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Friday, December 8, 2023

Yahya Sonko, Germany-based migration activist

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With Alagie Manneh

You are a son of Niumi but left The Gambia as a young man to resettle in Germany. How did you travel to the Western European country and was it difficult to adjust?

Leaving The Gambia through the horrible ‘backway’ to Europe was quite a difficult decision for me, and I witnessed a lot of horrible things on the way, difficulties faced by migrants. In fact, I met Gambians on the way, some of whom spent years trying to make it to Europe. Upon arrival in Europe, it felt like we were not welcomed. The so-called greener pastures that we thought back home in The Gambia were here in Europe were nowhere to be seen. In Italy, some of the citizens are just like Africans, I mean they live like Africans. And clothing, food, was just so difficult particularly for me as a migrant in my first months here. To adjust to that situation is one of the most difficult things for a lot of Gambians especially when you consider the difficult and bureaucratic asylum system that lies ahead of us. It was a very difficult decision I had to make, but because of lack of opportunities for youths in The Gambia, coupled with the dictatorship at the time I felt I had no choice but to leave my teaching job for ‘backway’.

What did you study there and why?

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I learned a lot, and studied migration management, human trafficking and human development.

Yours is a loud and respected voice in the broader migration struggle. What motivated you to become a migration activist?

I am an eyewitness to many inhuman treatments of Gambians during my journey to Europe. Mostly because we are never informed about the dangers and difficulties of the ‘backway’. I decided it was best for me to lend a voice and hand in enlightening people about the dangers involved, and helping those migrants who remain in distress and anxious as a result of the situations they sometimes find themselves in. Since I arrived in Europe in 2015, again, I have seen a lot of injustice, unfair treatment of African migrants and systematic racism actually, in Europe. All these are factors responsible for my pro-migration stance.

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In May 2020, you established Niumi FM? Why?

For two main reasons: one, Niumi was lacking or missing out on a lot in terms of communication and knowledge on current happenings. Since independence, the people of Niumi depend only on Radio Gambia or few other radio stations in the Kombos. They never had the chance to have a radio station situated in Niumi. They were left just like that. Secondly, since 2012, Niumi has been in the media headlines for being a hotbed for irregular migration. Barra and other surroundings became targets for human traffickers, so Niumi FM was established to help inform people about the dangers of  irregular migration, but also about the issues affecting their daily lives and livelihoods.

As a refugee speaker in the state of Baden-Württemberg, what role did you play in the larger integration of Gambian migrants in Germany?

During my time at the Council, I played a key role and served as a network between the refugee Council and Gambians in Baden-Württemberg. I helped to share latest integration and asylum procedures and updates, organised online workshops  where many Gambians participated, and helped individual Gambians be in contact with the refugee Council for their asylum issues. I also informed a lot of Gambians about the role and importance of the Refugee Council of Baden- württemberg, which was immense.

Why do you think the anti-immigration sentiment is on the rise in Europe? Why do you think is it difficult for the EU to accept and integrate these migrants?  

The main driver of the anti-Immigration movement in Europe is the symbolic threat that immigrants present to the national culture and values, or at least that is the narrative in most quarters. Oftentimes, Muslim values are seen as antagonistic to Western values. Also the portrayal of immigrants as a threat is not quite helping the situation. There is also the perception that immigrants lower wages and limit job options for native workers. Many also believe that migrants place a burden on the welfare system and that is often used to paint them as a financial burden on most European countries. But at the heart of everything I think is European culture, and the influx of migrants is seen sometimes to be negatively shaping it.

You work directly with Gambian migrants. Do you have figures of how many are scheduled for deportation across the EU zone?

More than 6500 Gambians are scheduled to leave the EU zone as of December 2022.

Can you tell us how many deportees you think The Gambia has to accept for the EU to lift the visa restrictions imposed on The Gambia in 2022?

Looking at the numbers of undocumented Gambian migrants in the various EU States, The Gambia can never satisfy the EU with regard to accepting deportees, because the EU is looking  at the figures of undocumented Gambians. The EU is having more than 20,000 undocumented Gambians across the zone who they feel should leave. On the other hand, The Gambia government knows very well that they just don’t have the capacity to continue accepting and reintegrating such a significant high number of deportees.

Do you think The Gambia government is doing enough with regard to assisting its undocumented citizens across the EU?

The Gambia government is not doing enough to help youths in the Diaspora. From 2017 to date, our government could not establish or have even a correct data of Gambian migrants in the EU. They continue to flip-flop with different figures. I don’t think you can even contemplate helping your citizens in the EU if you don’t even have correct data on how many of them are currently based in Europe. So there is an urgent need for The Gambia government to return to the drawing board, and eventually re-negotiate most of the policies they agreed with the EU with regard to migration, especially the so-called Good Practices Document. Only then can they truly begin helping their own, underlined by mutual respect between themselves and their European counterparts. Generally, The Gambia government is communicating well in migration management, but good communication can be a migration management tool that provides many benefits. They must understand that clear information, communicated transparently, can make migration more orderly and manageable. It can also increase awareness of the basis for migration policy and initiatives.

You have been in the migration struggle for close to a decade now. What is your long game? What do you hope to achieve?

To provide Gambian youths with reliable information and training on migration issues  and deportations through social media, thereby helping individuals make informed decisions regarding migration and, if they choose to migrate, allowing them to be aware of safer, legal migration options. I also promote engagement, education, and entrepreneurship at home as a way to strengthen economic and social resilience

Interesting perspectives, Mr Sonko. Now let’s turn to politics. How do you see Gambian politics?

I think the politics of my country The Gambia is still not balanced. What I am trying to say is that it is our constitutional right for all of us to choose which political grouping or institution that you want to group with or support, but sadly, in The Gambia that is not the case. If you choose to support a party that is not in ruling, you are usually seen as a threat, and often not considered in terms of support and development. As a result this has affected the politics of my country Youths are very interested in Gambian politics, but the problem is you either support the government in power or you won’t be supported by the government, and it should not be that way. So, I feel Gambian politics is not moving. We are yet to fully understand the true meaning of politics in my opinion.

You have been domiciled in Germany for many years now. Do you see yourself coming back and playin an active role in The Gambia’s development?

Yes, I am working towards coming down and fimally settling in The Gambia one day, probably not this year, but it is my long-term plan. As you already know, I established Niumi FM, and currently, I am working on establishing two other companies in Niumi. One is to open a big bakery where Niumi people will have a modern bakery. The second company I would like to establish is what I call “green keeping” company. If you know Niumi very well, it is a farming zone, gardening, farming, agriculture. This is what our mothers and fathers in Niumi rely on, and I think they are not being supported that much. As an entrepreneur who is financially managing my life well, I am thinking of opening this company, and the Niuminkas will get access to quality machines, fast machines. Efficient machines that will help them in their garden operations. This is my intention and plan for the near future.

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