Alhagie heard the sound of gunshots as he found his way through the dank, musty detention centre in Tripoli in 2017. Surrounding him were migrants from across Africa: Ghanaians, Malians, Nigerians, Senegalese; any nationality he could think of. He thought to himself: there must be thousands who had attempted the arduous journey to Europe, just as he had, only to find themselves stranded in Libya, their dreams of reaching “the promised land” slipping through their fingers.
The Gambia, with a population of two million, is among the smallest countries in continental Africa. Between 2014 and 2017, over 35,000 of its citizens arrived, “irregularly” on European shores, according to Frontex, the EU border monitor, with even more whose journeys stopped in Libya or the Mediterranean Sea.
Gambians call irregular migration “the backway.”
Unemployment, failing businesses, high taxes, visa restrictions, political instability — are just a few of the reasons for taking the backway recounted to Alhagie by fellow Gambians he met in detention. England, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland were among the destinations they pictured themselves reaching.
An array of motivations and goals converged in one detention centre. Only salah (scheduled Islamic prayer time) could bring them together for a renewed sense of hope.
“Prayer time gave us the chance to come together and talk about what we wanted to do if we returned home,” Alhagie explained. “I was selling vegetables between The Gambia and Senegal before I left, so I pushed the idea of joining forces for an agriculture venture.”
As weeks passed with group readings of the Quran, others began buying into the idea of working together, and the possibility of returning home grew more likely.
In Libya, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) visits embassies, community leaders and government-run detention centres to seek contact with migrants to advise them on the array of alternatives available. One alternative is assistance to voluntarily return home.
Alhagie, after a screening interview and signing a voluntariness declaration form, on 27 April 2017 finally joined 167 Gambians on a charter flight from Tripoli to Banjul. So, he found himself ending months of misery and sparking hopes for a new beginning.
Voluntary return is a viable option for migrants who wish to return home but do not have the means to do so. Indeed, many Gambians seek such assistance at varying points of their journey, returning home with similar stories of forced labour, torture, detention, thirst, hunger, witnessing death or just pondering the reality of never seeing their families again.
Alhagie and many others on the flight home exchanged contact numbers, so they could remain in touch once they returned. A few weeks later, on 15 May 2017, 69 of them met to form what is today known as the Gambia Returnees from the Backway Association (GRB).
Establishing the association is a sign of progress — and also a sign these things were not always easy for these men upon their return. “People in my community were calling me a failure,” explains Lamin. “I locked myself inside for days.”
Lamin’s experience speaks to the stigma many returnees face, especially when their families must cope with significant economic loss from financing their failed journeys. GRB quickly evolved from being a mere path for income-generation to becoming a social support system that many couldn’t find elsewhere in their communities.
And through this support structure, its members found a voice — a voice they knew needed to be heard by Gambians around the nation.
“We talked to other returnees and realized that we all lacked information about the backway before we left. We didn’t want our brothers and sisters to face what we faced,” said Alhagie, who was elected GRB’s chairperson. After an inaugural meeting with IOM in November 2017, GRB submitted a proposal to conduct an awareness raising campaign on the risks of and alternatives to irregular migration.
The proposal had two components: first, an attaya (green tea ceremony) caravan, gathering community members over afternoon tea; and second, football matches, termed “push the ball to stay.”
Both tea ceremonies and football are popular pastimes embedded in Gambian culture. Here they create platforms that spark dialogue and engage in discussions. “We were one of the first to share our stories to the nation. Back then, returnees didn’t want to go on radio and share their stories,” explained Muhammed.
“I first met GRB in August 2017, at the initial stage of its formation. I was immediately impressed by their ideas and resourcefulness to knock on doors to pitch their ideas,” explained Fumiko Nagano, IOM Chief of Mission in The Gambia. “There was initiative and passion to do something meaningful.”
Since then, IOM has supported GRB’s campaign, in which over 3,800 potential migrants in 33 communities were sensitized. More creative sensitization approaches are in the works, such as school games on migration when classes resume. “I appreciate their commitment to preventing other young Gambians from experiencing what they went through. We are incredibly lucky to work with them, as they have powerful stories to share with the nation,” adds Ms. Nagano.
Determined to raise awareness on the backway, GRB began putting their plan for an agriculture venture into action. Inspired by the group’s story, the Village Development Committee (VDC) of Berending, North Bank Region, donated a piece of land for GRB to turn into a farm.
GRB began work on the farm with material support from IOM and an implementing partner, EMPAS Poultry Processing Company, including for clearing the land and constructing two chicken houses, an office, dormitories and boreholes.
As part of 15 members’ reintegration assistance, they have undergone a three-month training program on poultry production and management, followed by a workshop on leadership, financial management and conflict resolution skills.
Since 2017 IOM has assisted 4,447 Gambians to return home. For some IOM offers reintegration assistance in three forms: individual, collective and community-based. “Collective reintegration projects occur when returnees come together in groups with a common plan and complementary skills. This is our largest collective project to date,” explained Pa Njie, IOM Project Assistant supporting GRB on this venture. “For a collective project to work, the group must take ownership and find ways to make it sustainable beyond the support IOM provides. GRB has been very proactive in finding partners and designing its business model.”
“We are starting a poultry project with the 15 members, and then we aim to expand into horticulture and animal husbandry and employ more people,” added Alhagie. Three more GRB members are being supported by IOM to be trained on poultry production and processing.
Most of the poultry sold in The Gambia is imported, which means there’s big potential for GRB to grow in the local market.
After an initial 1,500 broilers, 1,500 layers, chicken feed and medications are provided, GRB will be taking the lead in managing its business. Already, GRB has plans to establish its own marketing department, link up with hotels and partner with EMPAS on a farm-to-market sales plan.
What’s next for GRB? This is a question its members have the chance to reflect on at its regular general meetings, attended by under two dozen active members. “We want to be a leading poultry association,” hopes Alhagie. “When we tell people not to take the backway, they ask what other opportunities they have here. We want this poultry project to serve as an example.”
“We want to create jobs for other Gambians and contribute to nation-building,” Mamina adds. “We think not what the government can do for us, but what we can do for the country.” With Mamina’s remarks, one wonders if, at their lowest points in 2017, they ever imagined that their simple dream of a joint agriculture venture would transform them into leading voices nationwide, working to build a Gambia in which no one has to resort to the backway.
And what of the association’s name, marking them as “returnees from the backway” — a phrase that has simultaneously engendered stigma and negative perceptions? “They did many things to me along the backway, but I am proud to be a returnee. I am proud that we are sharing our stories,” remarks Amie with a glimmer of confidence.
Over two years since fate brought GRB’s members to the same detention centre at the same time, they have reclaimed their identity as “returnees” and are leading the charge to beat the backway — the very phenomenon they once fell victim to, but no longer choose to remain victims of.
From January 2017 to August 2019, 4,447 Gambians received return and reintegration assistance through the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration. Covering 26 African countries, the Joint Initiative is the first comprehensive programme to save lives, and protect and assist migrants along key migration routes in Africa. The project supports the reintegration process of returning migrants through an integrated approach, which addresses economic, social, and psychological dimensions and fosters the inclusion of communities in the process.
This story was written by Miko Alazas, IOM’s Communications Officer in The Gambia.
 The Village Development Committee is a local government institution responsible for identifying community needs and priorities in the formulation of village development plans.