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Thursday, November 30, 2023

Sweeping the sands of the Sahara and the Mediterranean – weathering the storms of illegal migration

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With Mohammed Hassan Loum

Fellow Gambians and Africans, please we kindly supplicate and beg you not to go the ‘back way’ to Europe. If you really must go based on justified legitimate needs and reasons, then please do so through safe and legal front ways. Your life and dignity are by far more precious than any foreign currency you wish to earn and send back home in order to lead the good life. Due to this ‘back way’, wives and children have been abandoned and left to fend for themselves; old parents deserted when they need the support and company of their offspring the most; rural populations which were slowly dying because of rural–urban migration, are now completely dead; our men and young boys are being reduced in their strongest numbers; and future hopes for husbands and fathers are dying senselessly at sea and land trying to make it to the other greener side of the pasture.

We can definitely change our continent to become a better Europe or America if we but started truly believing, making and taking meaningful small steps toward this journey of transforming Africa for the best. According to the Central Bank of The Gambia, remittances as a percentage of The Gambia’s GDP has grown from 4% in the 1990s to nearly 10% of GDP in 2011. Remittances have surpassed foreign direct investment as the biggest source of financial inflow. But then so what? Is the loss of one migrant’s life through the ‘back way’ worth all of the above figures multiplied ten times? Happiness, self fulfilment and lifetime achievements cannot be measured only by financial and material gains. There is much more to it than just that.

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My primary goal here is to unequivocally discourage anyone considering going the ‘back way’ or even contemplating helping someone who is planning to take this dangerous suicidal route. Know that the activities of smugglers to take people to Europe via the ‘back way’ is criminalised in this country as trafficking in persons. It is prohibited to gamble with our money. The prohibition is even greater when one tries to gamble with another’s life. A clear and present major risk with a very high probability is that illegal immigrants going the ‘back way’ to Europe eventually face painful deaths on land or at sea. Let us look at some of the dangers even before departure. Certain unscrupulous parents sell valuable belongings, deplete life savings and enter into lifelong debts just to fund such illegal trips to Europe.

Some coerce sons and daughters to risk the uncertain crossing because the families of so-and-so crossed and made it big time. Huge sums of monies and wealth are used to sponsor these illicit journeys, wherein just a fraction could have been safely invested in small-scale businesses which could have yielded manageable incomes and help sustain improved livelihoods. Have such parents calculated that after spending such huge sums, the probability to fail is far higher than the possibility to succeed and immediately start reaping the fruits of such illegal and risky investments? Illegal immigrants who do not have the support of families and go about sponsoring their own back way excursions, personally enter into huge debts which are later on inherited by their poor families, especially after the unforeseen demise of the illegal migrant. As part of their shortsightedness, some would not tell any soul a word about their travel plans, only to die somewhere in a hot desert or some wide sea expanse never to be heard of again by families and friends.

For the unfortunate few who make the tedious Sahara crossing to Libya, they endure untold horror and peril crossing the desert. Their food and water rations finish quickly when they get lost in waves of sand dunes, and end up painfully and slowly dying due to extreme weather conditions such as heavy sandstorms, intense heat during the day and extreme cold at night resulting in dehydration and starvation. For the unlucky few who make it across the desert by the grace of Allah with barely an ounce of strength remaining in their battered bodies, they must muster the last vestiges of superhuman energy to further brave more life-threatening dangers in Libya.

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You could have almost tasted and felt the tense and heavy emotions of angry public outcries when videos reached us of Gambian and African migrants being sold in Libyan public markets as slaves. You could feel the desperation, hopelessness, shock, dismay and utter sorrow when we watched documentaries and life testimonies of torture, rape and other forms of despicable and unimaginable human abuse. Before safely escaping Libya and making it across to some European country along the European coastline, you will have to pay very high extortive prices demanded by the gang of smugglers. If you succeed to a boat, then voila, there is the Mediterranean with its own unique challenges and ordeals.

The first thing you realise when you reach Libya’s Mediterranean coastline to board boats to Europe is that the boats are inadequate and are likely to disintegrate and sink even before reaching mid way to the destination. The mind soliloquises: Now is the point of no return. I have not come this far to fail. I have risked it this far and paid so much money, spent so much energy, time and effort to now simply return shamed and subdued. The boat is bad but other people, including women and children are boarding, and perhaps I might just make it across or may be get rescued by charity boats. Two or three days into the Mediterranean journey, disaster strikes. You are completely lost at sea. Fuel and food are finished and water has also ran out. People are sick and dying next to you. Suffering from dehydration, hunger, hypothermia and drowning at sea if the boat capsises. You could even contract some form of highly contagious disease, virus or infection due to being jam packed into tiny rickety boats like sardines. Deep regrets sink in, and you keep on saying, “Had I known”. Now the law of the jungle applies. Survival of the fittest and a dog-eat-dog situation. The weak are thrown overboard by the strong. Scavenge all you can get from the weak and dying ones. Have you looked into the eyes of an illegal migrant who went the whole nine yards of the ‘back way’ journey and returned? Many are traumatised, having firsthand witnessed the many inexplicable horrors of being lost at sea with fellow passengers dying or being killed just next to them. Underneath the bravado of acting tough, a soul has been forever destroyed.

