The Gambia’s leader of 22 years, Yahya Jammeh, used to give Gambians good cause for claiming asylum, even if the majority were fleeing poverty rather than persecution.
But with the autocratic president’s exit in January, Gambians’ grounds for international protection have suddenly become shakier, making them prime EU targets for rapid return, although they are not the only ones.
Gambians are one of the top nationalities among the 93,000 mainly West African and Asian migrants who have arrived in Italy already this year. The majority, as in preceding years, are unlikely to qualify for asylum. And yet Italy, like most EU states, has had little success in forcibly returning them home or persuading them to leave voluntarily.
Italy’s threat to close its ports to foreign rescue vessels at the end of June prompted the EU to come up with an action plan promising more support, not only in deterring migrants from crossing the Mediterranean, but also in stepping up returns of those already on Italian soil.
Left to fester
Ebrima Gaye was 17 when he disembarked a rescue boat in Pozzallo, Sicily in July 2016. He spent seven months in a centre for minors near Syracuse. After turning 18 in March, he was shunted around several times before being sent to the Frasca Centre in Rosolini.
Like many of the 2,000 extraordinary reception centres (CAS) scattered across Italy, Frasca was once a hotel. A white behemoth of a building, it sits on top of a scrubby hillside on the outskirts of town.
Residents congregate in a large living area with a pool table, where young men sit slumped on chairs, staring at their phones while daytime television babbles in the background. Others lie on their beds in dorms that sleep up to 30, immobilised by the stultifying heat and boredom.
The centre is meant to be an emergency short-term facility, but the overwhelming demand on Italy’s reception system means camps like this one have become holding pens, while migrants’ asylum claims move through the glacial legal system. Some residents have been there for a year.
Under Italian law, asylum seekers who have a residence permit can seek work, but residents reported that they had been forbidden from working while living in this centre.
Gaye’s asylum application was rejected in May and he is waiting to appeal the decision. Almost a year after arriving, the reed-thin boy glumly admits he regrets making the journey.
Before leaving, Gaye worked as a barber in his home village on the banks of the River Gambia. I am the firstborn son, so I contributed to my family, but the money I was saving was very small. Many of my friends had taken ‘the back way’ [the irregular route to Europe via the Sahel and Libya], so I decided to go, he said.
But Gaye’s savings only got him as far as Agadez in Niger, then he had to beg his family to send him $2,400 to complete his journey.