Europe is paying to keep young Gambians from trying to cross the Mediterranean

Trying to keep them off the boat.
Trying to keep them off the boat.
Image: AP Photo/Santi Palacios File
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With funding from Europe, the Gambia’s government has devised a roadmap to keep young people off the “back way” and away from Europe.

The Gambian government launched a policy initiative on May 15 called Youth and Trade Roadmap to create jobs and make the Gambia’s market more amenable to young entrepreneurs—all paid for by Europe. It’s the latest in an attempt by European nations to reverse illegal migration by sending aid and other forms of incentives to African governments.

So many young Gambians risked their lives to leave their country via the so-called “back way”   that they are now Europe’s second-largest diaspora, as a share of a home-country population of just 1.8 million. In 2016, 11,929 Gambians arrived in Italy and Greece. At home, more than two decades of Yahya Jammeh’s rule left high unemployment and a debt that is at least 130% of the country’s GDP and the kind of environment many chose to flee from.

With Jammeh gone, Europe is not only trying to send young Gambians home, they’re trying to create an economy that will keep them at home. In 2015 the European Union launched the Trust Fund for Africa, a more than $2 billion program  specifically created to address “the root causes of destabilization, forced displacement and irregular migration” in the Sahel and Lake Chad region, North Africa and Horn of Africa.

In the Gambia, the fund is administered by the International Trade Center, a joint agency of the United Nations and World Bank that champions “aid for trade,” which recently opened a project office in Banjul. All of this happened within breakneck speed by bureaucratic standards.

This particular “roadmap” is part of the Gambian government’s  Youth Empowerment Project, itself funded by the trust and managed by the ITC. Launched last year, the Youth Empowerment Project began almost as soon as the first group of young Gambians opted to return home as Jammeh left. But those returnees now find themselves frustrated in a country that still offers little opportunities, and internationally funded programs that are still unable to meet their needs, according to a new study (pdf). Some felt “betrayed” and “abandoned” by the new regime, so much so that analysts fear that angry young people may cause unrest. Young Gambians left for Europe so they could also send money back home, and now those who have returned find themselves empty-handed.

Jammeh’s departure means the Gambia also became a test case for reversing the tide of migration across the Mediterranean. While the jobs roadmap and similar projects certainly have noble ambitions, the idea that African youth are the focus of these programs just to keep them out of Europe is potentially problematic because it serves the needs of Europe’s governments, not the Gambia’s youth.