Chained, Bundled into the Plane and Restrained: Gambian Deportees Narrate Ordeal
In the early hours of Sunday December 2nd 2018, a Royal Air Maroc flight landed at the Banjul International Airport in Yundum. Among its passengers was 33-year-old Lamin Dahaba, a native of Niani Bani in the Central River Region of the Gambia.
Unlike other passengers, he wasn’t on the plane by choice. He was being deported from Italy by the Italian authorities.
A secondary school graduate, Lamin worked as a security guard for a few years hoping to earn enough money for himself and his family. A few years into the job, he realized that what he spent on fare to get and work and return home and on food during work hours was more than his salary. He left and went to the sea port in Banjul to work as a labourer, offloading containers.
While working at the port, Lamin saw his friends and other young Gambians regularly leaving the country to the Mediterranean in their quest to reach Europe for greener pastures. In 2015, he also decided to embark on the journey after saving some little money he had gathered from his job and though the help of family members.
“I decided to leave because things weren’t easy. There was poverty and I was struggling all the time. So I thought Europe would offer an opportunity for a better life,” he says.
Lamin boarded a bus to Mali and then to northern Niger’s Agadez, a transit city for migrants, located on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. He continued the journey to Libya and finally arrived in Italy a few months later on an overcrowded dinghy boat through the Mediterranean Sea.
He was taken to an asylum camp where he stayed for the next two years while his asylum application was being processed by the Italian authorities. At the end of 2017, the authorities informed him that they’ve rejected his application.
“I had negative results three times from the Commission in the Turin region and I was told that I could not apply for humanitarian asylum again. I then moved from the camp. Since then, I had been sleeping in the streets for the next two months. During the day, I’d do menial jobs just to eat,” he tells The Chronicle.
In December 2017, Lamin was arrested by the police in the city of Milan and taken into custody at a deportation camp. “I felt terrible because I left my family in the Gambia with the hope of earning a living to help them out of poverty. And now I would be deported back home empty-handed.”
On 1st February 2018, he was transported from the center to the airport for deportation. On the foot of the plane in Milan bound for Casablanca and then to Banjul, Lamin refused to board and a group of escorts used force to get him out of Italy.
“I refused to be taken into the flight. They handcuffed me, tied me up completely, including my hands and legs, strapped me into a waist restraint belt, covered me in a net and restrained me. I was screaming, saying in Italian ‘why are your deporting me? I did nothing wrong. I have no problem. I shouldn’t be deported just because I don’t have papers.’ They replied that they were only executing orders to expel me. I was chained on the seats of the plane because I was confrontational.”
Two months earlier, another Gambian, Alhajie Sanneh was deported by the Italian authorities via the same route, Casablanca. Like Lamin, Alhajie migrated to Italy through the Mediterranean in search of greener pastures.
“I was suffering. I was a mechanic but that didn’t get me enough money for even the most basic needs. I was married with two kids and the pressure to feed the family was very high. In 2015, my father passed away and then I decided to leave for Europe.”
Shortly before he left, he traveled to his village, Brikamaba in Central Gambia to seek blessings of his mother and villagers. They prayed for him but they also let him know they’d rely on him to change their fortunes. He took off for Libya through Mali and Niger, and then to Italy.
“When I reached Europe my family celebrated. They never thought I was going to make it because I was entirely dependent on myself to finance my trip. I thanked God, thinking that my poverty was over.”
After nine months in Italy, Alhajie picked a job as a mechanic, fixing people’s cars. He was regularly sending money back home and there was a feeling of satisfaction.
As the job continued, he ordered for the demolition of his family’s house in Brikamaba, hoping to quickly construct a new one as replacement for his mother.
But before he could start the construction, Alhajie received a call from the Italian police to report for questioning. “When I arrived at the station, the police locked me up. I asked them why they locked me and they said The Gambia has signed an agreement with Italy for my deportation.”
