It’s been 21 years since Raba Raba (not his real name) returned to The Gambia after a failed attempt to reach Europe. Like many young Gambians, he embarked on the perilous ‘back-way’ journey for economic reasons, attempting to reach the shores of Europe for greener pastures in order to look after the family.
After many years of struggle that took him to Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Niger, Raba Raba finally entered Libya.
“I traveled to Morocco. We tried to smuggle into a refugee camp; unfortunately, we were caught and I got deported to Algeria.
Algeria deported us to Mali, from Mali I went back to Senegal and then returned to The Gambia,” he told me with a wry smile.
But Raba Raba just couldn’t stay in The Gambia. The country’s growing youthful population is clearly faced with high levels of unemploymen.
That’s one reason following his first return, in 2000, Raba Raba embarked on another journey to Europe, saying he couldn’t “settle” in The Gambia.
But he was forced to stay. However, after his father died “I came back, got married, got kids and still trying to settle, still trying to get on. I am fed up you know, with everything. It’s been an everyday struggle since.”
A native of Jarra Sankuya, Raba Raba was born in 1975. He has a wife and five school-going children. Before back-way, he was working for a printing company in the country called ROC. He left because of “pay” issues.
But Raba Raba is not the only returnee “fed up” with life in this impoverished country of two million people.
In recent years, the pursuit for socioeconomic advancement—especially among the youth—has driven many to risk their lives to reach Europe.
Over 35,000 Gambians arrived in Europe by irregular means between 2014 and 2018, with many others in Africa along the Central Mediterranean Route opting for voluntary return, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
Making ends meet
Raba Raba was emotional as he discussed his current financial situation since his return, describing it as “dire”. After a failed taxi job, Raba Raba said he has been thrown into a helter-skelter kind of existence, and because of his tendency to pick up any kind of job to put food on the table, he attracted the nickname ‘Raba Raba’, [a Wolof word for daily struggles].
“I am doing raba raba in the streets because what I learnt is that people would employ you but have zero respect for you, and would not pay you enough money. I used to go to container [business] people, if they trust me, they would give me for example a flat TV screen for D5000. I would go and sell it for D5500 or something like that. I am well known in town. Everywhere I go you hear people call out raba raba or Benghazi. I am a dealer, but a clean dealer. And people trust me,” he explained.
“Sadly that type of dealing cannot take care of me and my family,” he frowned.
There was however some respite for Raba Raba
“Luckily, I met a couple who are now sponsoring my girl child. This raba raba cannot pay for that. I also have a 16-year-old who is unable to complete his education, and is now a painter man.
My other two kids – one is in grade five and the other in primary three.”
Struggles for reintegration
A good number of returnees, especially those that do not fall within the youth bracket of the country, and some who did not return with the IOM and are in the country, continue to struggle to reintegrate.
Some complained of being neglected and told that they are “ineligible” for most of the reintegration programmes being offered in the country because they are either over 35 years (meaning they are non-youths) or were not returned by the IOM.
The IOM and the Youth Empowerment Project, YEP, are among the institutions offering programmes to discourage back-way and reintegrate returnees.
Returnees Karamo Keita, 35, Lamin Kinteh, 41, and Modou Faye, 40, have all been speaking about their heart-wrenching struggles of hardship and frustration in getting on ahead The Gambia.
The IOM cannot help because it did not repatriate them in the first place, and they are over-aged for the YEP programmes.
For Kinteh, who has a family of seven, it is an everyday struggle to make enough money to cover expenses.
On a visit to his 4×4 room-and-parlour home in Wellingara some few months ago—where eight heads live including himself—signs of hardship was apparent; lack of furniture, no bathroom or restroom, with only a sponge as a bed.
A bricklayer, Kinteh realised the urgent need for a new settlement, and has been building since before he left for the back-way a house on a small plot he purchased in a remote area in Mandinaring. He took me to the place and the building was barely knee-high.
Described by those who know him as a hardworking man, Kinteh returned to The Gambia from Libya immediately after Adama Barrow’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, with high expectations for his future and that of his family. But those hopes have since faded.
“It’s a very hard country to get by, especially during the rainy season, we would run out of key provisions,” he admitted.
One thing though he make scraps and keep in the house a bag of rice. “More often than not, I take credit but I always make sure a bag of rice is available in the house”.
Faye also said he has knocked on all doors, from IOM to YEP, but no help has come thus far, and his situation, he said, is worsening by the day. He was repatriated since 2011 and is married with two children.
“We don’t know who will help us,” he told me at his residence in Bakau.
Looting, remigration inevitable
Raba Raba warned that unless meaningful help is given to people like him and other returnees in similar predicament there would be looting at some point, and eventually, remigration.
“Let the government not be promising people that they have built an office here and there.
“I will carry my kids and hit the journey again… Let all of us go to this back-way. [If] anything happens, let it happen. When we go to their offices for them to help us, they just tell you ‘okay, okay, write this and this’, and they ignore you. I don’t want to go and rob somebody’s shop. [It] is not only me suffering. In Kololi, a lot of youths are suffering. If you go to prisons now you find lot of young people there. You must go and break somebody’s door or sell something and drug squads come and arrest you. Gambians are not used to going to these offices like YEP,” he stated.
IOM and YEP react
The government and its development partners have launched numerous programmes over the years to discourage irregular migration.
