Attila Lajos: Head, EU Delegation to The Gambia

Monday, January 08, 2018

The European Union has been one of the key developmental partners of The Republic of The Gambia for many decades now, enjoying cooperation in trade, infrastructure, political and other facets of development. As New Gambia marks a year after Jammeh, Journalist Sanna Camara sat down with the diplomat to discuss issues surrounding migration, aspects of bilateral cooperation, state of The Gambia today and the future.

Ques: The EU signed Valetta Action Plan with several African countries, including The Republic of The Gambia. Was there a deportation agreement with The Gambia?

Ans: No, there was no deportation agreement whatsoever.

Ques: So what did Gambia signed with The EU regarding this agreement?

Ans: Under the Valetta Agreement, EU began negotiations with government of The Gambia… during Jammeh days, the notion has been that only the uneducated were migrating and they were refusing to deal with the issue at all. With the new government, we have a completely different approach. We experienced that the government has an absolutely different approach, that is, they realized that the weight of the problem of migration. And to my understanding, the Barrow government were keen to

a. Protect Gambians wherever they are (e.g., bring those migrants back from Libya)

b. Also responsible and aware of the challenges they are facing in the country.

In 2017, between end of March and December, there are several chartered flights, on which voluntary returns came back to Gambia. They comprised those who got stranded mainly in Libya, in some other countries and those kept in horrible conditions over there. We are talking of over 1,500 migrants in 2017. The government also recognized its responsibility as to what to do with these migrants and agreed to repatriate them.

Ques: How did the EU helped in such a repatriation program?

Ans: This is where partnership can play a role of assistance: We have two renowned organisations – the International Trade centre (ITC) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) contracted from the Emergency Trust Fund to do the necessary interventions, trying to tackle, partly, the root causes, and partly, management of migration crisis.

For e.g., the chartered flights by IOM funded by the EU focuses not just on the repatriation part but also the readmission – not at the airport but into the society; reintegrating them into the society. IOM Banjul station chief can brief you more on those details than I can do. But in my view, the important thing is that those returnees are not left alone. They are treated – those who need medical attention, receive it; psychological support for those who need it and there will be support, tailor-made and rolled-out to them based on what they need, what sort of training could they have taken; in short, what is the best way for an individual to successfully reintegrate to the community, society or whatever the case is.

Ques: A lot of people do not seem to see much impact of such a repatriation program besides the mass exodus of the returnees from Libya? How is this benefitting The Gambia?

Ans: This is a project that just started in mid-2017.The IOM Banjul head office and the expatriate head of station arrived early July. We are talking about a half-year experience. It is not a long time for such a massive project. I think we still have to be a bit patient regarding the output of the project. In spite of some incidences I am aware of, I do believe that the project has just started rolling out; it takes a bit more time to have a more tangible result.

The other aspect, via the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), is also assisting this issue in the sense of assisting the youth, empowering them to have a meaningful, gainful employment in the country. The two projects are also connected in a way because some of the programs and possibilities in the YEP projects will also have participants from among the returnees. These two projects, a total of 14.9 million Euros budget, are for three years. It is quite known by now that this intervention is not enough. So the EU is already thinking how to improve this intervention, how to do more about it. You asked the question “doing more, faster?” this is one of the avenues we are trying to exploit.

Again, it is always important also to hear the other side, to hear the opinion of the government. I can tell you this: there is a project approved, rolling out but the project still in-committee include the Gambian stakeholders. So, although the project is not managed by Gambian institution per se, rather, it is the IOM as the contractor of the EU. But the Steering Committee of the project, political leadership of the project, comprises of Ministry of Interior, Immigration Department, and many other Gambian institutions. That is to make sure that in the roll-out of the program, the national interests of these institutions are taken into consideration, they are in the steering wheel.

Ques: Do these Gambian institutions play an active role in the project implementation, instead of everything being done by the IOM as the EU’s main contractor? How much involved are our institutions?

Ans: I attended the steering committee meeting at end-of-November 2017; it was very, very exciting and pleasing to see how serious all those participants are in the committee and how committed they were to making sure that the project is rolled-out in a way which is the best to the circumstances and delivers the expected results.Again, I think this is clear evidence and proof of the meaningful partnership between the EU and The Gambia in a particular project which is a hot issue – we shall not forget that most of these returnees are not happy people.

Ques: Have you ever witnessed the arrival of these migrants from Libya?

Ans: I was at the airport, on the tarmac, when a chartered flight came from Libya carrying 165 passengers. I could see the boys coming down the stairs, probably five of them smiled; the rest felt ashamed – this is something we have to work on – a stage where the community, who in some cases sent these boys on the back-way, do not consider them as losers.

For the time being, even when I talk to these young people, this is what they told me... They are afraid of going home because their communities will consider them as losers in spite of whatever horrible experiences they went through.

So we will have to work on individual, tailor-made skills development, how to reach out to the communities to make them understand that these are young, brave Gambians who survived a horrible journey, and were lucky that they could return; and how to best integrate them... But we would also have to target the very root causes why most of them left – lack of opportunities. So we are coming back to the original question of empowering, job creation, and employment creations in the country.

Ques: Is it enough to just finance the reintegration of the returnees and leaving out the root causes of migration to Europe? I mean most of these youths still face the same issues that drive them in the first place…

Ans: While we have specific projects from the EU Trust Fund targeting the issue of management of migration, many of the other projects we are running in the country in agriculture, infrastructure and other fields are also targeting the root causes of migration indirectly.

Once the country starts developing better and there will be more opportunities for young people, they will find their way in The Gambia, they will find gainful employment, they will contribute with taxes, they will establish their families here, they may go for a trip [to Europe], to learn, experience and take it home and benefit the home…

I also see a bit of difference between irregular migration and the legal migration. It is quite obvious, that the way the illegal migration is managed so far was probably not the most appropriate. So here are also considerations on how to improve the situations and how to find more legal ways of migration for Gambians.

I also believed that it needs to be viewed in a wider context because certain criminal activities, terrorist activities related to the issue of migration ingeneral and especially brought to every European home by the media, creates an environment in which this issue is suddenly delicate to discuss. But we got to carry on with talking about it, because otherwise, there is no chance to find a solution which is mutually acceptable, and which really provides for an intervention which helps the situation.

Ques: Do you believe that the past government has done enough in tackling this migration crisis?

Ans: The number of Gambians that reached Italy over the past three years is always among the top five nations, which is rather interesting and strange because of the size of the country.  So per capita, The Gambia has got the highest illegal migrants arriving in Europe. And I think this is because the past government did not deal with this social issue at all; rather they ignored the issue, and the problem just accumulated…

The new government is now confronted with the problem at its peak. I was also keen on monitoring in the local media, the attention of the society on this problem. The number of demands coming from within the society to the government to do something, to do more about it – National Assembly, political parties, NGOs, civil society – all formulated opinions and called on government to do something about it.

It shows also that there is a good degree of responsibility among The Gambians to tackle the problem, face the problem and try to find a solution. I am afraid nobody is in the process of a tip-top solution like that. This is going to stay with us for sometime. This is something we will have to keep in mind – like in the development of the country – we shall not maul the idea of paradise is coming tomorrow, no. it is going to be a difficult road and the country will not be left alone to tackle it.