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Migration dilemma: Gambia still at a crossroad


After a year of inactivity, irregular migration has picked up in 2018 though to a slow start. Kerr Fatou tracks progresses and shortcomings on implementation of Gambia’s youth empowerment policies.

The €11 million European Union funded Youth Empowerment Project puts billboards on major road sides in Gambia to sensitise young people on the possibilities of making successful businesses in the country. The billboards feature successful businesses by young people to entice others.

By Mustapha K Darboe

With an unsustainable public debt at 130% to GDP ratio, close to half of the population below poverty line and 38% youth unemployment rate, frustration and impatience is crippling in among young people.

“We have come back because of democracy. We were thinking things will change but the only change here is freedom of speech. The economy remains the same,” said Mustapha Sallah, a man in his late twenties.

Sallah was among the young people who voluntarily returned from Libya through a support programme by International Organisation for Migration in early 2017.

With his colleagues, Sallah formed an association of returnees that goes around sensitizing people on the dangers of the Mediterranean Route.

“Young people are frustrated,” he said.

Irregular migration of youths to Europe largely caused by lack of economic opportunities has been the most popular subject for Gambia’s toughest policy debates for the past decade.

And Sallah’s story is one too many.  Meanwhile, the risky boat journey on the Atlantic Ocean from Gambia to Spain has reemerged in 2018 after a whole year of inactivity. Irregular migration has stalled in 2017.

“We have intercepted two boats in 2018 attempting to leave Gambia, using the Atlantic Ocean to Europe…,” said Superintendent Mamanding S. Dibba, Gambian immigration spokesperson. 

The Senegalese police have also intercepted one boat carrying Gambians intending to reach Europe in early August this year.

And September 26, seventy-two intending irregular migrants on a local fishing boat were rescued along the coastline of Guinea Bissau, by a South American ship from Panama that was heading to Ivory Coast.

39 of the rescued irregular migrants were all Gambians and the remainder Senegalese. All potential migrants are mainly in their youthful ages.

The Atlantic Ocean route which appears to be reemerging was Gambia’s most popular irregular migration route in 2005 and 2006.

“There is a huge risk that ‘back-way’ (irregular migration) can pick up again fast and possibly it could be very deadly,” said Lamin Darboe, the executive director of National Youth Council (NYC).

NYC is the implementing agency under the Ministry of Youths and Sports for youth policies, including youth development.

Source of frustration

Apart from struggling economy, Gambia’s agriculture that used to feed the rural poor has declined significantly in the past decade.

The sector plummeted from employing 70% of the population to 31% in a decade, according to Multi-dimensional Poverty and Inclusive Growth Report, a joint study by United Nations and Gambia government.

Gambia has the highest level of rural-urban migration in Africa, with 58% of the population living in urban centres.

Meanwhile, from January 2017 to March 2018, 8, 681 Gambians were recorded as arriving in Europe by sea. They were the eighth largest nationality of the arrivals and comprised 4.7% of the total.

In 2016, 12, 792 Gambians arrived in Italy and Spain by sea. Thus over 20, 000 Gambians have left their country for Europe since January 2016.

To assess the gravity of the damage irregular migration did to Gambia, Action Aid, an international NGO, did a study on the phenomenon published about

The findings of the study, which assessed two villages from both the south and the north bank of Gambia, was disturbing.

The study found out that the populations of the two communities shrunk by hundreds in few years. In Njaba Kunda on the North Bank of the Gambian river, a village of 3, 600 people, 700 have left for Europe.

And in the past three years, 23 people have died, mainly in the Mediterranean Sea. And in Bwiam on the South Bank 300 had left and 20 died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

EU support

Since the 2016 December elections both donor agencies and various countries felt the need to help the country’s struggling economy.

The European Union announced it was going to release €11 million to support youth empowerment programmes.

The EU also released €3.5 million to help the International Organisation for Migration reintegrate Gambians that they have returned from Libya and other African countries.

“It was because of lack of hope in this country under dictatorship we left and that was why we also came when there was a change,” said Mustapha.

In 2017, IOM budgeted for 1,500 youths in their reintegration programme but ended up returning over 3,651.

“This is a three-year project and we were expecting 1500 returnees but in less than six months, we have had twice that number,” Pierre Jatta, reintegration assistance at the IOM said.

Sluggish growth

Gambia’s economic growth figures have improved from 2.7 in 2017 to 3.5 in 2018 but youths’ despair hasn’t move an inch.

Government and donor interventions have so far proven inadequate.

The study by Action Aid said while the new government is committed to addressing challenges, not all of its policies, nor those of the donors, are positive.

The report said some policies needed to reduce poverty are currently missing.

“The government needs to focus overwhelmingly on agriculture—where some 70% of Gambians earn their livelihoods—while donors—who have caused climate change—should be doing much more to address it in The Gambia,” the report stated.

Darboe of NYC said the projects that the country has targeting the young people are very inadequate.

“The youth unemployment rate in Gambia is about 38%… Basically, that should be 400, 000 people or more and we are talking about projects that are targeting 5000 or even far less,” Darboe said.

“So there is a huge resource gap. And of course that will continue to be a huge pressure and even source of frustration for our youths.”

Funding gaps

Currently, Gambia has two EU-funded projects that are directed at helping young people.

One of them, the €11 million Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) being implemented by International Trade Center, aims to support 4000 youths in skills development and 4000 youths in entrepreneurship and access to finance.

YEP has already trained 1531 in various skill areas such as construction, mobile repairs, tech and others, said Modou Touray, the project’s technical advisor and monitoring and evaluation specialist.

But like IOM, YEP is struggling to meet quarter of the demands for their trainings.

“The need out there and the resources available is a huge gap… YEP is just €11 million. If you have to train every youth at a cost of $250 to $300, you cannot train up to 10, 000 people and give them the necessary support,” said Touray.

And YEP’s €11 million is the entire project money including its administrative cost with some staff who are expatriates.

For YEP, the cost of training per person is between US$200 to $300.

Baboucarr Sallah, the project operations and finance officer, said sometimes they could only select 10% of the people who apply for their trainings because of limited resources.

Aside from the YEP and the IOM reintegration programmes, Gambia government has very limited resources to invest in youth empowerment policies.

President Adama Barrow announced on September 14 that his Government will dedicate D1.3 billion towards poverty eradication.  However, it remains to be seen how much youths related projects will benefit from this fund.


Despite the good intentions, the projects that are currently being implemented by the ITC and the IOM are not without criticisms.

According to the Action Aid study, criticism against the YEP is the fact that the country’s key migration aid project is outsourced to an international NGO “coordinated by an expatriate”.

Similar criticisms are leveled against the EU €3.5 million which is being managed by IOM.

But despite the inadequate funding and control by outside agencies of key migrant aid funds, some project areas have failed.

The IOM officials told Kerr Fatou that they monitor their reintegration projects to ensure success. However, the returnees poultry farm project in Salikenni which started last year has failed.

One of the benefactors of a poultry farm supported by the project, Demba Njie, said they were not given the adequate training and capital for the survival of the project.

Within a year, the poultry collapsed and Njie blamed this on the inability to feed the poultry.

Gambia’s young democracy may have brought about hope for the future but prosperity is still a distant dream for many of her young people.



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