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Inside Gambia: Where Poverty Sends Youths On Deadly Journeys

Yunus Ceesay lived in abject poverty for 20 years in Barra, a town located at the entrance of North Bank Region from the capital, Banjul. His compound lies about 100 meters from the terminal – off the Atlantic Ocean.

Poverty has visibly taken a toll on his family, with the compound left virtually open to public sight from afar due to lack of a covered perimeter fence. Instead, they managed to weave corrugated iron sheets to surround the compound just to escape destruction by domestic animals and offer a semblance of privacy to their lives.

Yunus, being the first male-born of the house, was eventually forced away from home by frustration of his daily realities of life. He had a dream to overturn this situation and to him, this can only be achieved in Europe – it doesn’t matter how he gets there. Like many others, it was a matter of ‘get rich or die trying’. And he tried and died as he approached the Canary Islands.

Yunus Ceesay was a student of Gambia Senior Secondary School in Banjul

“Sometimes he would come and tell me about the condition of the family, especially his mother. I always responded that I feel for the family, but Allah is the giver. We’re poor but there’s hope. I will surely miss him,” Yunus father, Samba Ceesay broke down in tears as he spoke to The Chronicle in his compound.

Samba knew that Yunus strongly harbored the interest of travelling to Europe through the “back way”. But he would always discourage him and ask him to focus on his education.

“I had always tried to make him  avoid a situation that will frustrate him. I always engaged him to focus on his education because I know his of his intelligence. I used to chat with him a lot. Sometimes people would remind him that I am his father when our conversation gets to a certain stage because he was so used to me which was normal to me. He was my best friend.”

Before his death, he was preparing for his graduation at Gambia Senior Secondary School in Banjul. According to his father, Yunus had an impressive academic track record which is why he was always engaging him to stay focused. Apart from education, Yunus was a great young footballer in Barra too.

“He was a handsome boy. He was very skillful in football and widely known in the community. He had this strong belief that he must play for Barcelona. They called him all sorts of names like Messi and some would call him ‘Energy.’ He always dreamt of playing for The Gambia’s squad. He always talked about reaching Germany to become that expert, but I always discouraged him to focus on his education. He was very intelligent in school. He was my left and right. He was my best friend. He was my son but also my friend,” Samba told The Chronicle.

His father had always been his stumbling block on using the “back way” to Europe. But on this particular occasion when Yunus planned to leave, he found it easier as Samba was away in Dakar. His father works in a Chinese trawler in the Senegalese capital. They normally travel across West African shores to catch fish. At the time of the boat accident which occurred off the coast of Mauritania, in which Yunus and 61 other Gambians were killed, his father was also in the waters around Guinea Conakry. He learned the accident through the trawler’s GPS system.

Samba Ceesay, father of Yunus pose for a picture in his compound in Barra

He recalled being upset even without confirming that the catastrophe involved Gambians more so his son. According to Samba, it was a sad feeling that hit him into silence until they arrived in Dakar when he hurriedly contacted home and learned that a boat had left for the “back way” – though it was not yet confirmed if Yunus was onboard.

“While in the trawler, I told the crew members that my son could be there because he has been pursuing me for this trip and I always resisted his plans. I thought that if my son was among them, then he’s dead. I had this thought because he always talked to me about these boats that leave for Spain. I always discouraged him not to go.

“When I returned home, I asked his mother where did Yunus get the money from? But she told me that the boy put a lot of pressure on her until she couldn’t stand it anymore and decided to give him an amount of D5, 000. To her, such amount is far too less and she believed that the boat owners will reject him so that she can be at peace.”

“He was my first son. It’s very sad for me. Look at this compound and how it is – he could have helped us a lot especially his mother if he was alive.”

The contribution of Gambians in the diaspora towards the country’s economy is the leading push factor that motivates Yunus and others to risk their lives. The overseas remittances of an estimated 90,000 Gambians living abroad accounts for over 20 percent of the country’s GDP, according to IOM.

The death of a young mother

Ya Jojo Bojang, 27, was also among the dead in the boat accident off the coast of Mauritania. She left Barra along with Yunus and others hoping to reach Spain through the Canary Islands.

“I traveled and returned on Wednesday around 8pm or 9pm. I asked about Ya Jojo and her 7-year-old child told me that she traveled through the “back way”. I asked which side did they go and the child told me at the beach side,” her mother Katty Joh explained to The Chronicle.

