Dangerous migration isn't the only answer, Africans tell Celia Thompson

In November 2016, Ali Mbengu, a popular Gambian wrestler known as ‘Mille Franc’ (thousand franc), drowned in the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Italy.

A month before, 19-year-old Fatim Jawara, goalkeeper of The Gambia's women's football team, also drowned triggering more questions around impulsive and unsafe migration.

According to Reuters, the country’s football federation said Jawara was on board a boat that ran into trouble while crossing from Libya to Europe, adding that many of the undocumented migrants who arrive in Italy are Gambians.

More than 4,200 migrants have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean in 2016.

“Since 2006, the crowds started using the beaches and fishing pirogues in Senegal to head to Canary Islands, and thousands started drowning," said  Aisha Dabo, member of the League of African Digital Activists for Democracy Africtivists, on migration routes.

"(First) the Senegal-Mauritania-Morocco-Ceuta and Meila route was used, then the Sahara route through Niger, Mali, and Libya were used to get to Italy, the Mali-Niger-Chad-Sudan-Egypt route to Turkey, then Eastern Europe from Turkey to Western Europe," Dabo added.

"Another route was to Israel, mostly through Sudan then Egypt, Gaza, then Israel, before Israel found third countries in Africa who have agreed to host the migrants," she said.

Before the war began in Yemen, thousands would cross the Gulf of Aden for Yemen or head to Gulf countries from there.

“Natural borders like the Sahara and the seas eat up thousands. Counting the number of people who have died in the Sahara is more difficult as it is a no-man’s land,” Dabo noted.

In tribute to Fatim Jawara,  the Red Scorpion Coach told local media, “We are not aware of Jawara being frustrated but the Red Scorpion players were not paid salaries.”

Fatim played for the Red Scorpions football club in Serekunda, and was a member of the squad that represented Gambia in the 2012 under-17 World Cup in Azerbaijan, having first joined the team in 2009.

Not being paid salaries is as common a problem as unemployment in the region. 

In September 2016, Ghana’s female under 17 football players refused to leave their hotel rooms in Accra over unpaid salaries, after arriving from Jordan where they participated in the FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup finals. 

After much criticism from the press and social media, each player was paid US$ 1,000 to break camp. This was not the first time Ghanaian footballers had protested over money.

During the World Cup, the male national team refused to attend training. The Ghanaian government had to fly money to Brazil for payments to be made.

'Migration patterns trends, and drivers" 

The question of why the sons and daughters of The Gambia are turning their backs on ‘the smiling coast of Africa’ has become a very poignant one. But the phenomenon is not unique to the country, which has been under one party rule for over two decades.

Fatoumatta Sandeng, 22, is the daughter of Solo Sandeng, an opposition politician who died in police custody. She has been in exile in Senegal since May 2016.
“It is so disheartening that our young people are all embarking on this dangerous journey. It’s not good for the country because we have already lost a lot of young people. Unfortunately, many more are on the way and it seems nothing can stop them now because of the situation in our country,” Sandeng said.

Some of the key indicators forcing Gambians to flee are income inequality and repression, she added.

“Our economy is down the drain. People do not have a voice to speak against the government. The media is censored, the judiciary is censored…everything is censored,” she said.

'Homegrown solutions'

Sainey MK Marenah, 30, is a Gambian journalist, also living in exile in Senegal since November 2014. He thought that his compatriots are making the journey of ‘no return’ out of desperation.

Sainey, who hosts a weekly online radio show about democracy, good governance, human rights, and development in The Gambia, fled soon after he was released for writing an article about the political defection of young supporters of the ruling party to the main opposition camp.

Mr. Marenah said that many Gambians like Fatim, who embark on this dangerous journey, have lost hope in their country that fails to provide the job opportunities and environment for young people to succeed.

Marie Ndiaye, a Senegalese screenwriter and film producer, shared some testimonies on migration.

“Young people in my neighborhood have made the trip. Some were lucky to reach Spain and realize their dreams, but they first had to face difficult challenges in Morocco. Two other young people from a Dakar suburb experienced a dramatic journey aboard a canoe. One of them came back amputated, claiming that the engine heat of the canoe had kept him alive but cost him his leg while his friend died ‘cold and hungry’ in front of him,” she said.

Marie, in collaboration with her friends of the Senegalese Association, Atelier Niamantou, is working to raise awareness of the dangers of unsafe migration through a short animation, entitled ‘Quest’.

In the film, which they hope to present at FESPACO 2017, four boys and a girl from different African countries meet on the paths of migration. They are looking for a better life but the quest ends at the border between Morocco and Spain as a result of the death of one of them.

