Roughly 38,500 Gambians left the country through ‘irregular’ means between 2013 and 2017. Today, almost every family has ties abroad. The influx of immigrants to Europe and elsewhere was caused by political oppression under the long-serving former president Yahya Jammeh. His oppressive politics also severely affected the economic prospects of The Gambia’s young population.
As a result, a large number of citizens, mostly young men, sought asylum in Europe. But very few have been allowed to stay. Even more were turned away when Jammeh was toppled after elections in 2017 and the country returned to democracy. More recently, there has been a big push from European Union (EU) member states to return failed asylum seekers back home to The Gambia.
The question of returns is particularly volatile in the west African nation of 2 million people, reflected in the country’s and European press.
A slight increase in Gambian deportations began in November 2018 after the EU and the government agreed on a ‘good practice’ agreement for efficient return procedures.
This intensified cooperation became possible due to the governmental change in 2017, with President Adama Barrow becoming President after the elections, as we found in our research on the political economy of migration governance in The Gambia.
Despite initial cooperation with the EU on returns, in March 2019 Barrow’s government imposed a moratorium on any further deportations of its nationals from the EU. After a standoff of several months, the moratorium has now been lifted. Though only temporary, the moratorium was an important tool for the government to manage problems with its domestic legitimacy.
Jammeh’s ousting ended years of severe repression and corruption that had discouraged donor countries from cooperating with The Gambia. When he left, the country quickly established positive relations with the EU which has become its most important development partner. It provides €55 million in budgetary support and runs three projects to address the root causes of destabilisation, forced displacement and irregular migration. But the moratorium was a stress test for this new relationship.
Before the moratorium was imposed in March 2019, the government had started to tentatively cooperate with the EU on return matters. For example, it sent regular missions to Europe to issue nationals with identification documents to facilitate their return.
Relations began to sour when European governments increased returns in a way that authorities in The Gambia viewed as inconsistent with the ‘good practice’ agreement. The agreement stipulates that return numbers should not overstretch the country’s capacity to receive returnees. It also states that adequate notice must be given before asylum seekers are returned. Both of these provisions were allegedly breached.
Problems at home
The incoming returns quickly led to heated debates among the population and on social media. The rumblings peaked in February 2019 with one particular return flight from Germany. Authorities in Banjul claimed they had not been well informed about it and initially refused entry. Public demonstrations followed in March. The moratorium, which European partners had already been notified about, was declared shortly afterwards.
The moratorium can be linked to diplomatic and technical inefficiencies, but it is also based on a more fundamental problem for Barrow’s government. By cooperating with the EU on returns, they risk their domestic legitimacy because by and large, most Gambians in Europe do not want to return home.
The initial euphoria that surrounded the democratic transition is wearing off. Many reform processes such as in the security sector and in the media environment are dragging. The economic situation of many has not improved. Allowing more deportations from the EU is perceived as betrayal by many migrants and their families.
The government is frequently suspected to play an active role in returns and is accused of witholding information about their dealings with the EU and member states like Germany. Incidentally, President Barrow is currently seeking to extend his rule beyond the three-year transition period originally agreed upon, ending in January 2020. Opposition to these plans is widespread.
In these politically tense times, pressing a pause button on returns fulfilled a symbolic function by defending Gambians against foreign national interests. The recent lifting of the moratorium is politically very risky. It paves the way for more of the deeply unpopular chartered return operations.
On the whole, The Gambia has little room to manoeuvre. It is highly dependent on the EU’s goodwill and financial support for its reforms process. In line with the development focus of the EU, the position of the government is to prepare the ground for more “humane” repatriations, which will need more time and joint efforts.
This would include better and more comprehensive reintegration opportunities for returned migrants. Reintegration is already the focus of various projects funded by the European Union Trust Fund. Programmes like the International Organisation for Migration’s ‘Post-Arrival Reintegration Assistance’ for returnees from Europe are up and running. However, they only serve a limited number of returnees and cannot meet all their needs.
It is important to note that the role of the Gambian state in providing reintegration support has been marginal.
With the lifting of the moratorium EU-Gambia cooperation stands at a crossroads. If EU member states maintain their hardline returnee approach The Gambia’s new government will continue to struggle with its legitimacy challenges. This could potentially jeopardise democratisation efforts.
In the alternative, the EU could take a more cooperative stance by working on more holistic, development-oriented solutions. A starting point would be to move away from plans to return high numbers of failed asylum seekers. Sending back large numbers of migrants has never been feasible.
The Gambian government will be more honest about its migration dealings with the EU if the agreements are fair and practical. Most importantly, if Gambians had access to fair and practical migration pathways this would lessen cases of irregular migration, which continue to remain high.
Without a greater share of legal migration, the issue of return will continue to be particularly contentious.