This African country produces more refugees per capita than any other. But there is method to the madness: Gambia's dictator systematically banishes people and refuses to accept repatriation agreements. And he receives European funds for his services.
GUNJUR — The first steps on the path from Gambia to Europe lead to a tiny room, where Imam Kawsu Touray receives his clients while seated on the floor between a bed and wardrobe. A picture on the wall depicts the Kaaba in Mecca and Touray's alarm clock is in the shape of a mosque. No one in the village of Gunjur dares to use the "back way" — a term for the dangerous journey from Gambia through Senegal, Mali, Niger and Libya to Europe — without the spiritual advice of this thin and very old man with the white beard.
Touray is eating a quick snack of fish curry as he awaits the impending arrival of his next client, who wants to flee from Gambia.
"He will be protected from all dangers after my treatment," says the clergyman, showing us a belt made from fur with inserts featuring Koranic verses. Its wearer, he says, will be safe from being stopped at borders, as "those who ask for the wearer's name and personal information will forget the details immediately."
He serves water made cloudy by herbs, a drink that is supposed to guarantee hospitality for the drinker wherever he goes. Touray is one of the wealthiest of the village's 20,000 inhabitants. He has treated thousands of people, and most pay him with a cow or its equivalent monetary value, around 300 euros.
When young people leave through the Imam's back room, it's a drain on the village's lifeblood; the same scenes play out in villages across the West African state of Gambia. Europe's asylum seekers from Gambia quadrupled in number between 2012 and 2014, to over 12,000 people per year.
In proportion to Gambia's 2 million residents, the country has one of the highest emigration rates in the world. In 2015 alone, 3,110 Gambians filed for asylum in Germany, which is nearly 12 times the 263 people who sought asylum there in 2012. Back then, the escape route to Germany was more dangerous than it is now, as it typically involved a journey by sea, along the Atlantic coast all the way to Spain in an open top boat.
Statistically speaking, since the fall of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi only Syrian and Eritrean refugees in Italy outnumber those from Gambia.
Touray's clients are fleeing from a dictator, Yahya Jammeh, who receives scant international attention. He threatens homosexuals with having their throat slit, and rejects AIDS drugs for his country's citizens on the grounds that he himself is able to cure HIV — but only on Thursdays.
A few years ago, Jammeh forced an entire village to consume a hallucinogenic drink because he thought villagers were conspiring to use witchcraft against him.
Since he came into power via a coup in 1994, shortly before his 30th birthday, Jammeh has refused to accept the democratic movement sweeping across dozens of nations in Africa. Illegal arrests, torture and state-sanctioned murder are a part of everyday life in Gambia. The leading member of the opposition, Solo Sandeng, died in April while in remand. Street protests have become more frequent since then.
Never before has Jammeh had to face so much displeasure, and displeasure fed by courage, no less. But hasn't stopped him from threatening to "reign for a billion years." His veto blocked new legislation limiting all presidents of the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) to two terms in office.
Jammeh actually wants and encourages Gambian youth to leave the country. Despite his criticisms of "parents who pay for their journey across the Mediterranean with the death of their children," and his accusations that Europe is intentionally allowing boats to capsize, for which it should be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Gambia's dictator believes that young Gambians in Europe are better than young Gambians protesting outside the presidential palace.
He declared at a wrestling match in his ancestral village that the 2,000 euros in prize money would be enough for a journey to Europe. He refuses to accept repatriation agreements on principle. When Spain tried to send 100 illegal immigrants from Gambia back home on a plane, the pilot was unexpectedly forced to return to Spain after local authorities in the capital of Banjul prevented the Gambian passengers from disembarking.
A fifth of the Gambian economy is based on payments from the Gambian diaspora which, according to the World Bank, is one of the world's largest. Half of the village of Gonjur lives off the siren call of the West: The local building material supplier tells us that over half of his concrete is paid for with money that his relatives in Europe send him.
And then there are the human traffickers, like Parteh S., who is but a small cog in the wheels of this multibillion-dollar business. Chickens run around the courtyard of his dusty farm, while his living room features imitation leather couches and a flat-screen TV. Parteh works hard for his little share of prosperity. He sometimes works as a taxi driver, other times as an electrician. And sometimes he helps young men from Gunjur escape.
Parteh is sitting in an old desk chair, holding his iPhone 3, which, as he says, "contains his assets," namely, dozens of phone numbers from Mali, Niger and Libya — all signposts on the way to Europe. Four years ago, human traffickers from Senegal asked him if he wanted to join their "agency," as Gambia is an important market. But it only works with people whom refugees trust.
There are six middlemen involved in the journey, all coordinated by Parteh. His clients entrust him with their lives for a fee of around 103 euros, because refugees rarely carry the 1,700 euros that a trip from Gambia to Italy typically costs in cash on their person.