During her research, she was shocked by a taxi driver who told her that despite the risks, if he could pay for the trip, he would try his luck because while he earns crumbs, he sees youth who leave and shortly after can afford a house, a beautiful wedding or pay for the pilgrimage to Mecca for their parents.

Speaking to West Africa Democracy radio in Dakar on migration after the BREXIT referendum, AU Director at the Open Society Foundation Ibrahima Kane advised that Africa must take leadership in dealing with its crisis.

“We should be thinking of how we can treat our people well so that they don’t want to go Europe. I am talking about the doctors, the nurses who make up almost 30 percent of the UK doctors and nurses. If we can attract those people within the continent by giving them a better deal, they will stay because they are safer in their own countries rather than Europe,” he said.

'Destinations for the unpaid and unemployed'

But it is not only Europe that has become a beacon of hope for those seeking a greener pasture. Gulf countries are also an attraction for Africa’s unemployed and underpaid.

Felicia, 35, a self-employed hairdresser in Greater Accra, explained how she had planned to make the trip to Saudi Arabia in 2014.

 "I am a single mother and make about 800 Ghc a month (approximately $200). After I pay my house and shop rents, buy electricity, attend to some of my child’s educational needs and we eat, there is nothing left. Every month, every year, it is the same thing. I started this business almost 5 years ago (2010) and I have not been able to save a cedi,” she said.

Felicia was all set to make the trip to Saudi but she chickened out after she heard stories of how her compatriots, who had made the trip were mistreated by their employers.

“What really frightened me was when one of my friends, who had gone to Kuwait came back all swollen up and without a penny. She explained to me how she worked long hours, ate little food and was physically abused. I was ready to pay the 5,000 Ghc (about $1400) to the agent who was responsible for all the arrangements for our travel, but I told my friend I wouldn’t make the trip. My friend went on the trip and when she arrived she called to say that she was okay. At first, that made me think I made a mistake by not going with her but now I am extremely worried because she has not contacted me since 2014 and she left her 7-year-old son with her sister,” Felicia said.

Nevertheless, Felicia added that if she has another opportunity of going to Saudi or Qatar for work, she will take the risk rather than sitting in Ghana with a false hope that her life will change for the better.

Marcella Samba-Sesay, director of programs for Campaign for Good Governance (CGG), a not-for-profit watchdog in Sierra Leone, recalled the story of a young lady who left her husband to secure a job in Kuwait, but was later brought back to Sierra Leone, insane and pregnant.

“Youth unemployment stood at 800,000 in 2014 but with Ebola and the economic downturn the figure might have gone up,” she said.

“The economic situation propels this type of mad rush. Opportunities for young people to reach their full potential are bleak so the high risk to venture elsewhere,” Samba-Sesay said.

Shamwill Hassan, 31, a Nigerian youth advocate, told Sewa News that he attributes the desperation to what he calls, ‘clicktocracy” or government of the elite.

“Youths are frustrated. They feel like 'I have this potential and skill and I believe I can do something but I am not recognized so why should I waste my time when I can go elsewhere and make millions of dollars and be recognized.’

"They think they cannot make it because they do not know the people within the system that can help them, recognize their effort and help them go through the ladder of an institution or govt. So, because of that feeling of ‘I do not have a godfather or godmother to help push me through the system,’ young people resort to leaving the country and take the ‘back road’ for Europe.”

Hassan, also a development partner with UNFPA Nigeria youth participation, earns a monthly wage of 5,000 Naira (about $58), the same amount an average Sierra Leonean earns. He spends it on food, transportation and other advocacy activities but is unable to pay his rent.

Samba-Sesay says the average pay of $58 is incompatible with living standards in Sierra Leone, citing that the recent price hike in fuel is causing serious concerns and deepening poverty.

Dabo, also a cross-media practitioner, resonates with the concerns of Hassan.

“They are going through these perilous journeys because they want a better future. The youth cannot continue to be underemployed for the rest of their lives. I don’t support what there are doing but I will never blame them because I know the dream of a better future is what is driving that route. All sectors of our governments have to be overhauled, rampant corruption, impunity are diseases slowly eating our countries up.”

Hassan lays a fair share of the blame on some of his fellow youths who wait for governments to deliver them from a state of hopelessness.

“There are various opportunities for the young in the area of entrepreneurship, agriculture activities and other small scale businesses that require little capital to start. But the problem is that some of our young people are reluctant to make things happen. They are waiting for government or other people to come and do it for them. Youths have talents and gifts to start something so they should come out of the ‘dark age’ and take action, initiate entrepreneurial activities that can help them.”

