Gambia migrants queuing to board a repatriation flight from Libya

Hardly a day goes by without a discussion on the migrants (including refugees) who have entered Europe in large numbers since 2015. Under the European Union Commission’s New Partnership Framework launched in 2016, one of the major short-term objectives is to ‘increase the rate of returns to countries of origin’, and last week, the president of the EU Commission announced a ‘more effective EU policy on return’. That said, return is tricky. It is unclear how effective it is in deterring future migration. And it may even have detrimental effects on the countries of origin. Take the Gambia for example.

Gambia became a symbol for democratic change earlier this year when former dictator Yahya Jammeh was peacefully ousted through the ballot box. However, more than two decades of dictatorship have left their mark on this tiny country in West Africa. The new government led by Adama Barrow has its work cut out to rebuild the country.

Gambians were among the top nationalities leaving West Africa for Italy in 2016. In total 11,929  Gambians arrived last year. But because they have a new democratically-elected government, European countries are now looking to increase the returns of Gambian migrants. A Working Party on Integration, Migration and Expulsion has already met at the European Council to discuss a draft agreement on returns between the EU and the Gambia.

A key element of return to the Gambia is the role that returnees can play once they are back and how well accepted they will be. Without a thriving labour market such reintegration will be challenging and at worst could lead to conflict among a group of frustrated young men.

Difficulty of reintegrating economically

The first challenge for returnees is that their chances of employment once they’re back in The Gambia remains slim. General unemployment is at 29.8%, and for youth it is estimated to be 38.5%.

Efforts are being made to tackle the root causes of migration by creating jobs. For example, new development projects are being launched in the Gambia including a 13-million-dollar EU Emergency Trust Fund project. This is a good start, but the project has just been launched and will take time to implement. It has also been criticised for a lack of ownership, with the implementing agent, the International Trade Centre, having only recently opened a project office in the Gambia.

A further EU-funded regional re-integration project is also in the pipeline. Initiatives like this are very much in line with the incentives policy contained in the European Partnership Framework.

But is the money being used wisely? Reintegrating also needs to be visible at a societal and political level.

Rumours that government ministers have signed repatriation agreements in return for development funds are rife. Even though the rumours have been consistently denied they point to the fact that economic redevelopment has been heavily politicised.

This doesn’t help individual migrants who still need viable opportunities to re-establish themselves. Otherwise there is little reason not to emigrate again. At worst the frustration of returnees could lead to conflict.

The potential for conflict

Large numbers of young men returning without prospects of employment could have security implications for the young democracy. Though voluntary returns will be prioritised, a considerable number of cases are likely to be involuntary.

The potentially explosive levels of frustration already hold true for returnees from Libya. Since March 2017, the International Organisation for Migration has sought to voluntarily return Gambians home from Libya. In August, it identified 1,979 Gambians living in Libya.

By September 2017, 1,119 Gambians had been returned. When a focus group of 15 were questioned in a recent study, they said that they returned because of the gravity of their situation in detention centres in Libya, and to a degree, by the hope that things would be different in the new Gambia.

But the returnees were increasingly frustrated. Firstly, they were angry at returning home empty-handed. When they agreed to return they were under the impression that they would get reintegration funds from the International Organisation for Migration. But only the most vulnerable returnees received any.

And returnees felt abandoned by the new government. Again, they were under the impression that government representatives would welcome them home in person and give them a chance to voice their concerns.

During the focus group, one discussant concluded:

“If this happens to continue, then we can do something crazy.”

Slow and well-managed returns

Despite the political pressure for returns, European countries need to make sure they allow for a slow and well-managed process. This includes skills-training prior to return – and not just for refugees. This would allow a country like Gambia to create more employment opportunities in order to successfully reintegrate those who come back.

Those who have already returned need to be given a constructive and peaceful outlet for their grievances. Ultimately, to ensure successful repatriation returnees need to be represented politically so that they can have a stake in the future development of their country. In that way, the shame in returning home empty-handed might be easier to deal with. Otherwise, there will only be further (re)migration at a great humanitarian cost.

By Franzisca Zanker

The author is a Senior Research Fellow at Freiburg University, Germany  

The article was originally published on The Conversation.

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