By Mustapha K Darboe
BANJUL, Gambia (AA) - Some 160 Gambians who were arrested and languishing in Libyan jails have been repatriated on Thursday night to the small West African nation through the support of the International Organization for Migration.
Since the fall of Gambia’s strongman Yahya Jammeh, dozens of migrants who had left the small nation to go to Europe via Libya have started coming back.
Bubacarr Touray, 24, who was among the repatriated Gambians, told Anadolu Agency that living conditions for migrants in Libya, especially in jails, was “horrible”.
“There are people who have been shot dead by gunmen and no one knows who they are, whether government or rebels,” Touray said at Banjul International Airport.
Sulayman Ceesay, 26, also a Gambian jailed in Libya, said that in jail, they were at times denied food and water.
“It is the International Organization for Migration [IOM] that helped us with food once they located us in jail,” Ceesay said.
This is the third time the IOM is repatriating Gambians this year. About 140 Gambians aboard IOM’s first chartered flight from Libya arrived in Banjul on March 10.
A second flight from Libya carrying 170 stranded Gambians followed on April 4, while another 290 have signed up for the IOM’s EU-funded voluntary return program, according to the international organization.
Gambia is one of Africa’s smallest nations, with a population of just under 2 million.
And yet its citizens have consistently ranked among the top five nationalities taking the Central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy.
- Conditions in Libya
Giuseppe Loprete, the head of the IOM mission in Niger, a desert country bordering Libya, told Anadolu Agency in an email interview that migrants he encountered narrate numerous stories of abuse, exploitation, false promises, violence.
From 2016 to March 2017, the IOM has facilitated the voluntary return of 6,500 migrants from Libya and Algeria to Senegal, Guinea Conakry and Gambia, among others.
Among them, 600 are Gambian.
“In many cases these journeys last for months and smugglers are always asking for money to continue. Migrants are forced to call their families that send them money. Otherwise migrants are abandoned in the desert or remain in detention, especially in Libya,” said Loprete.
“Many migrants of different nationalities – including Gambia -- reported stories of exploitation, racket and slavery by the smugglers, also from different nationalities. Criminal networks are well developed and migrants are victims of this system. They pay to travel, then they pay to eat and remain in transit, then pay again to be released if they are lucky,” he added.
According to official figures from the Italian Ministry of Interior, 11,929 Gambians arrived in Italy in 2016, and 2,232 during the month of March 2017.
Gambian is among the top 10 nationalities represented in arrivals on Italian shores.
The IOM and the UN estimate that 250,000 migrants are in Libya, most of them without resources to reach Tripoli or to go back, stranded and most probably in need of urgent help.
“While the IOM has no information on people detained in jails, based on these figures it is likely that thousands of Gambians are currently in Libya, in various locations and likely in need of help to return home safely,” Loprete said.
- Unaccompanied Minors
There were 21 Gambian minors among the returnees including three girls and two badly injured.
Loprete said Gambians continued to be among the main nationalities using the desert route to Italy via Libya and that has not changed over the last two-three years.
“In particular Gambian nationals are younger than others. Many unaccompanied minors are among them and this is an additional challenge as their return has to be coordinated with the judges after the family is informed,” he said.
However, Gambians who returned to the country on April 4 have now formed an association to discourage the irregular migration through the desert route.
Mustapha Sallah, the association’s secretary general said they “want to help the youth of Gambia and fight against irregular migration”.
Youth unemployment in Gambia is currently at 38 percent.