‘Waiting for Government’

Dr. Joannie Bewa, 27, founder of Young Beninese Leaders Association, agrees that there are many opportunities for youths but in her country, Benin, most of the projects are not accessible.

“Youths need the skills to become economically independent. We have young people who are creating mobile applications to help farmers in the market. I know a famer who is producing products without any chemicals. We want a better world, we want to achieve the sustainable development goals by 2030, but right now you have to fight for the opportunities. Fight against a system and keep searching. Sometimes, you may deserve it, have the merit but cannot have it.”

In Sierra Leone, Samba-Sesay said there are huge opportunities in the agricultural sector but youths prefer to be mine workers.

“As for urban youths, targeting white-collar jobs is their focus. Even with the introduction of technical and vocational courses in the national curriculum, government has not done much to strengthen the technical capacity of youths and project them to blue-collar jobs. In addition the outlets such as factories are limited, when this is backed with the energy and water situation the problem becomes more complex. Investors see Sierra Leone as a very expensive country to do business. This in essence hampers employment opportunities for youths. Additionally, government through the National Youth Commission has put together several blue prints for youth development however these are yet to yield any significant results. Most of these initiatives are project based and disappear as soon as funds dry up.”

Dabo of Senegal argued that opportunities are either limited or the youths don’t have the information even when they exist.

She cites a recent example in which 700,000 people applied for 500 positions in Nigeria, reiterating, “That says a lot and says it all,” she said.

‘Africa’s Agenda 2063’

In their 50th Anniversary Solemn Declaration, the Heads of State and Government of the African Union (AU), laid down eight ideals to serve as pillars for the continent, which Agenda 2063 will translate into concrete actions/measures.

Sadly, in between the conferences, well-paid per diems, well-sculptured frameworks and policies and the youths, are the missing schools, jobs, health care, farms, businesses and security.

Pape Samb, executive director, Global Youth Innovation Network (GYIN), was looking for a change agent.

“We wanted to know why nothing had changed given the number of organizations all around the world that claimed to be working with youths. And the events of the Arab Spring, in Europe, Turkey and Syria were all pointing to the facts that either youths were getting educated and not getting employed or they were getting no education, no skills and therefore not able to find jobs. There were also organizations that claimed that they were ready to give money to youths but haven’t done so because according to them, the youths neither had the skills and knowledge, nor the support or guarantee,” he said.

After three years of collecting data, Pape and his team were able to come up with some missing factors that were indicators preventing youths from making an upward socio-economic mobility.

“Knowledge gap, standardized training program and access to finance without the support and the backing to mitigate the risk and increase the likelihood of the youths succeeding, were the missing links” pointed out GYIN’s director.

It was out of their findings that the Youth Incubator module was built to train youths and stand as their guarantors between banks and support them for three years—a period during which most business fail without the right support system.

Alfred Godwin- Adjabeng is executive director of a future leaders movement. In collaboration with the community and the government, he started a school farms program in 2013.

“Ours is a social intervention policy alternative to help students access education and remove the boundaries that prevent them from accessing quality education. When we started, Ghana was faced with a major challenge in the education sector where schools had to close school because they didn’t have food and the government support was not enough to support their school meals. In the development community school program, schools grow their own food through community collaboration and also gain practical skills for food security.”

Mouhamadou Lamine Basse, 20, a young entrepreneur, collaborated with his friends to set up an organization working with ‘talibes’ (street children) and disadvantaged young persons in Senegal, to provide ongoing support for their daily needs.

“We (youths) should start by knowing that there is a problem. We can start with something small and by assembling all these little things we will end up with something big. We should start with whatever we have and not wait for the governments and non-governmental organizations (Ngoc) to deliver aid. It’s hard to achieve a dream but if you believe that you have the capacity and skills, and then you can do something and opportunities will come your way. 50 percent of youths have what it takes to change the face of Africa. There are youths who know that they can do something, but they do nothing, ” he said.

'If I was waiting for the government, I'd be dead by now'

Assiba Bokova, a Beninese youth champion, grows and processes Moringa and Irish potatoes-- a business she started with very little income.

“I have a farm where we plant Moringa and then process it into powder and juice. When you know hunger, when you have touched poverty, when you have seen the real face of hunger, when you have stayed the whole day without eating then you discover your power and talent and you can start doing something for yourself and more so for your community. When you have a project you are dreaming about big amount of money but when you don’t have that money and you have to eat and have children to talk care of, then you will not wait for money. You start and then money will come to you. Don’t wait for anybody…just do it your way. If I was waiting for the government I would de dead by now,” she said.

Seventy percent of the African population is young, a demographic group, which the UNFPA says has the capacity to change the under-development evident in almost the 54 African countries.

