploitation of children and adolescents.
“In January 2017, 39% of Gambians who arrived in Italy were unaccompanied minors.” The United Nations Migration Agency estimates.
Sometimes Gambian children and teenagers steal money and sneak away without telling their family. The younger the migrant the less likely we are aware of all the risks and the complex political, security and economic situations of the countries we are entering.
3 in 4 children and young adults face exploitation while trying to migrate from Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe through the Mediterranean Sea. It is important to talk to young people about the risks faced on the back way.
The irregular migration is particularly risky for children. There have been many reports of children going missing. Unaccompanied minors may be forced to work to pay back smugglers for the costs of their journey, and are then at risk of sexual and labour exploitation.
Unaccompanied minors (migrants under the age of 18 without a parent) are no more likely to get a residence permit than an adult. Each immigration case and asylum application in Europe is considered individually.
Many women experience physical and psychological abuse, torture, rape and enslavement. Perpetrators include criminal gangs, smugglers, traffickers, border guards, police and fellow migrants.
When we arrived in Qatrun, a village in southern Libya, lots of women were forced to turn to prostitution. If the women refused, guards would lock them up in a room for days without food or water. If the guards didn’t think that the women were productive enough, they would sell them on.
Even in Europe, detention facilities and other accommodation centres do not always meet the protection needs of women and girls, and they face multiple levels of harassment. Many Gambian women were told they would get a job as a nanny or in a hair salon, but when they arrived in their destination country they were forced into something else.