By Landing Ceesay
The Republic of the Gambia and Turkey have maintained a very strong diplomatic relationship, since the era of The Gambia’s first President, Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara.
The diplomatic relationship between Turkey and the tiny West African nation was established in 1965, following The Gambia’s independence from Britain. The bilateral relation between the two countries initially advanced through the military domain, as well as at the international forums such as the United Nations (UN) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which have become more comprehensive and multifaceted, following the opening of embassies in Ankara and Banjul in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
In June 2018, the Government of the Republic of Turkey donated to the Gambia 20 buses to help improve the country’s public transportation system. The buses were handed over to President Adama Barrow in Banjul at a ceremony attended by several government officials.
In a subsequent donation made in September 2018, the Turkish government donated military equipment to the Gambia Army. The donated items included 5,000 sets of uniforms, 1,359 cartridges and belts, 5,000 water bottles, 50 five-man tents, and 50- 20-man tents.
The presentation of the donated army pieces of equipment took place at the military headquarters in the capital, Banjul.
In January 2019, The Republic of Turkey through its Embassy, donated some military outfits and accessories to the Gambia Armed Forces worth US$1.4 million. This was also presented at Defence Headquarters in Banjul. The US$1.4 million donation was meant to strengthen the Gambia’s security sector, in their stride to protect lives and property in the country.
Turkey’s government’s most recent donation to the Gambia occurred earlier this year when it gifted two Katmerciler Hizir armoured personnel carriers vehicles to the Gambian military to further deepen their relations. The two vehicles were handed over to the Chief of Defence Staff of the Gambia Armed Forces at the Defence Headquarters in Banjul in October 2022.
On a trip to Turkey in 2018, President Barrow and President Erdogan signed various bilateral agreements in Ankara. Turkey’s relationship with The Gambia has strengthened under the Barrow administration with the two countries cooperating in the areas of commerce, education, economy, health, and security, among other sectors.
However, despite the deep-rooted positive relationship between the two countries, Gambian migrants in Turkey especially undocumented Gambians, are reportedly faced with numerous challenges including deportation. Several Gambians have reportedly either been deported or jailed for residing in Turkey without residential permits.
One of our sources in Turkey revealed that the Turkish authorities are arresting and deporting undocumented Gambians and undocumented migrants from other countries.
“The Turkish authorities are arresting foreigners without a residential permit, including Gambians. They’re treating those without residential permits in a very serious manner, and they are so strict about it. Both day and night, they’re in the streets arresting foreigners and deporting those without valid residential permits, including Gambians,” a source in Istanbul, Turkey told this reporter.
Our source laments the fear these deportations have caused among Gambians in Istanbul, Turkey.
“We used to have 10 football teams and compete among ourselves for fun, but since the authorities in Istanbul started arresting and deporting foreigners, we no longer have those teams because everyone is afraid.”
With the current situation and trend in deportations, our source believes conditions for Gambians in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey will get worse in December.
“We have many Gambian players here. Some played for the national team and others in the First Division in the Gambia. They were all playing here, but now all these players are no longer playing because of the police in Turkey,” he said
The source who spoke on condition of anonymity appealed for the intervention of the Gambia Government to help remedy the situation as the Senegalese government did for its citizens facing similar challenges.
“We are calling on The Gambia Government to help us and talk to the Government of Turkey so that we can have residential permits. The Senegalese Government did the same thing for its citizens. Now Senegalese are enjoying it here because they have residential permits. So we want the Gambia Government to do the same thing and help us,” he added.
The source told this reporter that Turkish authorities sometimes visit their houses and arrest them. He said some of them will prefer to be jailed in The Gambia to being jailed in Turkish prisons.
“If you visit prisons in Turkey now, there are more Gambians locked up in their prisons than in any other African countries. We want the Gambia Government to help us and engage the authorities as the Senegalese government did for their people,” he emphasized.
Another source who spoke to this medium confirmed that Turkish Police are indeed arresting and deporting foreigners including Gambians and that sometimes the Police do visit their homes and arrest them.
“Many times they detained people for weeks or months and released them. However, if they (Turkish Police) find on you any document that shows proof of where you came from (Nationality), they can deport you without informing even the Gambian Embassy,” our source revealed.
The source further disclosed that in instances where the Turkish Police don’t know your country of origin, they force you to sign documents authorizing your deportation.
“And if you refuse to sign, they can detain you for months, or as long as they want. This happens to every nationality, not only Gambians,” he narrated.
Asked about the role of the Gambian Association in Turkey, when it comes to engaging the Turkish authorities; our source declared that the police in Turkey do not listen to anyone, not even the Gambian Ambassador. The only thing that saves one from deportation, he surmised, is maintaining a valid Residential Permit.
“Here in Turkey, there is nothing like applying for asylum. You can only apply for a Residential Permit with a new visa, or when your government intervenes on your behalf with the authorities in Turkey.” the source added.
He further indicated that the Gambian Association in Istanbul spoke to the Gambia Government through the country’s Ambassadors, and also had communications with the Former Foreign Minister, Former Vice President, as well as President Adama Barrow during his visit to Turkey in 2018, but nothing surfaced from those outreaches.
He conveyed that the Gambian Ambassador at the time, Sering Modou Njıe, did an amazing job for them in Turkey, and got them their first approval to get residential permits. However, before he (Ambassador Njie) finished his project, he was appointed Minister of Defence and left the country.