Out of that percentage, a third lives in the western region of the continent. And out of that figure, an approximately 10 percent attempt everyday to leave their villages and cities to brave the Sahara desert and cross over the seas to look for this projection of hope, elsewhere-- an action that undermines the foundation of how citizens can harness the demographic dividend of their countries if they build the workforce leading to an ultimate economic boom.

On August 12, 2016, youths celebrated International Youth day, under the theme, “The Road to 2030: Eradicating Poverty and Achieving Sustainable Production and Consumption.

In his statement, UNFPA’s executive director, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, reiterated the plights of youths.

“More than 500 million youth worldwide live in poverty, and often cannot afford their basic needs. They lack access to vital resources, and are disproportionately represented amongst the world’s poor. They have the most to gain if we succeed in eradicating poverty, and will have the most to lose if we fail. The good news is that young people are not the problem, as is often thought, but, in fact, they are the solution…they are already driving innovations in science and technology, making conscious choices that are drastically influencing patterns of consumption and production, and mobilizing to make companies, organizations and governments more socially and environmentally responsible. Where they can get information, technology, financing, mentorship, and platforms for collaboration, young innovators are able to turn their ideas into transformative solutions.”

Chart appears in Pew Research: 
Widespread discontent with governance 
and political corruption in Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria — Quartz(qz.com)

In October 2016, Officials of the Economic Countries of West African States (ECOWAS) and its relevant International partners met in Dakar, for a Migration, Governance and Development forum on West Africa.

Abdulai Dukulay, Liberia’s special presidential envoy to ECOWAS and the Millennium Development Goals explained to West Africa Democracy radio (WADR) why the sub-region has not been able to satisfy the needs of its people.

“I think the fact that many Africans are ready to risk their lives to try to cross the Saharan or Mediterranean Sea has to do with governance issues. We have not been able to address the issues that affect the people and give them a safe haven at home. The problem is multifold: we have not been able to invest in our people and development project has been in response to demand posed by the outsiders, not done by our own people and that is what I call a fake development”
“We have to make sacrifices to invest in our people. Africans have to love Africa, liberate it and build a good image of it or else its kids will grow up completely alienated from their own cultures and therefore they will look outside for what they cannot find within. We must break the cycle of dependency and stop waking up to think about the West, Japan, or Europe. Our governments are models of the West and so is our educational system. So, we wake up thinking the West.”

Sierra Leone’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hon Isata Kabia, was part of the Senegal meeting looking into migration and development.

“We looked at the different aspects of migration and tried to focus squarely that migration is not a bad thing. It is not the problem and people should not slant the discussion to mean that migration is. Only 10% is going to Europe and that is what is visible and being reported. The 90 percent happening within West Africa, that is orderly, safe, and convenient and development oriented is not being registered. We should minimize the problems which are obvious now on the frontline of Europe, which has the undertone of migration being a problem, and it is those images that we have seen for the last years that are dictating migration as a bad thing. Migration for both the host and donating countries has been a source of development but we cannot deny that there are countries that have experienced terrorism, and hardships based of the recent migration going on and it’s up to the International community to ensure that it is orderly, organized and safe. Organized migration is a benefit to all; host country and country of origin.”

'Billions in Motion'

Kabia also pointed out how remittances of the diaspora community kept the Sierra Leonean economy afloat during the civil war.

In 2014, a World Bank report disclosed that remittances to developing countries are estimated to have reached $404 billion in 2013, three times more than the net global official aid (which was $134.8 billion in 2013, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development –OECD). The global remittances growth may accelerate in 2014-2016, bringing remittances to developing countries to $516 billion in 2016.

However, Samba-Sesay explained that the remittances are less visible in the Sierra Leonean economy and remain significantly untracked. She claimed that the monies coming in might make substantial changes but advised that the country should diversify its economy to create more jobs in a more systematic manner.

According to Abdulai Dukulay, some basic regional actions must be implemented.

“We have been addressing the problems and not the solutions. We have not been able to address the issues we want to tackle and take the actions. Our borders are artificial borders so why don’t we remove those borders and create a free local market space for the people to move around. If you allow people to trade, move around, work anywhere they want to and settle in any of the fifteen (15) ECOWAS countries, you have a market place of 320 million people that can develop itself, its potential, not necessarily exporting things but really creating a local market. In ECOWAS, we do less than 12 percent of trade amongst ourselves and about 90 percent with the rest of the world. That doesn’t help because development is about trade, private sector, it’s about creation. Involving people in taking part in their own resources,” adding that youths must also take responsibilities in building the structures in their communities."
'What Africa Can Do'

Marie in Senegal described to Sewa News what has to be done to keep the youth’s home.