Parteh pays the contact people via "Ecobank," a highly popular system for transferring funds in West Africa. Should the money from would-be refugees fail to arrive, holding and torturing them in the Niger desert until it does is not unusual. But that doesn't happen when he's in charge, says Parteh. Many offer the same service for half the money but Parteh does his job properly, he insists.
In Niger, the local authorities have been trying to crack down on the migration business, albeit half-heartedly. Instead of letting refugees sleep at a gas station as they used to, Parteh and his colleagues are now leading them to accommodations in a specially rented house. In Libya, Parteh only works with Gambian boat owners.
He speaks of his offers like an experienced holiday package provider. So far, he has assisted 30 clients with leaving Gambia, and all of them have arrived in Italy and none have returnedâ€¦ yet. European Union member states only approve a third of all asylum applications.
The economic consequences of Jammeh's dictatorship are mostly what's driving people to flee from Gambia. With the exception of two fish-processing plants, the country has very few potential employers. The economy was never diversified nor was agriculture ever properly regulated, which has led to the cutting down of many forests; the soil in many places has become devoid of nutrients.
In addition, Gambia has long been considered a textbook case of misguided development aid. The EU gave Gambia nearly 74 million euros in aid between 2008 and 2013, but direct payments have been suspended, with Germany even suspending payments on a bilateral level.
The search for other sources of income is a slow one. Gaddafi's death meant the demise of one of Gambia's main financial backers, and Jammeh had a falling out with Iran. The oil drilling that was supposed to take place on the Gambian coast and compensate for this loss of financial support never happened. To woo Arab countries, Jammeh even declared that Gambia would be "an Islamic Republic" from now on. But a law forcing female civil servants to wear a headscarf was withdrawn; not even Jammeh's own wife had adhered to it law, after all.
But those who stay in Gambia have to fight for their survival on a daily basis. The Gunjur Youth Development Project, financed through monetary aid from the UK, offers interest-free mini-loans of 250 euros. A beekeeper was able to develop his business with the loan, while a teacher used it to boost his meager salary with a six-square-meter space that functions as both a printing operation and barbershop. This money allows them to survive when Jammeh's revenue collection troops swoop down upon them every few months and demand arbitrary sums.
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In Gunjur, Gambia — Photo: Leonora (Ellie) Enking
But they are not able to keep up with the lifestyle that some expat Gambians display on Facebook — well, at least not with the illusion of wealth that shows up on social networks. Most of those who post pictures of themselves with expensive cars have to go to a refugee home afterwards, and only a few are lucky enough to have permanent right of residence thanks to a European husband or wife.
The message behind these pictures is, however, much more powerful than any of the anti-escape songs financed by the U.S. and playing on the radio. Facebook will tell you that the rewards from leaving Gambia outweigh the risks involved in the journey, and that message has reached thousands of smartphones across the country as the price for mobile internet has fallen drastically since 2012.
The promise of a better life reached a plumber named Lamin, for one. He closes the door as we speak because he does not want the neighbors to hear his story. Using the "back way" is considered taboo in Gambia seeing as, most of the time, a whole family has contributed to an individual's escape.
Lamin had worked hard for over 18 years, but even at 40 he was unable to buy a piece of land.
"I wanted more. For my wife, my parents, my daughter," he says, sitting bare-chested on his bed and rolling a cigarette. "And I also wanted more for myself."
His wife, especially, dreamed of a life in Switzerland or Germany.
Lamin left Gambia in 2015 and witnessed the horrors experienced by millions of others before him. They buried a man in the Niger desert when he died from the heat; the human traffickers had calculated 10 liters of water per person for the week-long desert journey in the back of a pickup truck. Lamin saw the only two women among the refugees raped repeatedly. When his convoy was robbed by rebels, he was lucky to have hidden his money inside the soles of his shoes.
The trip is madness, pure madness, murmurs Lamin.
He arrived unscathed in Libya, but had run out of money. It took him four months working as a day laborer to save the 570 euros needed for his journey to Italy. His employers often didn't pay him for his work and he slept in a garage at night.
He threw his passport away, as do most Gambian refugees on their way to Europe, to hide their country of origin and make deportation more difficult.
After a time, "I had had it," he says, "but most of all, I was just afraid. Six hundred people drowned in the Mediterranean while I was in Libya."
In December, he picked up the phone to call his wife in Gunjur. "I am coming back," he said.
There was silence at the other end of the line. "If you give up now, I will divorce you," she said eventually.
Lamin hung up. He went to the Gambian consulate in Tripoli, got papers, went to the airport and purchased a plane ticket to Niger for what would be the first flight of his life. He arrived four hours later, having covered a distance that took him a week in a pickup truck. Lamin's last savings were spent on a bus ticket back to Gambia.
"I am back and we are staying," he told his wife. She nodded "Yes."