“When the former Ambassador (Mr. Njie) got us that approval, 906 undocumented Gambians registered for it. We got the first approval last January/February. So people registered and we submitted the final list last August,” he said.
ORDEAL OF A DEPORTEE
Bakary, (not his real name) is a young Gambian who traveled to Istanbul, Turkey in 2021 for greener pastures, but who was deported back to the Gambia explains his ordeal this way:
“I left the Gambia on August 16th, 2021 for Turkey. When I arrived in Turkey, I applied for a Residential Permit the following day, on the 17th of August 2021. They gave me a one-year Residential Permit, which expired on the 17th of August, 2022. But before it expired, I applied for a renewal as the law demands. I was invited to an interview after the submission of my renewal application. I went in for that interview, and they arrested me. The reason they gave for my arrest was that my permit has already expired,” he told this medium.
The young man said the Turkish police who arrested him said he should go to the hospital for screening. He obliged and went with them to the hospital and did the screening. After this initial screening, he was ordered by the Police to go to another police station for further screening, and when he enquired why he need to another screening, he was told it is routine and he has nothing to worry about.
He narrated that throughout the process, the Turkish police always called him “you foreigner” in their language, and will lock him in a cell at around 3 pm.
“There was no food, and there was no water in that cell, until 10 pm, that’s the time they removed me from there and took me to prison. They only take foreigners to that prison. It is a 3-story apartment building full of foreigners. I was taken to the 3rd floor of the building and I was the only Gambian there. At that place, they only give you one liter of water at 8 am. That’s what you will use up to 7 pm before they give you another liter of water. When they give you that one liter of water in the evening, they also give you half loaf of bread with corned beef. That’s what you eat every day, and I was in that prison for one month, and two days,” he said.
Bakary further said that while he was in the prison, the Police “forced” him to sign a document, even though he doesn’t understand the contents of the document.
“They gave me a document to sign. I told them that I am not going to sign it because I cannot read Turkish. But they insisted that I must sign the document. I also insisted that they must tell me what was contained in that document before I would sign it. They still insisted that I must sign it and they forced me to sign it,” he said.
The Gambian deportee told us that as soon as he signed the document, the enormity of what that entails dawned on him. A Syrian prisoner who understands Turkish told him that the police were deporting him because that’s what was written on the document he just signed.
A little while later, Bakary said the Police came and asked whether he is ready for deportation and that he told them that he is ready for it because, for a whole month, he was in prison without any explanation or access to decent food to eat. The solitude and harsh conditions of prison life forced him to decide and leave Turkey. He figured with or without Turkey, he will still make it in life.
“They said I have to pay for my coronavirus test. I told them that I will not pay for it because they are the ones who wanted to deport me. So they should pay for the coronavirus test. I told them that they should pay for everything since they wanted to send me back to the Gambia. So they paid for my coronavirus test and I did the test,” he stated.
Bakary told Kerr Fatou that on the 13th of September, 2022 the police removed him from prison in a handcuff and took him to the Istanbul Airport where they put him on a flight bound for the Gambia.
Asked whether the Gambia Embassy is aware of his arrest, and detention, he said the embassy was contacted by his friend but he never heard from the embassy.
“When I was arrested, one of my friends told me that he would inform the Gambia Embassy about the case, which he did. But until I was deported, I never heard from the Embassy. I saw on my ticket that the Gambia Government bought it for $500,” he said.
GAMBIAN EMBASSY IN TURKEY’S REACTIONS
One of the key purposes of an embassy is to assist citizens of its home country living, working, or traveling overseas. Embassies and their branches referred to as consulates are necessary for both routine administration and emergencies.
Our reporter sought the reaction of the Gambian Embassy in Turkey. Since the new Gambian Ambassador-designate to Turkey, Mr. Alikali Conteh, is yet to assume office, Mr. Cherno Marena, the Deputy Ambassador overseeing the office confirmed the development.
“It is correct that the foreigners living in Turkey are liable to arrest and deportation, including Gambians,” he said.
Asked what his office is doing to ensure that the authorities in Turkey stop arresting Gambians without residential permits, Mr. Marena said the Gambian Embassy is working with the Turkish authorities for an amnesty for undocumented Gambians. This will grant them residential permits on humanitarian grounds and the process is currently ongoing.
Reacting to the claims made by one of our sources that the former Gambian Ambassador to Turkey (Sering Modou Njie) started the process, but when appointed Minister of defence, everything stopped; Marena called the claim “very incorrect” and “makes no sense.”
He said Diplomatic engagement is based on country-to-country consideration and not personal preferences. Mr. Marena said that the process is ongoing but they cannot tell when it will be completed. He added that “When you are requesting for a favour you have to be patient.”
The Deputy Ambassador confirmed that his office is aware of some Gambians being held at detention centres in Turkey and described them as “illegal immigrants.”
“All those in detention are illegal immigrants in the country (Turkey). So we can only plead on their behalf to be released,” he said.
Responding to the allegation that the Gambia Government through his office in Turkey bought tickets for those who are being “forced” to return to the country, Mr. Marena said that’s “not correct”.
“The very concept of deportation is incompatible with the receiving state buying a ticket for the deportee,” he said.
However, Marena declined to respond to our question on how often his office visits the detention centres to know the kind of conditions the detained Gambians are in Turkey.
Meanwhile, we contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and they aligned themselves completely with the responses of the Deputy Gambian Ambassador in Turkey, Mr. Cherno Marena.
Our Reporter also contacted the Turkish Embassy in the Gambia for comments but to no avail.