EU escalates row with Gambia over expelled migrants

According to initial plans, the first batch of the over 2,000 ‘failed Gambian asylum seekers’ was expected to arrive in Banjul on September 1. But an official from Gambia’s Foreign Ministry responsible for diaspora affairs told local media that Gambia’s new position is not to accept requests for deportations. The Gambia has cited security concerns and the inability to reintegrate as reasons for its decision.

Gawaya Tegulle, a Ugandan expert in international law, said the move is unlawful. He argued that each sovereign state has an obligation to welcome back its nationals to its territory at any time. “Therefore, the action per se by the government of The Gambia has no place under international law,” Tegulle told DW. “It is illegal before we start even to list the demerits of the circumstances surrounding the decision.”

Tegulle also added that he disagreed with Germany’s move to send hundreds of Gambians back home.”We are seeing two wrong decisions. I do not agree that the decision to deport all these people is lawful,” Tegulle said.

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The European Union plans to tighten visa requirements for Gambian nationals — a decision that may affect the entire African continent.

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“The European Commission presented a draft implementing an act on the adoption of restrictive measures regarding short-stay visas for Gambian applicants,” the German Ministry of Internal Affairs said in a statement.

There are almost 7,000 Gambians without residence rights in Germany alone.

For Tegulle, it is unwise for the EU to deport over 2,000 people into a country grappling with soaring unemployment. “The Gambians would be more comfortable if their people come back with their arms full of gifts of gold and silver,” Tegulle said. Moreover, Tegule insisted that there is no reason why the EU should be treating people as “less than humans” in the age of globalization.

“They didn’t go to Europe to be deported back to Africa.”

With thousands of Gambians set to be deported from Germany, Yahya Sonko, a refugee activist in Germany’s state of Baden-Württemberg, said German and Gambian authorities should negotiate a deal and a clear way forward to solve this problem. “The Gambia should come up with an official statement that indicates its position in this issue. Then we will use that official position of our government to challenge different courts here, and these people will be free,” Sonko told DW.

Playing politics with migrants?

Political observers say that President Adama Barrow could be seeking political capital from his decision not to welcome migrants expelled from the EU. Gambia’s presidential election is scheduled for December 2021. But for some, like Emmanuel Bensah, an ECOWAS and AU policy analyst, several factors, including the pandemic, need to be considered before taking in the migrants.

“Gambia’s president cannot be sure of the COVID-19 status of those who are being deported. In addition, the Gambia is a small country, and the health system has not been coping so well with Covid-19,” Bensah told DW. According to him, the arrival of the migrants could be an added burden for the country. “The other thing is that the Gambian government since 2017 has become quite unpopular. The euphoria connected with Barrow winning the presidency when ECOWAS intervened to get rid of Jahmeh has died down.”

On their part, Gambian authorities have avoided making allusions to the political benefits of the move. Instead, they say the refusal to accept migrants is because of their remittances to the country’s economy. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Gambians in the diaspora remitted $588 million (€495 million) in 2020, making up for the loss in tourism revenues. Remittances from an estimated 118,000 Gambians living abroad account for over 20% of the country’s GDP.

Blaming Gambia’s government

Most Gambians have accused the government of abdicating its responsibilities. “This government is not serious about the plight of Gambians both at home and abroad,” Smith Omar, a young Gambian in Banjul, said.

“On the contrary, to the credit of European institutions, this government has received millions of euros in aid, especially for youth empowerment. But what is the impact of this youth empowerment project?” Omar asked, “It is quite clear that these projects have failed,” Omar told DW.

“I think they lost the trust of the people,” another Banjul resident told DW. “They [Gambia’s government] are doing it for their own benefit. But it is not for the benefit of people who are supposed to be deported.”

Is The Gambia setting a precedent?

There are fears that The Gambia’s refusal to welcome home migrants expelled from the EU may become the new normal for African countries.

International law expert Gawaya Tegulle says the recent Gambian decision is not isolated, citing similar incidents involving Sierra Leone, Guinea and Eritrea. He adds that in 2016, Gambia had taken similar measures, only caving in later after being threatened with sanctions by the West.

But ECOWAS policy analyst Emmanuel Bensah disagrees. He thinks that no African country can copy the Gambian example. “Sometimes these cases are rather isolated,” he said, pointing to Uganda that has been very active in receiving migrants from Afghanistan after the Taliban took control. “With what Uganda has done and is doing even for Afghans, I don’t foresee that this is going to spark a trend in other African countries.”

Bensah also regrets that the standoff between The Gambia and the EU is a test to the West African country’s diplomacy. “The EU is going to restrict visas for Gambians. That is not a good sign,” Bensah said. “But I think if they can appeal such an EU decision through ECOWAS, for example, they can get ECOWAS as an honest broker to help roll back some of the restrictions the EU wants to impose,” Bensah said.

Tegulle believes it is high time both parties held a frank discussion over the migration crisis. “This is a very delicate issue that has to be reshaped in a broader and deeper and more sincere conversation. This issue concerns human beings who deserve better than they are getting now,” he said.

Omar Wally in Banjul contributed to this article


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