Gambia: Over 50 youths detained by rebels, unknown numbers died, dozens stranded

By Sanna Camara

Despite facing deaths and kidnappings by rebels, dozens of Gambian youths have been reportedly stranded in the Sahara desert on their journey to Europe. Those captured have to pay their way out, source confirmed last week.


At least 1,000 African migrants leave every week from Agadez, the largest city in central Niger, to cross the Sahara to Libya. The city lies in the Sahara and is one of the traditional TuaregBerber federations. It has become the main point of convergence and departure for African migrants travelling across the desert to Libya, and Europe.

As a result, many of these migrants lose their monies to bandits, trafficking and smuggling groups, and are left stranded in the desert countries. In some cases, they face kidnappings by bandits and rebels, migration researchers have said.

Reports say over fifty Gambians are among those being held at Mauritania/Algeria border by rebel groups. These groups demand ransom from captives before they would be released.

Over a hundred captured in past few months

A detainee who reached out to Gambia Beat blog said hundreds of African migrants were captured and detained by rebels and other groups operating in the Sahara. Among them were over a hundred Gambians.

“Now we number around eighty…. We used to be over a hundred here. The rebels insist we pay ransom before we will be released,” the detainee said.

As they cannot turn to government for help in such situations, captured migrants say they depend on their families back in Gambia to send them money for the continuation of their journey to Europe.

“Those whose families sent them monies paid their ways out while the rest of us are still here,” said another desperate Gambian youth who apparently fled the Gambian Army to embark on this backway journey to Europe by land.

“We cannot turn to government because it is because of government we are fleeing our country,” the ex-soldier said. In good times, as low as 50 Euros can buy your freedom out of captivity… But again you are left with no money to go ahead.

‘The whole backway journey is a trap…’

Giacomo Zandonini, an Italian Swiss Freelance Journalist and reporter who focuses on refugees and migrants arriving in Europe said that many Gambians are indeed facing torrid times in the Sahara. Mr. Zandonini spoke to Gambia Beat from Niamey, where he was on an investigative mission on backway migrants.

“These youths are stranded with no money in Niamey for weeks or months…. The only way to go on is to ask money [from] back home and become part of the smuggling network,” he added.

Once their cash runs out, the African migrants “survive because you become part of the system” – you do small jobs for the ghetto chiefs… And sometimes they give you basic food. Then you’ll pay them when family sends you money, Giacomo explained.

The story is the same for routes through Mali, Burkina, Niger, and Libya, according to the journalist: “The whole backway journey is a trap like this at the moment.”

Gambians don’t want to return back

Ironically, not all migrants are willing to return home even after going through unimaginable difficulties in the Sahara. “While Senegalese or Guineans sometimes go back, Gambians rarely decide to go back,” said Giacomo Zandonini.

“I just met one Gambian minor who decided to do it,” he said, but added that most of those he met swore to remain than return to Gambia. Asked what must have been responsible for such an unfortunate decision, Mr. Zandonini said, “Mostly, they say it is because of [President] Jammeh and the poor economy”

He could not come up with estimated number of Gambians among the stranded migrant population because “these ghettos are mostly hidden on the edge of town.”  The journalist said he met many Gambians in Niamey and Agadez; in ghettos and bus stations, with no monies and no work. Sometimes, they are forced to engage in drug trafficking, just to survive out there.

Gambians among the highest number of arrivals

According to recent statistics from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), migrant arrivals in Europe by sea reached 23, 664 in the first 14 days of 2016. As the leading inter-governmental organization in the field of migration, IOM has been monitoring the situation and regularly publishes data and statistics to better understand the “migration crisis”.

In October 2015, IOM published a report that ranked The Gambians among the highest number of arrivals to Italy in the first quarter of 2015, with more than a thousand migrants. This figure was surprisingly greater than Senegal, Somalia, Syria, Mali and Eritrea considering their population size.

According to the Italian Government 8, 454 migrants from The Gambia arrived in Italy in 2015, ranking The Gambia as fifth highest for migrant arrivals to Italy after Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan.

War torn Syria registered 7,448 arrivals in the same period, that’s a thousand less migrants than supposedly peaceful country like The Gambia. That number of arrivals highlights how many survivors made it to the end of their journey.

Further reporting by Yusef Taylor,


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