Thursday, March 29, 2018

Managing a potentially explosive deportee problem

Barrow, Darboe - EU visit 
Gambia's foreign minister, Ousainou Darboe, has recently come under fire for his perceived mishandling of the return of the deportees and returnees from the United States and Europe.  He was criticized for his ministry's lack of plan of action, to include airport reception, of deportees recently repatriated from the United States. 

The absence of staff of his ministry at the airport to receive several dozens deportees from the U.S. was cited as his failure to carry out his responsibility as the minister responsible for Gambians living abroad and his general lack of interest in the deportees welfare, a claim he vehemently denied as malicious during a parliamentary session last week and on national television.

The minister explained his ministry's absence at the airport was a result of lack of notification of his ministry from the Americans which was immediately contradicted by the American Ambassador to The Gambia who said in a press statement and subsequent press interviews that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was notified "well in advance...of the charter flight,...and the Gambian government authorized the flight's landing clearance and arranged for the appropriate personnel to be on hand for its arrival." 

It is therefore safe to deduct that the appropriate personnel being referred to by the U.S. Ambassador are principally made up of immigration and customs personnel since the foreign minister's statement before the National Assembly admitted that no foreign ministry staff was on hand to receive the deportees.       

An airport reception party composed of Foreign Affairs and Interior Ministry personnel should, as a matter of courtesy and duty, be present at every occasion to receive deportees and returnees but the problem is much more complex and too serious that it poses an existential threat to the country, and the mitigating measures are sometimes outside the control of receiving countries and The Gambia is one of those countries more vulnerable than many African countries.

The handling (or mishandling) of the airport reception by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs led to Gambian refugees in camps, their relatives, as well as ordinary Gambians and political pundits to kick up a storm against the foreign minister and other officials which, in our view, was dispassionately harsh when one considers the mundane task of airport reception as being the easiest part of the deportee/returnee problem the country is likely to face in the future.  Tens of thousands of Gambians returnees and deportees are expected to be repatriated in the coming months from Europe and America.

Gambia, the smallest country on the African continent, defied all statistical probabilities by contributing a proportionally higher percentage of economic and political refugees to Europe via Libya and the Mediterranean than larger contributing countries to the current refugee crisis.  The human wave towards Europe in the last decade has been the largest human migration since WWII and The Gambia has been a significant contributor to it. 

In addition to its small size, Gambia's is among the least prepared to absorb the deportees and returnees because it is emerging from over two decades of one of Africa's most brutal dictatorship that has weakened the country's institutions and devastated a once thriving economy rendering its employment generating capacity ineffectual.  Self-employment becomes a viable option as a result. 

As Europe and America ramp up its deportation orders, the pressure will mount on the Barrow administration to create an environment conducive to a successful resettlement program that will include jobs and self-employment opportunities.  The communities can play a crucial role by serving as a social safety net but that role will not play a prominent role in our policy tool box as the foreign minister envisaged in his response to National Assembly members. 

A successful resettlement program must go beyond providing stipend to every deportee and returnee to include vocational and skills training programs to prepare them for private sector as well as self-employment opportunities. 

As local hostilities toward immigrants in general and "illegals" in particular grow in intensify, The Gambia should expect to receive a large number of its citizens from Europe and America in the years ahead as nationals in Europe and America demand to have their respective "countries back."  And as right-wing nationalists gain larger share of political power, they will exert more pressure on their electorates and liberal colleagues for stricter immigration laws.  Contributing countries like The Gambia should expect more deportees and returnees into the foreseeable future.

In fact, things would have been worse if the European Union had its way.   The EU initial plan was to mass deport Africans migrants by issuing them with laissez passez, effectively determining who is Gambian and who is Nigerian.  When the African leaders, led by Macky Sall of Senegal vehemently objected, the EU backtracked and came up with the $2 billion Trust Fund as additional aid package to help resettle the returnees.

Despite the existence of the Trust Fund and the abandonment of the mass deportation idea, the resettlement program is still a controversial one in the Gambia with questions raised about the lack of transparency in both what has been agreed to between the EU and The Gambia and also between bilateral partners and the government.  Claims have been made and threats issued by a section of the refugee communities across Europe that the government was readily willing to sign off on the deportation orders instead of taking a stronger stance that would guarantee their stay in Europe.

There is clearly a segment of the returnees who are disgruntled enough to be a destabilizing force should they return to a country that is still in transition and lacks the wherewithal to effectively manage a successful resettlement program. 

Prospective deportees currently resident in refugee camps have been reported to have burnt down shelters they are housed arson in anger that they are being deported and recordings have surfaced in social media uttering threatening remarks against the state.  These developments can easily be dispelled as empty threats and marks of frustration with no consequence to national security.