Gambia, Where Refugees Are A Cruel Dictator’s Business Opportunity

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.

In Kos, Greece, the arrival point for thousands of migrants from countries including Gambia, Senegal, Cameroon ...
In Kos, Greece, the arrival point for thousands of migrants from countries including Gambia, Senegal, Cameroon ...
Christian Putsch

GUNJUR â€" 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" â€" a term for the dangerous journey from Gambia through Senegal, Mali, Niger and Libya to Europe â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" 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 returned… 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.

In Gunjur, Gambia â€" Photo: Leonora (Ellie) Enking

But they are not able to keep up with the lifestyle that some expat Gambians display on Facebook â€" 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."

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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