“First a good education focused on personal development, sense of responsibility and the acquisition of knowledge, training adapted to the realities of their countries and their continent. Governments should create an enabling insertion environment. They should also have protected areas of the National Economy and Africa must have a regional approach to addressing its issues and solving them. Youths must have a better understanding of their environment, people's needs, a sense of initiative and promote associative framework and exchanges across the continent and the world.”    
Aisha Dabo makes the following prescriptions in an attempt to solve the problem.

“If you want youths to stay, put all basic conditions in place then when they leave you can say that they are committing suicide. Youths need access to quality health for all including sexual and reproductive health and rights. Access to quality education for all, education based on market needs; access to skills training, access to information, right to information, right to know, good governance, accountability, rule of law, probity. Access to small grants or credit to start a business (not everyone can be hired by civil service), Access to infrastructures, and governments should also empower civil societies,” concluding that migration is not just about the money.  It is about someone’s dignity, preserving human dignity. If you were to find yourself in a critical situation what would you chose, wait to lose your life and hoping it will be restored one day or take action. It might not be the right action or move to make but you won’t sit and do nothing.”

Fatoumatta strongly believes that all the Gambian youths need, is the right political and economic environment to unleash his or her fullest potentials.

“Gambians want to work, we want peace, we want to care for each other. We have artists, nurses, journalists, bankers. Young people are zealous to venture into a lot of things if we are given the opportunities…we need to be the owners of our own countries…we want to use our intellect to come up with our own solutions. Not being dictated to on what we have to do…. our opportunities have been seized.”
Recently, the UN General Assembly hosted a high-level summit to address large movements of refugees and migrants, with the aim of bringing countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach.

It was the first time the General Assembly was meeting the Heads of State and Government level on large movements of refugees and migrants to come up with a blueprint for a better international response; strengthening governance of international migration and providing a unique opportunity for creating a more responsible, predictable system for responding to large movements of refugees and migrants.

If like other frameworks The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants get to be fully implemented, we hope to see world leaders galvanizing political efforts in action to save lives, protect rights and share responsibility on a global scale, with a commitment to protect the human rights of all refugees and migrants, regardless of status. This includes the rights of women and girls and promoting their full, equal and meaningful participation in finding solutions.

The urban-rural migration has been going on for decades. The youths, lacking the opportunities to be efficient and effective in their villages, run to the cities for fulfillment of that lack. Consequently, when that need is not met and despair sets in because they are faced with the realities of low-level jobs, low wages, and few opportunities to advance in their jobs or access education and training, some employ their last resort of running to their former colonial masters for a salvation package. Sadly, if they get to the other side, they sometimes get the message: 'Sorry, you might have to return to your fathers for it is their responsibilities to provide for you and keep you safe.'

A 2013 IMF-World Bank report indicates that developing countries need to harness urbanization to achieve the Millennium Development goals (MDGs).

Conversely, Dr. Bernie Jones, co-leader, Smart Villages Initiative finds this focus on cities disturbing because according to him, half the world’s populations do not live in cities, and that includes more than 70 percent of the world’s poor.

Dr. Jones asks: “Must everyone migrate to a city for a better life? Is the flow of people from rural villages to urban centers inevitable? We all know that many people migrate to cities and, instead of finding a better life they find crowded and unhealthy accommodation, without access to clean water and sanitation. They have an unreliable supply of electricity and are food insecure, given the higher costs of food. They may be vulnerable to exploitation by unethical people who prey on newcomers. In other words, their lives may be the same or worse than in their original home,” adding that, “One solution is to work even harder to improve the conditions in cities and in peri-urban slums. But there is an alternative. We believe that the concept of “smart villages” can help to ensure that people in developing countries have options. Rather than moving to cities because there is no reasonable alternative, we believe that improving lives and livelihoods in villages and rural communities should be a starting point.”

In an era where governments are vowing to empower their sovereignties by putting their countries ‘first’  our African governments, with specifics to West Africa, will have to stop paying lip service to protocols they signed decades ago, and will now need to work and deliver the much needed and long awaited schools, hospitals, farms and businesses.

Simultaneously, the youths will have to prioritize their  time. Watch the Spanish Telenovelas and European leagues, or pick up their shovels and brooms and get to work.

Celia Thompson filed this report on migration for Sewa News. Celia has worked for West Africa Democracy Radio in Dakar, Senegal, as news anchor and presenter of its flagship breakfast show "Day Break West Africa. "She was responsible for production of special events programs.  Prior to that, she worked with Foundation Hirondelle, a Swiss media organization, as head of programs, Radio Miraya- the UN Radio in South Sudan. 


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