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Battling with The Police: The Economic Dilemma of Gambia’s Returned Migrants

Abubacarr Jallow, Migrant returnee, now a motorbiker in Basse

The temperature in Basse, regional capital of Upper River Region, hovered around 27.7 degrees Celsius in October. But the scorching heat would not deter Abubacarr Jallow, on whose back the  sun rises and sets as he ferries people from one corner of Basse to another on a motorbike taxi.

Motorbike taxi is Jallow’s new job, after an unsuccessful attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea in 2017. He narrowly escaped death in Libya where many migrants have lost their lives or ended up in the hands of kidnappers who hold them in sordid detention centers for ransom. With hopes of reaching Europe fading, Jallow took a voluntary repatriation back home to a struggling economy. 

“I had a terrible experience in Libya. I was there with two friends, but they were both killed – [one was shot and the other drowned in the sea.] I am the only survivor,” said Jallow.

 “I was slashed on my head and I was repeatedly jailed, and my family had to send a huge amount of money to free me from those holding me. This is why I volunteered to come back home.”

“To make the journey, I was able to put up D130,000 from my own funds plus contributions from family members. My intention was to go to Europe and make fast money and come back,” he told The Chronicle.

Jallow may have escaped death threats in Libya, but the economic hardship that stared him down and forced him to risk his life would not go away. His newly found means of earning a meagre living at home is also being threatened.

“Here, there was hope in the motorbike taxi business as I started generating enough money in the beginning, but now the police are making it impossible for us to survive, ” Abubacarr told The Chronicle. 

Abubacarr waiting on clients at the motorbike garage in Basse

Jallow’s story is just one among many. The integration of returnees has been a problem for the struggling Gambian Government facing challenges of a youth bulge coupled with massive unemployment. The Communication Officer for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Miko Alazas, said the UN agency has assisted the return of 4,885 migrants who came voluntarily between 2017 to October 2019. The Gambia’s National Youth Council director Lamin Darboe, said there is still a need for more integration assistance as many returnees have not benefited from integration services.

 Motorbikes are a popular transport system in Basse and it is largely used for commercial purposes. The motorbikes take one passenger at a time and the owners would charge up to D25 per trip. These bikes are quicker than the normal taxis that ply the road and can also access the most remote of places. The garages for the motorbikes are found near busy areas like markets where several bikes can be seen queuing for passengers. Abubacarr rents his motorbike and is  expected to deliver D250 to the owner daily. “Since I started the taxi business, I have been getting good money. I can save more than D200 every day after the D250 allocation for the motorbike owner. In a month, I can get a profit of D4, 000.”

In recent times, the motorbike business is facing an almost insurmountable challenge from an unlikely source: The Gambia Police Force. The police have started hunting them around town claiming that the motorbike taxi business is not permitted by Gambian laws. 

“All of a sudden, we started getting harassed by the police for doing the business. They will let us work until the end of the month draws near and they would start coming after us. They would arrest us and seize our motorbikes. To retrieve our machine, we would have to pay D1000 or D1500. This is our nightmare, for me particularly as a returnee,” Abubacarr who returned to The Gambia with the assistance of the IOM in December of 2017, told The Chronicle. 

Samboujang Ceesay waiting on clients at the motorbike garage

Sambujang Ceesay, Secretary of the Motorbike Taxi Association in Basse, said the venture does not only provide employment, but it reduces criminal activities. “Motorbike taxi is a very good business for the youths. It’s a business which most of the youths are depending on in this community. For me, I am a family man with a wife and kids. I have other skills, but I can’t rely on my skills because the income is so low compared to what I generate from this motorbike taxi business. This is where I feed my family,” he told The Chronicle.

The Motorbike Taxi Association of Basse engaged the police commissioner of the Upper River Region about their plight to seek a resolution to the issues with the police, especially given that the business is an alternative for many returnees from “backway”.

“We sat with him and made him aware that most of us are Gambians who have been deported or returned. And the little money some of us got from the government/IOM as part of integration fund is what we used to buy motorbikes so that we will have something to depend on.”

However, the regional police chief could not be convinced as it is a matter of legality. 

“The police said they cannot allow us to continue the motorbike business because it is not in Gambian laws and we have no right to do it. We accept that, but most of us continue to do this because this is where we get our survival from,” he told The Chronicle.

The Basse Area Council says they are concerned about the situation. 

“We have our concerns for them as a council because these people are our taxpayers. We want to make sure that our taxpayers enjoy the value of their money.”

CEO Ousman Touray

“What is interesting about this is that those in this motorbike business are young people that tried their hand at migration through the “backway”, but decided to come back home when things didn’t work out for them. They engage in this business as a form of survival,” CEO Ousman Touray told The Chronicle in his office.

However, he said, in as much as they want to help the motorbike industry, they have to follow the due process of the law so that people who are involved in the business will be covered by law, pay registration number plates like any other taxi drivers and pay their licenses.

 “We as a council cannot do that {facilitate their registration), it has to go through the national assembly. If they are accepted, it will go a long way to help the council. Not only for the council but for our tax-payers as well,” Touray said.

The legal restriction is not only delaying the integration process of returnees, or denying other young people from employment, it is also causing economic loss to the country through the regional area council who lack legal authority to collect taxes from them. 

National Assembly Member for Basse, Muhammed Magassy

The National Assembly Member for Basse, Muhammed Magassy, told The Chronicle he was aware of the situation which started three years ago.

“At that point in time they needed my intervention and that was the time I traveled from Kombo to Basse and I called the people concerned – the police and the local authorities,” said Magassy. 

At that meeting, Magassy recalls suggesting an alternative – a cooperative – which will buy cars for the youths to use as a taxis since there is no law permitting the use of motorbikes. As things stand, the MP is waiting to be consulted by the youths to discuss the need for the advocacy of a bill to be passed in parliament that will allow motorbikes to operate as taxis. 

“I am an MP, I am representing people so if there is an issue, let them come to me. I’m here and whoever wants to meet me, let them call me or if they want I can meet them. If you don’t tell me anything, I will not take the courage to talk about it. Representation goes with consultation. They elected me as their MP, so if I am speaking I should speak their language in parliament – I should hear that language from them and that cannot happen without consultation,” Magassy maintained. 

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1 Comment
  1. Bakary says

    I love this story and above all the story is balance. It toach every where .

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