“At that juncture, I saw a Gambian immigration officer who greeted me in Islamic greetings of ‘Asalamu alaikum’ and spoke to me in Mandinka. I told him that he knew how difficult Gambia was and that many people were depending on me for survival. I told him that he was destroying my life. But he looked at me and said there were good offers in The Gambia. I told him such assistance should be directed to people living in the country, not me,” he says.
Alhajie was locked up for three months and then deported to The Gambia.
“I didn’t want to board the plane. So they used force to handcuff and chain me before forcing me into the plane. I was roughed up and held on my seat until I subdued”
Alhajie’s flight landed at the Banjul International Airport early in the morning. “My family knew I was in a deportation camp but they didn’t know which day exactly I will arrive. I came around 4 am and went to my stepmother’s. I knocked on the door and when she opened and saw me, she screamed and fainted. My wife and the whole family there came out, screaming and crying. I cried too.”
Overwhelmed by a sense of shame, he prolonged visiting his mother.
“When she saw me, she fainted. She is still sick. I don’t go to the village anymore. I stopped visiting my home because any time my mother sees me, she cries like a child. She is staying with neighbours now because there’s no house for her anymore. I couldn’t build her house.”
Today, Alhajie and Lamin are struggling for survival. Often unsettled by memories of Europe and the way they were deported, both men blame the Gambian government for their predicament.
For Alhajie, “the government has been busy signing deals with Europe to have Gambians deported.”
“They’ve destroyed my life. They go around saying there are jobs here. What jobs are available here? I was progressing in life and now thanks to the government, I am dragged back to zero. I have family to feed. I remember when I used to call my family and tell them to vote for the opposition coalition or I’d cut sending money. Now I regret this,” he says.
Lamin accuses the Gambian government of failing to protect the interest of its citizens. He alleges that instead, government authorities are helping Europe to deport Gambians.
On Monday, fifteen Gambians were received at the Banjul International Airport by immigration authorities after being deported from Germany. Journalists who went to the airport to speak to them were denied access by the security.
The number of Gambians deported from countries like Italy and Germany has gone up since the change of regime in 2017. Julian Staiger, a Gambia expert of the Baden-Württemberg Refugee Council in Germany said in a report that “German politicians in particular ought to know how much time it takes to work through a dictatorship,” adding that “anyone pushing for deportations to the Gambia in the current economic and political situation will take the risk in buying new ones to create escape causes instead of fighting them.”
In October last year, the Bavarian Refugee Council in Germany issued a warning to Gambians living there that “on Wednesday, 17th of October 2018 (and probably some more days before and after) Gambian officials will hold a mass hearing in Munich to identify Asylum seekers for the purpose of issuing travel documents to deport them to Gambia.”
In a document obtained by The Chronicle, the council said “it is clear that the only purpose of an embassy hearing is issuing travelling documents for deportations! You cannot be invited for an embassy hearing for any other purpose. Usually, authorities send out letters inviting people to come to an embassy hearing for reasons that are not clearly specified. Sometimes, the authorities threaten to revoke the Duldung (a temporary suspension of deportation document) if the refugees do not attend the embassy hearing. This is partly wrong because the authorities HAVE TO prolong the Duldung if they cannot deport somebody.”
“During the delegation or embassy hearing, Gambian officials will question refugees in order to confirm their Gambian origin based on their language, their accents or specific words they use. Besides this, officials can also arbitrarily “identify” someone to be Gambian based on general appearance, the shape of his/her face, traditional scars etc.,” the council added.
The Gambian government has been under a lot of criticism over the regular deportation of Gambian migrants. Both the deportees and activists accused the authorities of signing deals to get Gambians deported, an accusation they have denied.
The Spokesman of the Gambia Immigration Department, Mamanding Dibba told The Chronicle that he was not aware of the presence of Gambian immigration officers in Europe to facilitate the deportation of Gambians. “Any officer who does that is acting on his or her own capacity,” he said.
A credible source close to the Foreign Ministry last week told The Chronicle that the government will place a moratorium on deportations of Gambians until it renegotiates the modalities of the repatriation of Gambians with its European partners. It’s not clear what the initial negotiations were.
Meanwhile, reports say more Gambians are languishing in European jails and deportation centers awaiting deportation.