IOM established its operational presence in 2001, and went on to implement a number of programmes to curb irregular migration and reintegrate returnees.
YEP was also established in 2017 to address the economic root causes of irregular migration by supporting youth employment and entrepreneurship. Many other programmes have been launched or established in the country to this purpose. Yet these initiatives, many argue, have done little if any, in making young people believe greener pastures do exist here and to tap into them.
The IOM’s reintegration programme, for instance, is designed specifically for those returned through IOM’s assistance.
Its communications officer, Miko Alazas, was sympathetic to this specific group of returnees who said they are struggling to reintegrate, however, he praised the efforts of the IOM over the years.
According to him, the IOM has as of November 2019 alone, assisted over 4,900 returnees.
“The committed resources under the project allow us to assist returnees who have returned with IOM’s assistance from January 2017 onward,” he told me via email.
He said the general rule is that all returnees whose voluntary returns were facilitated by IOM from 2017 onward are the ones eligible for reintegration assistance. “For returnees who are not eligible for IOM’s assistance, we endeavor to refer them to other development partners who offer similar programmes,” he clarified.
For Raymond Moser, the project manager of YEP, catering for these specific group of returnees’ calls for a “collective responsibility”.
“This [returning migrants aged over 35] is a new emerging trend and, perhaps in the country, there are no sufficient support mechanisms readily available. We need to look at what’s currently missing,” he told me in his office.
Moser said the best YEP can do for these returnees is to refer them to other institutions for possible support.
He expressed belief that there is light at the end of the tunnel for these strugglers, and his colleague Babucarr Sallah cited a number of projects he said are in the pipeline for this group.
“We are working on a peace building fund with three other UN agencies. Our part in that is to ensure the holistic and sustainable reintegration of returnees, irrespective of age. This is the restart initiative,” Sallah, who is the operations and finance officer for YEP, said.
The Restart Project, launched in July, is designed to support returnees in The Gambia search for jobs.
It does this through coaching and psycho-social and personalise support to achieve career goals, marketing returnees as viable and qualified candidates to employers and connecting them to stable jobs.
“It encourages returnees who are over 35 to come forward. Then the institution would also help to connect them with potential employers in the construction sector, agric-business sector, things like that,” he noted.
Sallah said returnees who talk to journalists without contacting them first could be best explained as a sign of “frustration, but others who have approached us, understand our mandate.”
Moser also encouraged the “frustrated” returnees to not give up, and to continue their search for self-actualisation.
“Let’s connect and help each other. We don’t always need a project to make something happen,” he said.
Distress over EU deportation plans
If Gambian returnees start remigrating, and there is a likelihood of that happening although it is not clear if it is already happening, it would be considered a blow for the EU, whose success rate in returning migrants to Africa is already small.
In 2017, 9 235 of 189 545 (5%) returns were to sub-Saharan African countries. These countries have only a 9 percent return rate compared to 36 percent overall and are trending downward. The number of return decisions issued to West African migrants increased by 80 percent in 2018 to about 40 000, but only 5 200 cases were effective, according to the Institute for Security Studies.
But the EU, whose migration plans before 2015 for Africa included offering more legal visa pathways for migrants, is not fazed by this challenge.
EU Ambassador to The Gambia, Attila Lajos said in July that talks are ongoing between the EU and Gambian authorities to repatriate migrants whose asylum claims have been rejected, with migration and security experts warning that this could exacerbate an already complex security situation for a country in transition.
But Lajos was unequivocal: “One of the basic principles in EU countries is the respect for rule of law… no country will allow illegal migrants in their country,” he said.
One thing that has greatly worsened the migration phenomena is the change of approach of the EU which severely limits offering more legal visa pathways for migrants, according to the ISS.
“Europe has all but abandoned these proposals in the interests of focusing on returning migrants. European governments have recognised the bargaining power of visa liberalisation schemes. Instead of using these important mechanisms, they are reserving them to force negotiations on returns,” the ISS wrote.
A youth activist who works on migration issues in Europe said the lack of reintegration packages for returnees who fall outside of the youth bracket especially is one of the reasons migrants are refusing to return.
“Most of the returnees from Libya and other African countries are affected by this so-called youth bracket. They would come home and realise that they have not been catered for as far as reintegration is concerned because of age issues. It’s discrimination,” Yahya Sanyang told me.
Sanyang calls for the scrapping of the so-called youth bracket system in order to reintegrate all returnees. “There are vulnerable groups who seriously need the help and attention of government. Otherwise youths who are here will never go back despite EU’s plans,” he warned.
But despite efforts to curtail it, irregular migration is not showing signs of abating. In fact, the worst migrant tragedy hit the country this month when 62 Gambians died off the coast of Mauritania, attempting to reach Spain’s Canary Islands – a perilous and poorly-monitored West African coast, forcing President Barrow to make a case for strengthened mechanisms to combat irregular migration.
“We need our youths to stay and work at home. It is very possible to make it at home rather than risking their lives to travel to Europe,” he told journalists.
But for Raba Raba, who said he has been struggling to ‘tekki fii’ (to make it in The Gambia) for years, those comments hold no water.
There is a general feeling for Raba Raba and others in his predicament that things will never change for them in this country, and the alternative is to remigrate, no matter how perilous, in order to live a decent and a fulfilled life.
Alagie Manneh is a senior reporter and news editor for The Standard.