The Gambia’s Unprecedented Migration Wave And The Need for Clarity From Hon. Hamat Bah  

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By Ousman Gajigo PhD, Rome, Italy

Recently, Mr. Hamat Bah, the Minister of Tourism, made some waves when he declared that Gambian migrants should return and marry wives. While Mr. Bah further clarified his comments and more individuals chimed in, few of the exchanges were based on actual data. So my goal in this piece is to provide some empirical data on the recent Gambian migration phenomenon. While most of us know that a large number of Gambians have gone to Europe over the past couple of years through the “backway”, few are aware of the magnitude and trends.

Gambians have migrated to Europe and other neighboring African countries for decades. In fact, the migration preceded the Jammeh regime, which is why the cause cannot be exclusively attributed to that dark chapter of our country. One way of appreciating the importance of migration to the country is the fact that the value of remittances received relative to GDP by The Gambia is one of the highest on the continent. For instance, The Gambia received around US $181 million in remittances by 2014, which was about 22% of our national income or GDP. Only one other country (Liberia) in ECOWAS receives such a high level of remittance relative to GDP. To put this in context, this absolute value of remittances is significantly higher than the total foreign direct investment coming into the country in that same period. The top 5 sources of these remittances between 2010 and 2014 were: Spain (30%), the US (16%), UK (13%), Germany (7.2%) and Sweden (7.2%). However, it is important to point out that these countries where the bulk of our remittances are coming from are populated by migrants that largely left the country more than a decade ago.

The recent wave of migration through Libya that has come to be known as the “backway” is different both quantitatively and qualitatively. First, the scale of the migration started to pick-up precisely when economic situation in Western Europe turned unfavorable due to the financial crisis that started in 2008. This means that the economic opportunity that is partly pulling Gambian migrants is simply not there.

What distinguishes this latest generation of migration is its sheer scale and gender skewedness. The number of migrants originating from The Gambia over the past decade is not only high relative to our small population but quite so even in absolute terms when compared to other West African countries with much bigger populations. Data quality is always an issue as The Gambia does not keep record of migrants embarking on the “backway” journey. Fortunately, European countries do. Specifically, Eurostat (a European-level statistical agency) keeps detailed record of migrants that apply for asylum. By necessity, virtually all migrants file applications for asylum to prevent immediate deportation proceedings being put in place. So the number of asylum seekers in European countries provides a good (though not perfect) measure of the number of African migrants.

The number of Gambian migrants applying for asylum in all European countries between 2008 and 2016 reached a total 52,615. This number refers to first time applicants, so it therefore does not include any duplicate applications. As the graph below shows, this figure started from 1,130 applicants in 2008 to 16,760 applicants in 2016.

How large are these numbers? To appreciate how large these numbers are, it suffices to compare them with similar numbers from neighboring countries. For example, Senegal, which has 6 times the population of The Gambia, has about 9,810 migrants filing for asylum in Europe in 2016. As can be seen in the graph below, the number from The Gambia far exceeds those originating from the neighboring countries even though these countries have larger populations than us. In fact within ECOWAS, only Nigeria produces more migrants/asylum seekers in Europe than Gambians.

It is also worth pointing out that most of these Gambian migrants are young males. Specifically, about 80% of the Gambian migrants are between the age of 18 and 34 when they filed their asylum applications in Europe. And in 2016, 97% were male. In fact, the average male percentage of migrants/asylum seekers was 85% between 2008 and 2016.

So the comment by Minister Bah is not without some basis in reality given the gender skewedness. What is clear is that the size of Gambian migrants going through the “backway” to Europe is unusually high and is composed mostly of young males. So we should not be surprised if there is a relative “shortage” of marriage-age young men in the country as a result.

As a senior government official though, Mr. Bah owes the country a more concrete policy proposal to address the underlying reasons for this high migration rates rather than mere exhortation for young men to return and marry. As a Gambian living in Italy, I have come across a large number of young men who are languishing in various Italian cities without jobs they imagined would be waiting for them. It worth mentioning that about 63% of all Gambian asylum applicants in Europe were filed in Italy. Some of these Gambians today can be found in migrant camps, public-provided housing (and supported by charities) and around train stations.

There are both “pull” factors (the promise of better economic prospects in Europe) and “push” (economic factors in The Gambia) factors explaining our country’s high migration rate. For now, I will skip the discussion of the push factors. Key among the pull factors is the hope among the migrants that jobs and economic opportunities await them in Europe. In the current European economic climate, this couldn’t be further from the reality. The unemployment rate in Italy today is 12% overall but 34% among the youth. In Spain, the unemployment rate is 18.4% overall and 39.3% among the youth. Even those that have managed to make it deeper into Europe, the situation is hardly different. In European countries with better economic environment such as Germany or Sweden, these countries have already taken in more than a million refugees. This means that the appetite and opportunities for unskilled migrants is very limited there as well. The end result of these factors is that a large number of migrants are stuck in Italy and other European countries without any economic opportunities, while at the same time carrying the burden of family expectations now that they have reached European shores. Having spoken to some of these youths, several have freely admitted that they would not have made the journey had they known this would be the situation after all the hardships of the trip. It is instructive to note that, despite Italy accounting for over 60% of Gambian migrants in Europe over the past threes, the country does not feature among the top 5 sources of remittances. This fact reflects the limited opportunities in that country – a fact that is not known to most migrants before their arrival.

It is also the case that virtually all migrants from The Gambia have very little information about the difficulties that await them along the arduous journey, particularly in Libya. By now, most of us have seen stories of migrants being traded in modern-day “slave” markets in Libya. In fact, many families have even received phone calls from criminal gangs demanding payments so that a relative could be freed from being kidnapped. Finally, hardly anyone needs to be reminded of the frequent tragic news of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

While it may take time to address the “push” factors even if the best policies are implemented, there is a great scope for actions that yield immediate benefits in terms of providing accurate information about the state of economic affairs in Europe, as well as the reality in Libya. For instance, information campaign that documents the plight of migrants in Libya is particularly needed in Gambia. In addition, the plight of migrants in Europe, particularly in Italy where the bulk of them live, would also lessen the pull effect. Documentaries on GAMTV or radio Gambia can accomplish this with only a limited budget. While this would not be sufficient to completely stop the “backway” migration, it would be a worthwhile investment by the government because many individuals would think twice before embarking on the perilous journey if the likelihood of having job in the current European economic environment is almost zero. These words would have more forceful effect coming from peer who has actual experienced the disappointing journey.

Migration would be beneficial for migrants, their originating countries and destinations if they end up being economically productive rather than undertaking a costly trip and idling away. This is not the case with current “backway” phenomenon. For as long as economic opportunities for migrants remain low in Europe and Libya continues to be a hell on earth, the fewer the number of migrants, the better for all.



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