At least 469 Gambians have been repariated from Libya this year since President Adama Barrow took power and more are expected to return before the year ends.
Up to 160 Gambians who were languishing in Libyan jails were repatriated to The Gambia late on Thursday night through the support of the International Organization for Migration.
This is the third time the IOM has repatriated Gambians this year. About 140 Gambians were onboard IOM’s first chartered flight from Libya which arrived in Banjul on March 10.
A second flight from Libya, carrying 169 stranded Gambians, followed on 4 April, and another 290 have signed up for IOM’s EU-funded voluntary return programme, the IOM said.
The Gambia is one of Africa’s smallest nations, with a population of just under two million.
And yet its citizens have consistently ranked among the top five nationalities taking the Central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy.
Since the fall of The Gambia’s strongman Yahya Jammeh, hundreds of young migrants who left The Gambia to go to Europe via Libya have started coming back.
Bubacarr Touray, 24, who was among the repatriated Gambians, said their living conditions in Libya, especially in jails, were horrible.
There are people who have been shot dead by gunmen and no one knows who they are, whether government or rebels, Touray said as they arrived at the Banjul International Airport.
Sulayman Ceesay, 26, also a Gambian jailed in Libya, said sometimes they are denied food and water in jail.
It is the IOM that helped us with food when they found us in jail, Ceesay said.
The deputy permanent secretary at The Gambia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, Ebrima Jobe, told journalists at the airport that the security situation in the North African country makes it difficult for countries to access people in jails.
There is conflict in Libya and that makes it difficult for countries to send a delegation there, he said.
Giuseppe Loprete, the head of IOM mission in Niger, a desert country bordering Libya, said that migrants they have encountered telling stories of abuse, exploitation, false promises and violence.
From 2016 to March 2017, the IOM has facilitated the voluntary return of 6,500 migrants from Libya and Algeria to Senegal, Guinea Conakry including 600 from The Gambia.
In many cases these journeys last for months and smugglers are always asking for money to continue. Migrants are forced to call their families who send them money. If they do not, migrants are abandoned in the desert or remain in detention especially in Libya, Loprete said.
Many migrants of different nationalities – including Gambia – reported stories of exploitation, including slavery, at the hands of smugglers from different nationalities. Criminal networks are well developed and migrants are victims of this system. They pay to travel, and then they pay to eat and remain in transit, then pay again to be released if they are lucky, he added.
According to the official figures from the Italian Ministry of Interior, 11,929 Gambians arrived in Italy in 2016 and 2,232 in March 2017 alone.
The Gambia is among the top 10 countries for arrivals on Italian shores.
In Libya, IOM and the UN estimate that 250,000 migrants are present, most of them without resources to reach Tripoli or to go back. They are stranded and in need of urgent help.
While the IOM has no information on people detained in jails; based on these figures it is likely that thousands of Gambians are currently in Libya, in various locations and are likely in need of help to return home safely, Loprete said.
There were 21 Gambian minors among the returnees as well as three women and two people who were badly injured.
Loprete said Gambians continue to be among the main nationalities using the desert route to Italy via Libya and that has not changed over the last two to three years.
In particular Gambian nationals are younger than others, many unaccompanied minors are among them and this is an additional challenge as their return has to be coordinated with the judges after the family is informed, he stated.
However, Gambians who returned in the country on April 4 have now formed an association to discourage the irregular migration through the desert route.
Mustapha Sallah, the association’s secretary general, told journalists that they want to help the youth of The Gambia and fight against irregular migration.
Youth unemployment in Gambia is currently at 38%.
Gambians returnees have told journalists that there are dozens of Senegalese in Libyan jails who long to come back home but their consulate in Tripoli is not helping them.
Senegalese are in the same jails as us but their consulate is asking for money to help them. They are suffering, they alleged.
Gambian returnees have thanked the Gambian consulate who they said are working very hard in Libya to save the people.