“That was the time I left for the beach and I found a group of boys there. I called her number but her phone was off and I asked people on the beach and they told me that the boat had left. I then prayed for their safe journey as there was nothing I could do.”

She said no one knew her plan before she left.

“The following day, it became public that the boat left but I was quiet about it. I did not want to tell anyone that my daughter was among them as my mind was not steady. I couldn’t sit comfortably either and my mood changed, and I became sick.”

Katty Joh, mother of Ya Jojo

A week later, Katty learned about the accident of the boat around Mauritania. Her anxiety increased even without confirming if it involved her daughter.

“I decided to call The Gambian diplomatic staff in Mauritania who is a relative of mine, and he  confirmed the accident but did not know those involved. He only said that 22 women were among the dead. I decided to send him the photo of my daughter for confirmation.”

Katty’s frustration intensified the following day when the rumors of many deaths became widespread and She grew increasingly uncomfortable. As minutes passed-by, she saw people coming to her but no one told her anything.

“On the whole, they had confirmed the news of the death of my daughter through one of the survivors who recorded a voice note naming those who died. My daughter was mentioned. That’s how we came to know it. This is the shock we are still dealing with here. The shock is too much.”

Ya Jojo graduated from Glory Baptist Senior Secondary School. Before her death, she was working at a local restaurant called Dreams around Senegambia, according to her mother.

“For me I thank God because this must happen. It’s destined to happen. It was destined that she will die at sea and will be buried away from home.

“She was a daughter who helped me a lot and had a big heart for her parents. She loves her only child endlessly too. I can’t explain how sad I am feeling. I am really broken. But I take it in good faith,” she said.

Employment problem – a blame on government 

Even though Samba did not sponsor his son’s trip to embark on irregular migration, he refused to blame the youths for the menace.

“These boys are also frustrated to see their parents in extreme poverty. These boys are frustrated because means of employment are not decentralized. See for instance in Barra, where a lot of fishing activities could take place,  no factory could be set up to employ natives of the community to survive. This is a fundamental reason why these boys are leaving,” he told The Chronicle.

He disproved the notion that Gambian youth are aimless citing that employable companies and factories could only be available in the greater Banjul area while the rest of the other communities are being neglected and natives are dying of poverty and hunger.

Like Yunus, it was no secret that Ya Jojo harbored plans of  traveling to Europe. However, she had tried several visa applications and got rejected by many embassies, according to her mother.

“She had applied for a visa several times, spending huge amounts of money but she never secured a visa. This could be the cause for her frustration and we hope this legal process of travelling is also eased up so that the young ones in town would not suffer a similar fate.”

But before all that, she tasked the government to create more employment opportunities with better pay to enable young stars to stay.

Lamin Darboe, Executive Director of National Youth Council

Executive director of National Youth Council (NYC), Lamin Darboe said the young people are leaving due to hopelessness in the country.

“What we cannot reassure is that whether these people have opportunity they will not go back. The expectations must be fulfilled to determine their stay,” he said.

Security failures 

Samba could not fathom as to how his son and over a hundred others could leave the shores of The Gambia without being tracked by the police, navy, immigration or fire services who are all present in Barra.

“We heard that some of them have entrusted their belongings with the police and immigration in Barra. Before they could do that, why not stop them? The first thing they could have done is to stop the boat. Every boat that leaves here, police must know about it,” he told The Chronicle.

Katty also urged the government to explore all means possible to end irregular migration through proper security surveillance. “Let them be everywhere – in the sea, land and in the air.”

“You cannot convince me that security were not involved in this saga. I expected them to intercept this boat from leaving because it’s their responsibility. Maybe it could be a deal, who knows?” she insinuated.

African migrants making the perilous journey to Europe: photo credit @UN

Meanwhile, the police have announced the launch of an investigative panel on Tuesday that is probing into circumstances of the boat accident.

The Gambia has been among the top producers of irregular migrants to Europe in recent years. Several of its citizens had died too. However, claiming at least 62 lives at ago is so far the greatest tragedy that hit the country as far as this journey is concerned.

The European Union’s 11 million euros Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) was launched in 2017 to address unemployment problem which will put an end to irregular migration through entrepreneurship. However, those who are engaged in such businesses are not being helped by the lack of market for their goods especially for agribusiness products.

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