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Torn away from everyday life: The story of a deported Gambian family

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By Alagie Manneh

Over the years, the EU has made the government in Banjul compliant when it comes to deportations, writes migration journalist Alagie Manneh.

“I wanted to start a new life with my husband,” said Zainab Mballow. That was her hope when the couple came to Germany from The Gambia in 2014. The couple fled during the reign of dictator Yahya Jammeh. Hundreds of thousands left the country during his authoritarian rule in search of better prospects. And like many Gambian migrants, Zainab and her husband reached the shores of Europe in overloaded boats, and moved on to Germany. “I gave birth to all seven of my children there,” said Mballow. Among them are two sets of twins.

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But she was not meant to stay there. The Gambia is one of the countries of origin with the lowest asylum recognition rate in the EU. The recognition rate for Gambians in 2022 was less than 10 percent, according to figures from the European Asylum Agency (EUAA). The European asylum authorities usually reject their asylum applications as “unfounded” – and try to send people back to The Gambia.

This was also the case for the Mballows: After nine years of residence, officers from the federal police entered her apartment in Titisee near Freiburg in Baden-Württemberg on the morning of November 18 without prior notice. That morning, she was preparing her children for kindergarten and school. “I told them that my children had to go to school. But they insisted that we had to go back,” says Mballow.

They had two hours to pack their things. Then the family was driven to a police station where they waited for a bus to Munich airport. From there, she and her husband – who had been working in Germany – were put on a plane and flown to Banjul in The Gambia.

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Like thousands of Gambians, the family’s asylum applications had been rejected. They are now in a state of “shock and desperate” as they have to get used to life in The Gambia again.

The family now lives in a poor area of Banjul. They have no source of income. Fatima, the eldest daughter, has developed a skin disease, and in December 2023 another child was hospitalised for several days due to chest pains. “The children are no longer themselves. They find it difficult to cope with life here,” said Mballow. 

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In Baden-Württemberg, Gambians are the largest group among those required to leave the country. According to the Federal Ministry of the Interior, there are around 6,500 Gambians living in Germany who are required to leave the country. In 2023, 394 people from The Gambia were deported from Germany – out of 13,100 deportations. This is a relatively high proportion for the small country. But it wasn’t always like this. Over the years, the EU has made the government in Banjul compliant when it comes to deportations, imposing visa and travel restrictions amongst other measures.

The EU Council said in October that only a “substantial and sustained improvement in the cooperation on readmission can be established”, saying that the frequency of returns to The Gambia was still not sufficient.

“…the cooperation with The Gambia on readmission is still not sufficient with regard to assistance provided in the identification of Gambian nationals illegally staying on the territory of all Member States and the timely issuance of travel documents. Additionally, capacity or frequency of charter flights should be increased to allow for a sustainable reduction of the number of persons illegally staying in the Member States.”

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), over 33,000 Gambians entered Europe irregularly between 2015 and 2020. More than 20,000 are currently living there as deportees. If the authorities have their way, this number should fall quickly. They have therefore been putting pressure on the new government in The Gambia for some time.

Chipping in on the debate, EU ambassador to The Gambia Corrado Pampaloni pointed to international laws requiring The Gambia to take back its citizens. “The Gambia is obliged to take back citizens that have exhausted their legal remedies to remain in Europe,” he said.

The Gambia and the EU signed a readmission agreement known as a “good practice document” back in 2018. It was intended to make it easier for the EU to deport rejected asylum seekers without travel documents – such as the Mballow family. Such agreements are very unpopular in Africa. The Gambian government initially denied the existence of the agreement – and then suspended it again from 2019:

In February 2019, The Gambia withdrew permission for chartered collective deportation flights, and from June to October 2019, deportations on scheduled flights were also suspended.

“In the year 2023, almost 400 Gambians were repatriated from Germany.“

That year, 3,730 Gambian nationals were deported from the EU, with 405 returning to The Gambia. With this return rate of 11 percent, The Gambia is in line with the average for African countries of origin. The EU has been trying for years to increase the rate to 30 percent.

One of the reasons why this has been so unsuccessful is that many of those rejected do not have passports. Without them, however, they cannot be deported. The Gambian authorities – and those of many other countries of origin – often do not comply with requests from European immigration authorities to issue deportation papers.

In 2019, for example, there were 1,066 so-called “readmission requests” from the EU to the Gambian authorities. These issued 606 travel documents. This was too few, according to EU officials.

According to an internal EU document, the member states complain that the Gambian authorities “never or almost never” adhere to the agreements for the preparation of deportations. Three member states therefore concluded bilateral deportation agreements with The Gambia in 2019.

Under pressure from the EU, The Gambia initially agreed to grant landing permits to the deportation charters again from 2020. But then the Covid pandemic interrupted the repatriations.

The Gambia is the first country where the EU has made use of a new instrument to increase willingness to cooperate in deportations:

The visa restrictions were tightened further in November 2022. And the deportation machinery got going again – also on the basis of the “Good Practice Document”, which had been revitalised in the meantime. The Gambia allowed the landing of monthly deportation charter flights from the EU, which also brought the Mballows to Banjul.

“In 2023, almost 400 Gambians were repatriated on the basis of the Good Practice Document,” said Gambian activist Yahya Sonko, who lives in Baden-Württemberg. “The last Flight in 2023 with 35 people on board landed in December.”

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Sonko believes that no country today cooperates more with the EU on deportations than The Gambia. “The government hopes that visa restrictions will be lifted and that the EU will keep its promises for development aid.”

The director of Diaspora and Migration Affairs at the foreign affairs ministry, Musa Camara, said that every country including The Gambia reserves the prerogative to deport particular migrants.

“We as a government have a responsibility to accept them. Yes. That is all I can tell you about this case,” he justified.

But as The Gambia cooperates with the EU in accepting its citizen deportees – probably out of fear of the dire consequences – those repatriated, like the family of Zainab Mballow, continue to find it difficult to adjust and get their lives back on track.

This article was originally published by German-based Taz newspaper, as part of a six-months journalism fellowship programme also supported by the German foreign ministry. The views expressed in this independent article do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Taz. 

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