The bitter truth is that there is no Eldorado in Europe and there are no guarantees whatsoever that illegal migrants will successfully reach their destinations or even make it in life once they have reached their destination. Europe has its own huge problems to deal with: poverty, youth unemployment and general insecurity. Europe can no longer pretend to welcome illegal migrants in their countries and claim to be able to cope with the very high demands and pressures of huge numbers welcomed and non-welcomed migrants arriving at the shores of Europe. It is no secret that European governments are tightening and making more stringent refugee and asylum seeking measures. So many illegal migrants who have gone and have been returned either forcefully or voluntarily are regretting that they never spent huge amounts of monies, time and energies to embark upon a lost cause.

For them their beautifully hoped for dreams turned out to actually become their worst nightmares. Recently, we have witnessed the painful deportations of Gambians who were in Europe and the US for many years, had children there and even established good businesses with employees. All of a sudden, they were rounded up with chains like criminals and put on planes with nothing to come home with. For the many who have made it past Libya, they are still in the peripheries of Europe, incarcerated and disillusioned in poor-conditioned detention camps, starving without adequate food (if not for the charitable efforts of few good Samaritans), without any freedom of movement and gainful employment, seriously regretting that they had never left the warmth, welcome and peaceful security of their homes.

Migrants are known to have faked fleeing from political persecutions, fabricated stories of extreme poverty, and falsified travel documents just to get to Europe as refugees and asylum seekers. Some have applied for visas more than a dozen times from different embassies in different countries and received the same replies of flat rejections. Those non-refundable visa application fees could have built a small cozy hut for a very contented and forever grateful villager somewhere in Loum Kunda. Some have left well paying jobs to go to Europe through the ‘back way’, only to come back home through the front way empty-handed with heavy regrets and are now asking for petty donations whereas they used to be fine donors themselves. So what are the main drive and pull or push factors to go to Europe other than perhaps misplaced greed? To compete in the construction of big and high houses? Drive fancy cars and live overhyped flamboyant lifestyles of “semesters” with many mistresses! For how long and at what cost? This dunya (world) has enough to satisfy everyone’s needs but not everyone’s greed.

Allah SWT in describing man’s lustful and greedy intrinsic nature stated in the noble Qur’an in Surat Al Imran, verse 14: “Beautified for men is the love of things they covet; women, children, much of gold and silver (wealth), branded beautiful horses, cattle and well-tilled land. This is the pleasure of the present world’s life; but Allah has the excellent return (Paradise with flowing rivers, etc.) with Him”.
Ibn ‘Abbâs narrated: I heard the Messenger of Allah Prophet Muhammad (SAW) saying, “If a son of Adam had a valley full of gold, he would desire to have two. Nothing can fill his mouth except the dust (of his grave). Allah turns with mercy to him who turns to Him in repentance.” [Bukhari (6437) and Muslim (1049)].
Amr bin Auf (RA) narrates that Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said: “By Allah I do not fear poverty and starvation overtaking you, but I fear that you will have abundant wealth at your disposal as it had been at the disposal of the nations before you. You will then become extremely greedy in accumulating this wealth just as the previous nations had done. This (greed) will be the cause of your ruin and destruction just as it destroyed the people before you”.

[Bukhari (3158) and Muslim (2961)]. To our youths we say, dance at home before you dance abroad. Africa needs you more than Europe needs you. Your parents, siblings, wives and children need you. Stay at home and help us grow. Engage in and take full advantage of national youth development schemes such as the Youth Empowerment Project with the Ministry of Trade. Empower yourselves with the true knowledge and information on the futility of risking precious lives through the back way, just as it would be utterly senseless and useless to sweep sand in the Sahara desert intending to clean it. If the obstinate potential illegal migrant presents to you distorted understandings of Divine Destiny and the defiance of death, then counter it by simply and truthfully saying: ‘It is also the Will of Allah (God) for you not to choose to die painful deaths by going the ‘back way’ to Europe’.

To foreign organisations with so-called beneficial migrant projects for The Gambia and Africa, know that we empathise more with our continent and our people. Do not sit behind richly furnished desks perhaps completed by cheap migrant labour, designing unclear migrant project concept notes and activities without actively involving the right local officials in their planning and or validation before implementation. Do not enter into our countries and use our local human resources to collect your data without officially involving the proper stakeholders for this would be grossly unfair and unjust. Yes we do need each other in order to collectively curb the current trends and weather the storms of illegal migration, this should however not be done at the expense of one or the other.

To those whom the Sahara and the Mediterranean have swallowed, we pray for your salvation and safe delivery in the afterlife. To those who have gone and returned, we say this is not the end. You cannot bow down your heads now in defeat. No, we refuse and shall not let you. Please man up and quadruple that same determination you had many years, months, weeks or even a day ago and you shall make it even bigger here at home inshaa’Allah. We are with you. We pray for you and we support you. After hardships come ease. Definitely after hardships comes ease. Know that you have been blessed and given good second chance opportunities in life, so make the most and the best out it. To the one STILL contemplating going to Europe through the ‘back way’, we say life is too short to waste and gamble. Make the best hay while the sun shines and grow your own Eldorado in your own backyards. Let us be patient with the little or much that Allah SWT has blessed us with. Allah SWT truly loves those who are patient and repentant. Allah SWT bless and keep us all safe.

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