Why you should care
Because tens of thousands have lost their lives trying to flee to Europe.
It’s 11am at 100.4 Capital FM, self-described as “Gambia’s most powerful FM radio station.” Alieu, a regular caller, is on the line again to have his usual debate with host Mustapha Sallah about why men in their 20s like himself have no future in Gambia. There’s no way Alieu is staying; he’s saved for months to leave by any means necessary. “No matter how hard it is for you here, it’s better than what you’d experience on your journey,” argues Sallah, regarding the unconventional, and illegal route Alieu intends to take to reach Europe. The reality, Sallah warns Alieu, is that he’ll become a slave or lose his life.
Sallah speaks from experience. Following his own harrowing trip, he’s one of thousands of Gambians who have been flown back from Libya as part of the European Union-funded returns and reintegration program run by the United Nations.
Some people were burned alive. If you tried to escape, they would shoot you.
The returns form part of vigorous European efforts to curb irregular migration — efforts to enter another country without using conventional or legal pathways — particularly by Italy, which pays the Libyan coast guard to keep smuggler-operated boats out of Italian seas and in Libya. The policies have received serious criticism, and Amnesty International says that the EU and Italy are complicit in the abuse occurring in Libya, where terrorists and militias roam, and two competing governments have failed to unite the country.
Better to nip the migration in the bud, Sallah says, which the 27-year-old is trying to do as co-founder of Youths Against Irregular Migration (YAIM). His 30-minute “YAIM Time” call-in radio show is but one aspect of his group, which also backs skills training initiatives and other work on the ground in the most desperate corners of the country.
Around 0.5 percent of Gambia’s 2 million population leaves each year, according to UNICEF. The country is trying to climb back from the debts piled up by recently exiled dictator Yahya Jammeh; the World Bank reports that remittances now make up around 21 percent of the Gambian economy. A lack of legal pathways means that many people take “the back way,” as Sallah calls it, to leave.
While the number of migrants using the central Mediterranean route is declining, 679,897 remained trapped in Libya as of June, according to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration. The experience can be terrifying. There are numerous reports out of Libya of beatings, torture, sexual abuse and inhumane living conditions in detention centers.
Sallah himself withstood such beatings and was even enslaved. He recalls coming under attack by Libyan soldiers in January 2017, when his room in the Tripoli suburbs was raided. “Some people were burned alive. If you tried to escape, they would shoot you,” he says.
Sallah embarked on his return journey in May 2016. Growing up in a poor family in the coastal town of Serekunda, Sallah had worked hard at school so that his mother, a market vendor, could retire. After winning a scholarship to study computer science in Taiwan, he borrowed money from his sister and traveled to the nearest embassy, in Nigeria, only to have his visa application refused.
Fearing discrimination in Gambia for coming back empty-handed, Sallah reasoned that there was only one country between him and Libya from which he could reach Europe. “Except that country, Niger, was bigger than half of West Africa,” he recalls, “It takes four or five days to cross the deserts of Niger. If you lose your way, it can take you weeks, even months. You can die there.”
No one had warned Sallah of the horrors he would encounter in his attempts to reach Europe, and that lack of cautionary tales is why he agreed when fellow Gambian Karamo Keita, whom he met in detention, suggested they set up YAIM so that they could warn others. “We registered 171 young Gambians inside the prison itself,” Sallah says. But that number dwindled to 30 as many became disenchanted back in Gambia when the support promised by the U.N. and EU never materialized.
Sallah’s natural leadership leads many to address him as “Bai,” a sign of respect. Articulate and well-informed, he speaks with intensity and candor. The shootings, enslavement, beatings and torture he has witnessed give him unwavering focus and bitterness, but also compassion. His may be a case of all work and no play: Any spare moment he gets, Sallah says, he’ll sit down with a book by his favorite spiritual leader, Baye Niass.
In addition to hosting the radio show, Sallah and Keita, 35, travel the country for YAIM’s Summer Caravan program, spreading the word to young people about the dangers of migrating. “We both promised ourselves that we’d take this seriously, and we’re full time without being paid,” Keita says. “It’s not easy.” For income, Sallah uses his IT skills and tries to pick up work here and there, while Keita sometimes sells mobile phones at the market.
Testimonials suggest they’re doing something right. Women who would have sponsored their children to make the journey concede they’ll never send them now. One told Sallah: “I believe what you’ve narrated because my son suffered the same fate.” Sallah said he and Keita convinced them to support their children at home instead.
But fixing the migration problem requires more than warning people about the dangers. Gambians need jobs and opportunities at home. A lack of funding for workshops and other programming is holding YAIM back, says Nelson Aigbe, director of the Grace Foundation, which helps train returnees. YAIM’s message is spreading, but meaningful change can only happen if the youth have something to stay for.
Celita Suares, director of U.K.-based Red Entertainment, an artist management company that has initiated an anti-slavery campaign, is helping sponsor YAIM with approximately $300 a year per student for four students in job-training courses, plus another $300 for transportation and materials. She says more structure and process may open more doors. “There might be places they go with the Summer Caravan that’s last minute,” Suares says. “We can’t work on last minute. Sometimes I have to say no.”
Sallah believes help should also come from European governments. “They’re spending a lot of money and giving it to Libyans to keep Africans out of Europe,” he says. “They should give it to associations like us that are convincing them not to leave in the first place.”
It took months of interaction, but Alieu, the regular “YAIM Time” caller, ended up siding with Sallah. Instead of spending his savings to attempt a potentially deadly trip, he’s investing it in his market stall.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Mustapha Sallah
- What’s the last book you read? Ruhul Adab (The Teachings of Baye Niass)
- What do you worry about? I worry that if the youth of Gambia all leave, who will look after the country.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Family and friends.
- Who’s your hero? Baye Niass. He was a Senegalese scholar. His knowledge did not come from school or from travels; he learned everything he knew from his father.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? I want to see the whole world and see how they live there, see how we connect with each other to make the world a better place.